Wassailing into disaster on the Isle of Oxney

I blame the Morris Men. But then I always do. Others think that giving the job of lighting bonfires to a well known pyromaniac was never going to end well.

The event that caused all the bother on Oxney was the annual Wassail – Waes Hael, or be well – that auspicious time of year when the rite of blessing the orchards takes place on Twelfth Night, the pagan New Year. Some cider-making worthies celebrate it on the sixth of January but this is obviously too much of a modern tradition for us as it only came about when England moved to the Gregorian calendar in 1752. Mindful of the riots that were sparked by this apparent loss of 11 days back then, Oxney decided many years ago to placate the populace and, to be on the safe side, declared that ‘Old Twelvey’ should remain on the seventeenth.

And so this year we gathered at the gate of the cider apple orchard, ready to walk around the boundary while crashing together our collection of pots and pans to ward off evil spirits. A true cacophony. Well, it would have been but most of us couldn’t lift our Le Creuset cookware, let alone bang it together, and had relied on an enterprising youngster who said his Mum wouldn’t mind if we borrowed her collection. He arrived with a set of All-Clad Copper Core pans, worth in the region of three thousand pounds, and it was no surprise when his mother turned up before we embarked upon our perambulation and insisted that her errant son return every single piece to her kitchen. Which he did and left us with a Teflon frying pan and an aluminium steamer. But that just meant more of us could procure flaming torches, a much more satisfying, if slightly dodgier, proposition.

As we walked we chanted incantations to exorcise any demons, children joining in enthusiastically as the local vicar desperately tried not to show that she cared. Indeed it was she who pointed out at some point that the clashing pots seemed to be keeping time with the sound of distant sirens but we pooh-poohed her as a wet blanket, although we could have done with a real one of those as quite a few scorched bushes became testament to our flaming-torch-waving ineptitude.

Our procession needed to end at an apple tree especially chosen as the recipient of our libations to Pomona, the goddess of fruit and orchards, where cider would be drunk and a circle of small fires lit in her honour. Unfortunately it took us a while to find it as most of us were relying on someone else knowing where this singled out tree was residing in several acres of identical orchard. In the end we stopped pot clashing and listened to a commotion resonating from somewhere in the middle, letting our ears guide us to the correct spot.

We arrived at the same time as the police, or hen’s teeth as we in rural areas like to call them, and found the contrite looking Morris Men waiting for us. Well, I say contrite but it was pretty hard to tell underneath all the black make-up. There had been much argument in the village hall about the suitability of blackface but they had been adamant: their name was derived from North African Moors and blacking up was obligatory. I did ask at the time if children could join them and become Morris Minors but I seemed to be the only one who found that funny.

Anyway, we discovered we’d missed a treat. A tardy, rather elderly celebrant had understandably decided to miss out on the procession and wait in darkness at the tree. One of the Morris Men, sans those rather annoying bells, had crept up behind her and tapped her on the shoulder. On turning round, her dodgy eyesight hadn’t been able to make out the face now in front of her but once he had opened his eyes and his mouth she had immediately become aware of the glaring whiteness of his eyes and his gleaming teeth. She’d promptly collapsed.

Mortified, the miscreant had sprinted up the road to the village hall and come back with the emergency defibrillator, only to find his victim now upright and gratefully swigging from a huge bowl of cider.

Unfortunately, a resident opposite the village hall, fired up by a documentary on race riots in America and also by several Amontillado sherries, had looked out of her front window and seen the defibrillator being looted. One hysterical emergency phone call later, there we were facing two police officers while standing in an orchard with a frying pan, steamer, flaming torches, blackfaced Morris Men, bottles of cider and a tree surrounded by small, unlit bonfires. Nothing to see here, guv.

In a moment of cunning inspiration we all turned to the vicar, deciding she would be the right person to talk us out of the situation. But she had spent the vital seconds between the arrival of the police and our silent entreaty to sidle over to the other side and was now standing next to the enemy and looking at us as disdainfully as they were. Judas.

In the end it didn’t take long to sort out; the police left wearing resigned expressions and the vicar innocently edged herself back into our company as if to prove she wasn’t really rotten to the core.

With order restored, we carried on with the ceremony. We sang tuneful entreaties to the goddess Pomona, appealing to her to bless the orchard and its fruit for the coming year. I’m lying about the tuneful bit; every year we promise ourselves that we will learn the songs by heart but nobody does. As usual, we managed to la-la-la our way through most of them before hoisting a young boy up into the apple tree where he placed chunks of bread soaked in cider onto the top branches. We also remembered to help him back down, an improvement on one year when we left a youngster, well known in the village for petty acts of vandalism, up in the tree until we decided his screams might hinder the ceremony.

Several bowls of cider were then passed round with each recipient toasting the giver with ‘Wassail’ until the time arrived to light the bonfires. There were twelve of them, in honour of the pagan twelfth night for most of us but symbolic of the twelve disciples if you were the vicar. She’d already shown her true colours as the thirteenth.

And then the fires were lit which was when we discovered that not only had our human firelighter helpfully sprinkled an accelerant onto each embryonic pyre but that he’d also managed to dribble it onto the grass between all twelve of them. The ring of fire that burst into life encircling several of our number had the potential to threaten not only us but the entire orchard. Fortunately the vicar redeemed herself by showing exemplary forethought; she produced a fire extinguisher hidden behind a not-too-distant oak tree and let loose, covering not only the out of control flames but us as well.

The bedraggled foam-flecked procession that made its way homeward must have been an amusing sight but at least we could console ourselves that it hadn’t been as bad as last year. Just don’t upset the apple cart by asking.