The Ingrid Pitt column: Wassailing

Morris Dancing. Cider. A Magic Cottage. Just another day in the life of Ingrid Pitt...

I’ve just been well and truly Wassailed. At least I think I have. I hadn’t even heard of Wassailing until I got a phone call from Peter Hartnoll who owns the Ostler Cider Mill in Goodleigh, Devon.

Peter had seen The Wicker Man and assumed I was an expert on anything with a pagan bent. It is a few years since my dancing around naked days and I hoped that wasn’t what he was depending upon as the centre piece for his party. He said he wanted me to come and take part in the Epiphany  celebrations  of  Twelfth Night. All very Shakespearean – so I went.

Peter had arranged for me to stay in the original Magic Cottage, run by a Fairy Godmother, Marilyn Holloway. I’m an expert on B & Bs. During the time when I had my own touring company I stayed at the worst and, occasionally, the best of them. I rank Bratton Mill a definite Numero Uno.  The following day I did a particularly naff interview for ITV which was tacked onto the end of the news and had a very high squirm factor. Luckily few people saw it and those that did were gracious enough to ignore it.

The Magic Cottage, as befitted a fairy abode, was hard to find but it was a doddle compared with the defensive lanes and cart tracks guarding the approaches to the Cider Mill. When the car finally juddered to a halt I felt as if  I had received a particularly rough encounter on the massage couch with Thing from the Fantastic 4. Almost before the mud got to the top of my wellies a jug of Scrumpy Punch was thrust into my hand.  I sipped and smiled. It wasn’t the sort of taste I associated with Cider although I do not claim any expertise in this area.  I was introduced to various hobbits and goblins who delved away in the cider caves and was given a tour of the warehouse where the product was mined. As the revellers arrived the contents of the casks departed and soon there was what might be described as a convivial atmosphere.

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After an hour or so there was a frisson of excitement and those who still could, tottered outside to greet the Morris Dancers. Again it was a revelation. The few Morris Dancers I have been privileged to see in the past were all dressed as 19th century locals with bells attached. This lot was different. And more plentiful. This lot was known as the Exmoor Border Morris Men and are led by jolly Ray Thorne.  No 19th Century throw backs. They looked more like they were on a mission to Goose Green. Faces painted black, hats that would send a horticulturally inclined debutante into a feeding frenzy and apparel that has its foundation in exploded battle dress. They look ready for anything. I counted about thirty, although by that time I could have been badly mistaken, women as well as men, and they certainly livened up the party. And I must say they had a very familiar way with the cider barrels .

They spent about an hour performing all sorts of boisterous dances to the banging of drums, the plucking of banjos and the wheeze of a squeeze box and then led the party out of the warehouse and into the orchard. This was what it was all about. There was a lot of chanting and banging drums and doggerel.

“Health to thee, good apple tree,Well to bear pockets fulls, hat fulls,Peck fulls, bushel bag fulls!”

And even less connected pieces.  Buckets of cider were now brought out and the apple trees roots were doused and cider soaked pieces of toast were distributed amongst the branches. This is to ‘feed’ the trees and ensure that they yield a bountiful crop. Then everyone beat the trees with sticks, presumably to wake them up, and the drums give it another go and guns and fireworks were let off to ward of any evil spirits which might be exuding any negative aura amongst the branches.

By this time I was soaked. Internally as well as externally, so I sought out Peter, gave him a smooch and then headed back to the Magic Cottage.

Well and truly Wassailed!

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Ingrid Pitt writes every week at Den of Geek. Her last column can be found here…