AN ancient English custom will be performed at a Test Valley tourist attraction this month in a bid to encourage a bountiful apple crop in the autumn.

Officials at Houghton Lodge Gardens at Houghton near Stockbridge are behind a winter wassailing event on January 17.

Traditionally wassailing takes place on Twelfth Night (January 5) but in apple growing areas such as Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Somerset the 17th marks the date of the orchard ceremony as it coincides with the “Old Twelveth Night” prior to the switch from the Julian to Gregorian calendar in 1752 when 11 days were taken out of the year.

It will be the first time the pagan ceremony, believed to ward off evil spirits, has been staged at the property owned by the Busk family.

A ‘Wassail King’ will walk through the Walled Garden orchard at 6pm offering bread soaked in cider to the apple trees and he will also pour water on the roots of the fruit trees.

Followers in the procession will sing wassail songs and beat drums.

Sticks will be used to beat the trees and bells will be rung to help encourage fruits to grow in the apple orchard and drive bad spirits away.

Marketing manager at Houghton Lodge, Jo Andrews said “There are over 32 varieties of apple trees in the Walled Garden, many of which cannot be found on supermarket shelves and taste delicious.

“We have never held a Wassail before but thought it would be great fun for our visitors to come along and join in.”

Houghton Lodge Gardens will be open from 3.30pm on January 17 when visitors will be able to explore its grounds and meadows which adjoin the Test.

The wassailing starts at 5.30pm and after the procession at 6pm soup and refreshments will be served. Tickets cost £10 per adult and £2.50 for under-16s. To book call 023 8000 1655.