Pagan offering turned twee tradition – Derbyshire’s wells are a sight to behold if you’re lucky enough to find them at the right time.
Like all Great British traditions, well dressing in and around Derbyshire is a rich mix of mystery, pageant and beauty. Travel through the area in summer and you’ll come across vibrant collages hand-crafted from flowers and foliage, as some 70 towns and villages decorate their wells and water pumps.
No one knows exactly how the custom began, but it likely originated in pagan water worship when our ancient forebears placed floral offerings beside springs to please the spirits that dwelt there.
Although early Christians forbade the practice, it never lost its appeal. Tissington village, having miraculously escaped the Black Death that wiped out nearly half of Britain, revived well dressing in 1349 to give thanks for the life-saving purity of its water. Barlow, it’s claimed, dressed wells in Elizabethan times, while places like Tideswell began ‘tap dressing’ when piped water first arrived.
Dressings, set in huge wooden trays, often depict stories from the Bible, although some celebrate modern themes. Natural materials – berries, cones, petals, seeds, leaves – are used to create intricate works of art, and each can take a team of volunteers a week to do.
Typically, the wooden tray is soaked in the local pond or river, before being filled with moist clay. The design, drawn on thin paper, is placed over the clay and the outline transferred: by pricking through the paper and joining the dots, perhaps with alder cones, or making cuts along each line and pushing small pieces of wood into the clay – called ‘barking’. The picture is coloured in by ‘petalling’ or ‘flowering’, depending on whether petals or whole flower heads are used.
Installation of the elaborate collages may be accompanied by a church service of thanksgiving, procession and blessing of wells. Sometimes this will be the first the outside world has seen of the picture, but many locals allow visitors to watch construction in the week preceding display. You can do so at Chesterfield, for example, where two dressings, on the town pump in the Market Place and in the ‘Crooked Spire’ Church porch, are among the last in the calendar, this year from 7–14 September.
“We like to choose themes for pictures that celebrate anniversaries,” says Alyson Barnes, who has helped to create dressings for Chesterfield’s town pump for 22 years. “This year it’s the 50th birthday of [tv series] Dr Who; last year we marked The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. We used eggshells to create The Queen’s face, and thistle seed heads and clematis seed heads for her grey hair. We sent Her Majesty a picture and received a letter of appreciation for our efforts.
“Well dressing is a very ancient Derbyshire custom and it’s a beautiful art form,” Alyson concludes. “Part of that beauty is that it’s ephemeral: it’s there for a week before it fades and is gone forever.”
Catch it while you can!