The starting point was the Starbucks at Hooley, not far from the top of the M23. There was such a good turnout that we split into two groups; it's a very popular occasion, which some of us take so seriously we own reusable plastic four-pint flagons.
It was a clear, mild morning, bright with evergreens and white with old man's beard in place of frost. Above the bare hills, planes coasted down towards Gatwick, and we slowed for a big, beautiful horse with feathery feet. I had a quick round of The Holly And The Ivy as I rode between the dark hedgerows, and in the village of Lindfield caught a snatch of O Little Town Of Bethlehem, my favourite carol, from a brass band in the high street.
Having arrived at our destination, we had a meal to warm us up then made for the cider shop: a small, dark shed with tasting glasses by the door and casks lining the back wall. There are bottled ciders from around the country, along with mead, ales and obscure liqueurs, but it's more fun to sample the barrels then serve yourself into a milk bottle (or reusable flagon). This time of year, certain barrels, as well as the name, maker, county, type, strength, and price per pint, bear a handwritten 'Recommended for Mulling' label, which is how you can pick out the really cheap and rough stuff.
And that's how I brought home four pints of Badger's Spit.
I'd emailed a handful of friends who either lived nearby or had the power of driving, not really expecting anyone to turn up on the frantic final Saturday before Christmas, and issued an invitation for mulled beverages. As it happened, what I got was a trickle of visitors throughout the evening, one batch departing soon after another arrived. It was like...like sitting in my flat drinking while a parade of people I liked passed through!
As for the Badger's Spit, my careful mulling (which involved not only traditional ingredients like oranges and cloves, but a slug of cranberry liqueur and the tail end of the mango and ginger stuff I brought back from the Czech Republic) did little to disguise the fact that we were drinking hot scrumpy, but nobody complained and it made the flat smell nice.
Still is, in fact.