OVER three hundred people braved winter rains to see Morris Men wake the Westons orchards at Much Marcle, in a wassailing tradition that may be hundreds of years old.

For more than a decade, the Silurian Border Morris Men have revived the tradition and have been been drawing large crowds to local orchards in the village, for a torch lit ceremony at the darkest time of year.

A veteran Silurian is former town mayor, Coun Keith Francis, who praised the big turn-out of spectators, given damp and miserable January conditions.

He said: "The weather was quite bad, but the crowds have grown over the years. The first time we did it, we had about one hundred spectators.

"It's a wonderful sight to see flaming torches coming down the hill, from Westons. Wassailing is a long-standing tradition, and the aim is to wake up the orchard from its winter sleep; to encourage the cider apple trees to produce a good crop of apples this year and to thank them for last year's crop. It is all to do with life and death and the re-awakening of the land."

There are records of wassailing happening in the nineteenth century, but its origins seem to be much older than that, and to be a combination perhaps of pagan and Christian traditions.

Twelve fires are lit around the orchard, to represent either the months of the year or the twelve apostles.

Another key element is the burning of the bush. At each wassailing, a new bush of twigs is hung in the branches of a tree, before being removed to a local farmhouse for one year.

On the day of the next wassailing, always in January, the bush is brought back to the orchard and burnt, for the new one to take its place.

The Silurians also hang pieces of toast in the branches of the trees, to attract robins, which are said to be sacred to apple orchards and, in Christian tradition, were said to be witnesses of the crucifixion, - gaining their red breasts but getting too close to the cross.

The Silurians "wake" the orchards each year by the playing of instruments, the singing of the age-old wassailing song and even by firing a shotgun into the air.

After their wassailing session this year, the Silurians trooped off to Westons, where they performed a mummers' play.