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Observing the art of dressing wells in England

Throwing coins into fountains is widely recognised as a way to bring good luck, but other rituals, such as dressing and blessing wells, remain something of an enigma. Well dressing, once known as well flowering, is the ancient custom of decorating wells and springs with flowers, leaves, berries, nuts, seeds and other natural materials. Still practised in a handful of counties in the English Midlands, including South Yorkshire and East Staffordshire, it has survived most strongly in Derbyshire, where week-long celebrations are held in more than 60 towns and villages from May to September each year.

The origins of well dressing remain shrouded in mystery. One of the first well dressings is believed to date back to 1349 when villagers in Tissington celebrated their escape from the Black Death by blessing the village’s clean water supply. Others think the Romans introduced the custom to Derbyshire, while many associate it with a Celtic ritual to thank, or even appease, the water gods and goddesses.

Walking through Derbyshire’s Peak District National Park, it is as if the gods of old are still smiling down on this bleak yet beautiful landscape of moorland, streams, bogs and limestone outcrops. Filtered through layers of ancient limestone, the mineral rich waters have attracted visitors to the area since mediaeval times when pilgrims came to take the waters. Named Aquae Arnemetiae, which translates as the waters of the goddess of the spring, the modern-day spa town of Buxton was an important Roman settlement. It’s still famous for its spring water today.

Derby days

By the 1950s, the custom of well dressing had almost died out but, thanks to tourism, there has been a revival of interest over the past 30 years. I am travelling with my mother and we are curious to explore this quirky tradition. We stay in the heart of the Peak District, just outside the country town of Bakewell (famous for its delicious tarts made of pastry, eggs, jam and ground almonds), at the Monsal Head Hotel. A cosy family-run hotel with just seven rooms, it commands one of the most prized views in the county.

Looking out from our bedroom’s wooden balcony, we take in the elegant arches of the Monsal Dale aqueduct, once part of the Midland Railway Line, and the gentle flow of the River Wye through the lush, green valley, dotted yellow with buttercups. Dry-stone walls dating back to the 18th century Act of Enclosure, when large fields were divided into smaller lots, still stand, creating a patchwork of unevenly sized fields untouched by industrialised farming.

Monsal Dale is popular with hikers walking the old railway trail, but we take a narrow road along the river to the village of Cressbrook. A string of bunting decorating the cottages in the steep main street heralds it’s Well Dressing Week.

In days of yore, wells were decorated with floral garlands, but nowadays mosaic images are mounted on large wooden boards. We start with the Children’s Well at the top of the village and recognise the brilliantly coloured image as Rainbow Fish, a well-known picture book by Marcus Pfister. An orange-lipped fish with yellow and purple fins and marbles for eyes swims across an ocean floor crafted from pebbles and petals. On the village green stands St Francis, surrounded by animals, with his hands raised in prayer under a lentil-orange sun.

The third dressing is near Cressbrook Hall (historically, only wells and springs used to be dressed, whereas today dressings are situated in the most eye-catching places) and celebrates 50 years of Big Ben, London’s landmark clock in Parliament Square. Tempis Fugit, or “Time Waits for No Man” runs the caption, a fitting reminder that the works of art we are looking at will have withered and died in a week’s time.

Wakes week

For now, though, spirits are high as it’s still Gala Week in this tiny village built largely to house mill workers in the 18th century. Also known as Carnival Week or Wakes Week, when mill and factory owners would allow towns and villages to shut down for a local holiday, the origin of this festival dates back to the Middle Ages. A “wake”, or night of solemn prayer, was held to mark the anniversary of the death of the saint to whom the parish church was dedicated. Many of the Derbyshire villages still organise their well dressing festivities to coincide with their original Wakes Week.

The solemnity may have been lost but echoes of the Middle Ages persist. After a bring-and-share supper and glass of wine in the former Working Men’s Institute in Cressbrook, we join the villagers in a torch-lit procession. We are each given a white handkerchief and venture out into the somewhat chilly summer night. Members of the Cressbrook Silver Band (set up by philanthropic mill owners in 1881) lead the procession up and down the main street; Pied Piper-like, we follow.

Then the band strikes up a catchy and repetitive local tune and it’s time to dust off our imaginary dancing shoes. It’s fun and folksy and we soon get the hang of jumping in the air at regular intervals, waving our handkerchiefs and shouting a loud “Oi! Oi!” With its roots in the Morris dancing tradition, we later discover, leaping in the air is to encourage the crops to grow and the white handkerchief is to ward off evil. The dance slows down towards the end and we weave flowing diagonal lines across the road and back again.

Deep religion

Well dressing fell out of favour with the early Christians, who regarded it as water worship. Today, things have come full circle and this ancient custom is now performed with the full blessing (literally) of the church. In a curious overlapping of the pagan and Christian traditions, well dressing festivities open with a blessing by the local priest or vicar and the ceremonial processions often include well or May queens. Dressed in virginal flowing white robes, these young maidens reference ancient fertility rites.

Although many people take a secular approach to this colourful and creative custom and are content simply to keep the tradition alive, age-old religious tensions still surface from time to time. As recently as 2006, the vicar of Eyam refused to bless a well depicting the pagan Green Man. He claimed this mystical figure with his head sculpted from leaves and plants was in conflict with his Christian beliefs.

The dressing

The crafting and construction of the dressings is an intricate and skilled art that takes a week to 10 days from start to finish. To learn more about how it is done, I talk to Jane Littlefield, stained glass artist, in the village of Great Longstone, just two miles north of Bakewell.

“The great thing about well dressing is that it’s a community activity and all ages get involved, from preschool to retirees,” Jane says. “It’s a delightfully messy, tactile and hands-on process — we are lucky in that the local pub lends out their garage as a workshop for the week,” she explains.

Before any of the creative work can begin, the wooden boards must be prepared. The villagers in Great Longstone seek permission each year from the water bailiff at the nearby Chatsworth Estate (home of the 11th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and featured in the recent Hollywood film, The Duchess) to allow them to soak the boards in the River Wye so they swell to accommodate the clay and keep it damp.

The next step is known as “puddling”, when the clay is mixed with water. A messy, sticky process, this is often done in an old bath and the clay is trodden like grapes. This year, Jane and her team have sourced clay from a local quarry and they were able to spread the clay directly onto the boards.

On day two, Sunday, Jane and her helpers transfer the paper design (this year, the village committee and children chose the ocean) onto the clay by punching through the outline with cocktail sticks. The paper is then carefully peeled off and the dots joined with black wool to create a strong outline.

The most durable materials are added in first; these include seeds, stones, wool, beans, pulses and coloured glass. As the week progresses, plant materials such as parsley and moss are laid on as a base before the leaves and petals are added. This process is known as “petalling”, but in the village of Barlow, where whole flower heads are used, it’s referred to as “flowering”. “Once the flower petals are added, the image really begins to take shape,” says Jane.

By Friday, the team are putting the finishing touches to the design, which involves reinforcing the black wool outline and painting the boards with emulsion. The finished boards are extremely heavy but a sign on the Great Longstone notice board advertising “Strong men needed for erection at six o’clock” never fails to attract plenty of helpers. By Friday night, the boards are up and in position, ready for the start of Well Dressing Week and the village fundraising fête on the Saturday.

Wells of Whitwell

On display for a week, the well dressings are living, breathing works of art: bees pollinate the flowers, seeds sprout, the clay eventually dries and cracks, and flowers and leaves wither and die.

In the village of Whitwell on the Nottinghamshire border, we pick a gap in the wind and rain to visit the well and pump in the square. It is a two-part design with one side designed by the local Rainbows (Brownies), the other by the Scouts. The water from this well, said to be the best in the village, used to be delivered by horse-drawn tank and sold for a halfpenny a bucket.

At the main well in Whitwell is a composition of berries, lavender petals, may blossoms, lentils, small stones and dried butter beans. As varied in their themes and designs as in the use of materials, the Derbyshire well dressings offer local artists the opportunity to exhibit their talent in what is effectively a vast open-air art gallery, free to passers-by, walkers and motorists alike.

From climate change to Noah

Themes range from Noah’s Ark to climate change, fair trade to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, fables and fairy tales to cartoon characters. About half of the images still portray well-known biblical figures and scenes with an interesting overlap between the sacred and the secular in some places. Among pictures of parables and religious figures at Tissington, for example, a pink Dr Who Dalek urges us to “help exterminate breast cancer”.

Historical events and well-known figures are also popular material for designs. In 2008, Bakewell celebrated 50 years of Paddington Bear, while Etwall village paid homage to James Bond author, Ian Fleming. Ashford-in-the-Water marked the passing of the Equal Franchise Act of 1928, and the 400th anniversary of Bess of Hardwick (1518–1608) was commemorated in several towns and villages. Born in Derbyshire, Bess was one of England’s wealthiest and most powerful women after Queen Elizabeth I. Her former properties include Chatsworth House and Hardwick Hall, both open to visitors today.

Over the past few years there has been a noticeable increase in images relating to all things environmental. One of the most thought-provoking examples is Eyam’s “One earth, which future?” (2008). Half the image shows a healthily functioning environment and the other half shows what will happen if we don’t look after the planet: a rusty tap drips onto brown, parched earth.

In a world where water is bought and sold, moved around, monopolised and bottled while the rivers and lakes run dry, perhaps it’s time we learnt to treat our water supply with the same degree of reverence our forefathers observed. As English physician and writer Thomas Fuller wrote in 1732, “We never know the worth of water until the well is dry.”

How to get there

  • The website for the tourist board, Visit Peak District and Derbyshire, www.visitpeakdistrict.com has extensive information on road, rail and coach links to the area once in the UK, plus accommodation. If travelling by train, head for Chesterfield or Sheffield; if by car, exit the M1 motorway at Junction 29 and then take the A 619 to Bakewell and make this your base.
  • Another useful site is www.peakdistrictonline.co.uk with comprehensive accommodation listing ranging from B&Bs to self-catering cottages and youth hostels.
  • For a full listing of 2009 well dressings and a photo library of all the well dressings since 2002 visit: www.welldressing.com/welldressing.html

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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