Where did wassailing originate and what does wassailing mean?
This ancient tradition holds it roots in the south-west of England. Visit the region in winter and enjoy a short walk around the town of Pembridge, a place pivotal in the popularisation of the famous Christmas carol, Gloucestershire Wassail.
The walk is just over four miles long and includes stretches through Herefordshire’s famous apple and pear orchards.
What is the history of wassailing?
“Wassail, wassail, all over the town…” So exhorts the venerable carol that accompanies a curious Yuletide tradition of the cider-making counties of south-west England and the Welsh Marches.
The custom of wassailing varies between regions, but typically on the Twelfth Night of Christmas (or, in some places, Old Twelfth Night, 17 January), a torchlit procession ambles from a pub to an orchard where a cider-soaked piece of toast is placed in the branches of an apple tree. Cider is sprinkled about the roots and singing and dancing follows to ensure the success of the year’s crop.
Yet, though this song is commonly known as the Gloucestershire Wassail, composer Ralph Vaughan Williams actually collected it in 1909 at a pub in Pembridge, among the most winsome of Herefordshire’s famed ‘black and white villages’.
Visit this northern part of England’s most prolific cider-making county in January and you might enjoy a wassail. The Leominster Morris is among the groups reviving the tradition in recent years, at annually changing venues. In any case, a stroll around Pembridge and the town’s local orchards is a festive delight; you could encounter two turtle doves (or at least, their historic home) or a partridge in a pear tree.
Pembridge walking route and map
4.3 miles/ 7km | 2.5 hours | easy-moderate
1. Timber town
Start from the car park behind The Kings House, a fine example of Herefordshire’s typical timbered architecture, turning right on to East Street.
Pass Duppa’s Almshouses – a ‘hospitol’ that was ‘bielded’ in 1661, its plaque proclaims – on the corner of Bridge Street, then turn left at postcard-pretty New Inn on to Bearwood Lane alongside the 16th-century Old Market Hall.
Follow the road as it bends right, continuing into Manley Crescent, ending in a cut-through. Turn left on to the footpath beyond, which becomes a tree-lined green lane with far-reaching views west towards the hills on the Welsh border.
2. Dovecote and mill
Reaching a wood, take the grassy path along its left edge, continuing through a kissing gate into a field. Immediately after another kissing gate, turn right into another field, then cross four more; climb over the stile in the left-hand corner of the last field and turn left to meet a country lane. Turn right, then first left and follow the road to reach the striking timbered dovecote at Luntley Court, dating from 1673.
Take the left-hand fork to turn northwards, following the road past Dunkertons Cider Mill. Though cider is no longer fermented at the mill, you can buy it, and perry, here on Fridays and Saturdays.
3. Cider lands
Continue over a crossroads past old orchards then, after 300m, take the footpath signed to the right through a young apple plantation and a meadow, emerging into the churchyard.
Skirt St Mary’s Church to find its extraordinary, octagonal 13th-century belltower, almost reminiscent of a Scandinavian or Russian stave church. Descend the steps to the left past the Old Market Hall and return to the village centre and car park.