At last the email from Mike arrived today inviting me to take part in the Wassail in early January. He’s not often as late as this and I was beginning to worry that something had gone wrong – or perhaps the Cider Club was blaming me for the poor season this year. I’m perfectly prepared to accept that my official blessings may not have the same efficiency now I’m no longer on the payroll as it were, but in truth I think it was ‘the Beast from the East’ that did the damage. Wassailing, if you didn’t know, is an ancient (well – medieval) tradition of blessing the apple trees and driving out the demons to ensure a good crop in the following season. I was the parish priest of Littleton on Severn for a decade and so it fell to me to bless both cider apple trees and ploughs in my parishes as part of the old New Year traditions. But our connection to the orchard goes back far beyond that because Madame worked as assistant to the trials Officer at Long Ashton Research Station in the early 70’s and she was responsible for producing the budwood for the orchard that subsequently became the home of the Littleton Cider Club. Who could resist the lore and language of cider with varieties like “Slack ma girdle” and ‘Goose arse’ Here’s my journal entry for last year:
Bigger than ever this year, and I was invited back to bless the orchard after the Green Man’s completely pagan poem and a good deal of Littleton Lifesaver being drunk by everyone except me. I felt a bit of a fraud ordering a pint of bitter at the bar, but I find the cider too scrumpy -like for my taste (and my digestion as well).
It was so nice to meet up with old friends, and everybody was really pleased to see me back. As the Wassail was taking place, the full moon was just rising behind the orchard. In the darkness the shotguns spurted smoke and flames from their barrels. Whether Mike had loaded them with black powder for the effect I don’t know, but it was very impressive. T quizzed me on which church I was attending and he chided me mildly when I said I wasn’t going anywhere. There were many extra visitors from far afield and one of them told Madame that they’d abandoned the Priddy Wassail because the health and safety brigade had all but ruined it. Happily no considerations of safety prevented the usual Littleton anarchy, and the fire was thrillingly dangerous after half an hour’s dosing with meths and heaven knows what else by way of accelerants. We had the Barley Mow Choir singing all the wassail songs they knew and later we watched the Mummers Play. All very patriotic with a youthful St George being raised from the dead and Beelzebub being booed lustily by us all. A great deal of rather rude banter. Good to be back!”
So that invitation to one of my favourite places and events cast a cheerful air on the rest of the day and later we grabbed the dry weather with both hands and went up to the allotment to carry on building the raised beds. My earlier (and gloomy) ruminations on the quantity of topsoil we’d need to find have been mitigated by the way we’re constructing the beds. I’ve written earlier about the problem of waterlogging, so we’ve been constructing the paths between the bed as dual purpose soakaways and paths. In practice that means a good deal of hauling up and back to the woodchip pile. We’ve seen it suggested that woodchip robs the soil of nitrogen, and that would certainly be true if we just dug it into the beds, but used as a path material it supresses weeds, makes a comfortable all-weather path and also seems to rot down quite quickly, needing replenishing from time to time. We’ve not found any depletion of the soil in the beds at all, and we hope that these large reservoirs of composted material will add to the general condition of the plot in the long term. I fix the bed edging boards in place first, and when they’re secure I dig out the path to about 18″ deep by just over a foot wide and throw that soil up on to the bed. It doesn’t do the job entirely, but it adds around 20 cubic feet of soil to each bed. With compost added as well, the beds are raised by another four inches – all adding to the depth. The photo is of two beds we constructed on the same principles earlier in the year.
Home later we feasted on a chicken and leek pie with our own carrots, leeks and savoy cabbage. I love savoys, the flavour is so intense. At first sight the leeks looked a bit messy with a touch of rust and the usual wear and tear on the outer leaves, and I wonder if that’s why so many people reject home grown in favour of the supermarket variety. But 2 minutes with a knife and our veg are more than equal in appearance and twice as good in flavour than anything you could buy in a shop.