FOUR musket shots shattered the darkness as one of the country’s oldest English customs took place in Bradford on Avon on Saturday (Jan 25).

They were fired by John Martin, a member of the English Civil War Society’s Sir Marmaduke Rawdon’s Regiment of Foote, using a reproduction 1640s royalist musket.

The shots rang out as hundreds of onlookers made a ‘hullabaloo’ or din to scare away the evil spirits and nasty bugs.

Children poured cider over the apple trees in Hen’s Orchard near the Saxon Tithe Barn to encourage their growth.

Led by Wassail Princess Ren Osmond, aged 9, they also put slices of toast in the branches to encourage small birds, especially robins, traditionally the guardians of orchards.

The medieval wassail ceremony was organised by the Bradford on Avon Preservation Trust to ensure a good cider apple harvest later this year.

Master of Ceremonies, Nick Nicholls, said: “I was really pleased with this year’s ceremony. It was our fourth and the number of people who attended was the best we have ever had. The wassail is a traditional ceremony dating back hundreds of years."

“Wassail is taken from the old Norse saying ‘Waes Hael’ or ‘Waes bu Hael’ meaning ‘be of good health.”

The ceremony began outside the Tithe Barn with music and song, including two dances by the Holt Morris Men, and the local Birch Tree Folk Choir, performing a special Hen’s Orchard Wassail Song.

The Widcombe Mummers performed a short play, led by Margarida Dolan as Queen Bee and Patrick Roe as King Bladud, with princess Juno Short, 8, and her lady in waiting Bibi Gallie, 7. They led the audience in singing Gloucester Wassail, a traditional English wassail song. In the background lurked Keith Leighton as the Broad, a traditional Cotswold wassailing beast.

More than 200 onlookers who attended were treated to slices of apple cake and glasses of Iford cider, before processing into the orchard.

Afterwards, many stayed to listen to the musicians and the folk choir sing the Malpas Wassail song, and Holt Morris performed two more dances.

Hen’s Orchard is named for Elizabeth Stephenson and Katherine MacKean, two of the founders of the Bradford on Avon Preservation Trust, known as the Hens, after the China Hen shop which they jointly ran in Woolley Street.