Peak District Stories and Tips

Well Dressing Tradition

Derbyshire Wells Dressings

Every year I think I will write a review about this rather special event that takes place in many villages across the county from May through to early September and every year I leave it too late so here goes....

This is one of the oldest traditions in the Peak District and upwards of eighty villages take part at any one time between May and September you will probably be able to find a village doing their well dressing. Some villages have only a couple of wells while others have far more.

WHAT IS WELL DRESSING
A special board with edges of up to 2" is filled with damp clay and in this blank clay a picture is created from flower petals and other natural bits. This board is then put up over the wells in the villages.

WHY?
The reason for well dressing is actually not certain and the theories are many.
Some believe that the custom goes as far back as Roman or even Celtish times and it was a festival to give thanks for the clean water from the wells.

It could have developed from a pagan festival where sacrifices where made to gods of wells to ensure a safe, fresh and steady water supply. Like many pagan festivals it became adopted by Christians to say thanks to God for his gift of fresh water.

Others say it came from the time of the Plague in the 17th century when the village of Eyam selflessly isolated themselves to stop the Plague from spreading. The wells provided clean water for the villages and some think the wells saved the villages from the Plague as the water supply was clean.

It seems that the first Derbyshire style of well dressings in the clay boards was recorded in Victorian times. And the first recorded example is that of the village of Tissington.

WHEN DOES THIS HAPPEN?
Tissington village have always had their well dressing on Ascension day and the week around this times but many villages have their well dressings before this and in 2012 the first village well dressing was in Chester Green in Derby and this was followed by Upwey; Tissington had theirs on May 17th to 23rd. This year the last villages to be listed on the well dressing calendar are Hartington and Chesterfield who are having their festivals on September 8th to 15th. If you are in the peak district any time in June or July there are any number of villages you can visit with well dressing celebrations during that time you just need to look the dates up on the internet.

MAKING THE BOARDS
Over the years I have made several of these with classes of children to go in to a Derby City well dressing competition.

We always made boards that were about two feet by three feet and then at least 2 inches deep with a wooden edge. The professional ones have curved tops and are far bigger but as my husband had to make them and I had to design the picture and have a class of children making them I always preferred to make two smaller ones. They are also VERY heavy once filled with clay.

The boards have to be soaked for some time before they are filled with clay so that they don’t go out of shape when filled. Then you need to make some holes in the back board so that the clay will stick in the board.

Firstly you have to work the clay which is always fun. Then the clay is presed into the board making sure all the corners are filled and the clay is level.

Next you take you design which is usually on paper and prick with a sharp instrument the main lines and areas to be filled. We found an old compass that you use to draw circles was ideal.

Once you have your picture pricked out then you bring all the various petals and leaves, small stones, egg shells, bark, sheep’s wool or whatever you plan to use to create the different parts and colours of your picture, close to the picture and allocate a person to each bit. I found four was about the optimum number with children but adults may be able to share more easily.

The petals need to be pressed into the clay so that no clay is left exposed. This takes a lot longer than you think and the children get bored after a while so I always did this with other activities and swapped them around.

You can mist the picture with a spray to keep it fresh looking and they usually last around a week.

It took two of us to carry these to our car and get them to the cathedral for the completion and they have to be kept flat otherwise if you twist them the design gets wrecked.
We actually came second on a couple of occasions so I was very proud of my little one’ efforts. Making these with the children gave me a far better idea of all the work that went into these and also inspired the children to find out about the tradition. Even though I only taught in Derby because it was an inner city school, many of the children had never been the twenty miles or so north into the Peak District.

THE REAL THING

These designs are beautiful and so carefully done. Many are religious pictures from Bible stories but the detail is amazing. How on earth they get them up above the wells when complete is a mystery as the ones we did were heavy enough!

Tissington which is the village I know best has about eight or nine different wells spread around the village. This is a very popular village to visit at any time of year as it a very pretty typical English village with peak stone cottages, a pretty church and a duck pond. During well dressing week it is very busy and farmer’s fields become the car parks. The village is made one way and so that you enter through one road and exit by another. The wells are a real joy every year they are different and so beautiful, I never cease to be amazed at what they can produce using clay and flower petals.

The other village that I have visited more than once is the plague village of Eyam as the wells are especially significant as they helped the village isolate themselves when they had the Plague. In Eyam the well dressing ceremony coincides with the beginning of Wakes Week and ending with a Carni val . This year is goes from the 25th August to September 1st. There are two main wells which are dressed, one at Town Head and the other at Town End. The theme for Eyam’s well dressing like many other villages is usually something religious, although they can show local landmarks or other more secular activities.

When the wells are dressed each well usually has a collection box for donations to charity beside it and these are often for local causes.

I love the fact that this is such a unique traditional festivity and that it happens in the part of the country where I am lucky enough to live. It is great that so many villages work to keep this tradition alive and it is something that can be enjoyed by thousands of people visiting the area every year.




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