Travel: It gets wild in Somerset at this time of year

Apple wassailing in Somerset is an opportunity to see ancient tradition. But, as Matthew Brace discovered, it can be rather a boozy affair
IT IS wassailing time this month in Somerset when rowdy ceremonies take place to bless the coming apple harvest. In Carhampton near Minehead on Pagan Twelfth Night (January 17) at 7.30pm sharp, wassailers meet around the base of an apple tree in an orchard to sing praises:

Old apple tree, we wassail thee, and hoping thou will bear

For the Lord doth know where we shall be till apples [come] another year

To bloom well and bear well so merry let us be

Let every man take off his hat and shout out to the old apple tree

Old apple tree, we wassail thee, and hoping thou will bear

Hat-fulls, cap-fulls, dree-bushel bagfuls

And a little heap under the stairs

Hip! Hip! Hooray!

Harry Holt, who has lived in the village all his life, is the chief wassailer. He inherited the position from his father-in-law who farmed the orchard from 1922. The immediate future of the Carhampton apple wassailing ceremony was secured when the orchard was leased by it's owners, the Crown, to the village for at least the next 20 years.

"First we sing the wassail then we dip toast in cider and put that in the branches for the good spirits - they are represented by the robin," Mr Holt explained. "Then we fire shotguns through the branches to chase away the evil spirits and after that we drink the tree's health with warm cider."

Apple wassailing can be quite a boozy affair and a bit alarming when the guns go off, but it is a rare treat to see an ancient folklore tradition in action. A good walk through this area starts off on the Strand in Minehead on the shores of the Bristol Channel and follows the road towards the vast holiday camp at the eastern end of the town. Take a right turn and head inland on a pavement adjacent to the road, past the leisure centre to a roundabout on the A39. Go straight over and follow the road as it turns to the right and heads into Ellicombe. Through Ellicombe take a left along a high, narrow road with long views of the tall bluff to the west of Minehead, to one of England's prettiest villages, Dunster - the site of a Civil War siege.

The village is full of pink and yellow cottages scattered around a main market square where a 17th century covered yarn market still stands. Follow the main road through the village and take a left at the signpost to Gallox Bridge, one of the best examples of a packhorse bridge. In medieval times, wool was brought down the hillsides by horse and carried across the bridge over the river Avill to the harbour at Minehead from where it would be exported worldwide. Head for the large cottage in front of you at the foot of the hill and turn left on to a footpath just after it.

A cross-country stretch takes you across a hillside giving superb views of Dunster Castle, an impressive pile dating from 1086. The castle was built by a Norman, William de Mohun, and later owned by the same family for 600 years from 1396 to 1976 when it was given to the National Trust.

The path will take you past the deer park and eventually to a farm road which leads into Carhampton. Stop for a pint and bite to eat at the Butcher's Arms if you have time and check the times of ths year's wassailing.

From Carhampton take a side road to Blue Anchor, a village right on the shore of the Bristol Channel. Just before the front by a signalbox you will cross the railway tracks of the West Somerset Railway. If it is running and you are feeling a bit weary you can catch it back to Minehead, but it is worth walking the final stretch which takes you right along the pebbly beach. On a clear day, south Wales is visible across the water.

This should get you back in time to head out by car - or taxi if you are planning to take an imbibing role in the cider celebrations - for Carhampton to join the Holts and wassail the night away.

For more information about wassailing or tourism in general in north Somerset, call Minehead tourist information on 01643 702624 between 10am and 4pm every weekday.