A Well Dressing is a form of ancient ritual which has survived into present times and probably began as a celebration of thanks for the gift of water from the gods. The custom originated within the English Peak District of Derbyshire and Staffordshire. Large wooden collages are crafted to decorate wells and springs, using flower petals and other natural materials such as berries, seeds, moss and leaves. The term 'well' in this context often denotes a source of water more akin to a spring, with running water, rather than a sunken well.
Well dressings take place from early May throughout the summer months and are part of the traditional English cultural celebration of spring-time.
The Disappearing Waters of the Peak District
The rivers and waters of the Peak District1 run over porous limestone which is catacombed with underground caverns. During the dry summer months the normally plentiful water supply from hillside springs may suddenly disappear as the water table drops. As miraculously as the flowing water disappears, rainfall replenishes the water table and the springs and wells are once again full of water. To the primitive mind the changeable nature of the water supply could easily be understood to be under the influence of the gods of nature. The River Manifold is well known for disappearing for much of its length in dry months; re-emerging via 'boil-holes' near to the village of Ilam.
The origins of well dressing pre-date Christianity. Its true beginnings are shrouded in history and were probably an early form of water worship. Water was an essential part of life and its absence or scarcity would have had dire consequences for early settlers throughout the countryside. It is thought that sacrifices of animals and even humans once played a part in the appeasement of the forces of nature. As these types of sacrifice would have been costly to a small community they were replaced by floral tributes. Garlands or simple strewn herbs could once have been used but these later developed into pictorial representations, using flowers and petals.
Before Christianity was introduced to Britain the indigenous population held pagan beliefs. It became the policy of the Church in the time of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) not to destroy pagan holy sites, but to assimilate them into Christianity and adapt their rituals into the Christian calendar. It can be understood how the ancient belief in a water spirit became translated into that of a saintly 'Holy Well'.
The earliest recorded well dressing was in the village of Tissington in Derbyshire, in 1349. Local history tells us that Tissington escaped the Black Death which was sweeping the area at the time, and that this good fortune was due to the purity of the local water. The early Christian Church accepted the custom of well dressing, and it is known that other villages dressed their wells from around this time.
During the Reformation period of the 17th Century the pagan practice of well dressing was banned. It would have been very dangerous to take part in anything that could be construed as witchcraft around this time, as people whom the Protestant church believed to be witches were hounded and often put to death. Oliver Cromwell issued a decree to the effect that all equipment used to dress wells was to be destroyed, and well dressing very nearly died out completely. However, it is known that it continued in Tissington. The village is part of the estate of the Fitzherbert family, and was garrisoned by Colonel Fitzherbert during the English Civil War in support of the King. It is presumably because of this royal protection that the practice of well dressing survived.
The practice of well dressing was revived in many villages during the early 19th Century and gained popularity, but apart from Endon in Staffordshire, most of the villages taking part were in the Peak District. In Victorian times piped water was brought to the villages and it became common for the village pump to be decorated as well; sometimes this is referred to as 'tap dressing'.
The use of flower collages developed during the Victorian age, when there was a movement towards decorative arts of all kinds. During the two World Wars well dressings again suffered a decline, but another burst of enthusiasm took hold in the post-war period, and since the 1950s many villages have revived this age-old tradition.
How a Well Dressing is Made
The process starts by obtaining large wooden panels, four or five feet in height by three or four feet wide. Each panel will be one inch or so in depth in the form of a tray. Various panels, or boards as they are commonly referred to, will be placed together to form a tableau. The boards may be arched or rectangular in shape.
Each board is soaked in water, originally by leaving it in a stream until sodden, but often now soaked with water from a hosepipe. When the wood has soaked up sufficient water, soft clay is pressed in a layer all over it. The clay is first softened by a process called puddling, and in some areas salt is added to the clay to lengthen the time the clay stays damp. This forms the base for the petals and natural materials to adhere to. The wooden board has to be wet enough so that it doesn't draw moisture from the clay. The clay in turn keeps damp long enough to make sure the petals look fresh for a few days.
A design is traced into the clay from a large paper design and then marked or pricked out – sometimes by the small cones of an alder tree, sometimes using small nails. Volunteers collect flowers and natural materials, preparing the petals and positioning these materials onto the clay. The design may often have a religious theme, a scene from nature or be of local significance.
The resulting collage or mosaic pictures are extremely labour intensive, highly detailed and beautifully made. The petals are applied in the form of overlapping tiles or fish scales; sometimes whole flowers are used. Each panel takes many hours work by the skilled local teams of volunteers.
For each of these events there will be a period of planning, then the boards of flowers are prepared according to local custom. Each town or village may have a slightly different method in use, according to their local traditions. Once the boards are completed and put in position by the wells, there will be an opening blessing ceremony. The boards will remain in situ by the wells for three to five days, sometimes longer.
Originally the boards were only to be found at the side of the wells, but now that some wells have disappeared through disuse and neglect it is common for the decorations to be put up at other strategic points in the village.
Places to Visit
At the present time there are over 60 towns and villages that take part in well dressing. In certain villages, where the wells are in private gardens, this can give a delightful glimpse into life in a rural area. Due to the natural materials used the well dressings are at their best shortly after the blessing ceremony, before the flowers and petals fade.
The following selected examples show the variety of towns and villages where well dressing takes place. A complete up-to-date annual list can be obtained from the Peak District Tourist Board
Bakewell in Derbyshire is a delightful market town, sitting on the River Wye, which is crossed by a 13th Century five-arched bridge. It is famous for the invention of the Bakewell pudding and was mentioned in the Domesday Book. Bakewell has its well dressing in the first week of July, to coincide with the local carnival. The presence of a carnival 'queen' at the same time as a well dressing may also link this ancient tradition to that of pagan fertility rites.
Buxton, at 1,000 feet the highest town in England, is famous nowadays for its 'Buxton Water' and its opera house, but since at least Roman times it has been known for its thermal springs, from which a pale blue water bubbles up to the surface at a constant 82 degrees Fahrenheit. It is possible to visit the town centre and collect water directly from this spring: St Anne's Well, in The Crescent. The Pump Room, opposite St Anne's Well, was built in 1894 and served spa water until 1981. St Anne's Well is decorated for the annual well dressing in Buxton, held in July.
Endon near Leek, in Staffordshire celebrated its first well dressing in 1845. Endon is slightly outside the Peak District boundary, and disproves the theory that it is only in relatively modern times that the practice spread outside of Derbyshire. The event in Endon is, properly speaking, a 'tap dressing' in recognition of newly-piped water to the village.
Eyam village, high up in the heart of the Peak District in Derbyshire, is the altruistically famous 'Plague Village', due to the fact that when the plague was sweeping the country in 1665, the inhabitants self-imposed a quarantine to prevent the plague that had reached there from spreading further. Prior to this in 1588 the village had a system of piped water, fed from a series of springs to stone troughs, making it one of the first villages in the country with a public water system. Three wells are now dressed in Eyam at the end of August each year.
Hartington is a small town in the Derbyshire Peak District. Although it was granted a market charter in 1203, it has been many years since a market was held in its large square. The stone-carved village pump is one of two wells that are now dressed annually in Hartington. The village pump was an important source of water in the years before water was piped to the town. The supply of water tended to be erratic prior to this, as the local water tended to sink straight into the rock. Supplies often had to be brought in by train, and 'meres' were dug to conserve rainwater.
Close to Hartington is Arbor Low, a Neolithic, Early Bronze Age stone circle, similar in nature to Stonehenge. Nearby, there are many Late Bronze Age barrows, their presence showing that early human settlers lived in this area. Some speculate that it is a remnant of their early belief that is being carried forward in the well dressing traditions.
To the north of Derby, Wirksworth is a little town with a rich history. In the past it prospered from lead mining and limestone quarrying. The town has eight or so sites which are dressed each year, at the Spring Bank Holiday at the end of May. There are many interesting places to visit in Wirksworth, including the Heritage Museum, which has a display explaining the town's customs, including that of well dressing.
The delightful custom of decorating a well with flowers has recently become more popular. Perhaps tourism has made the practice more well-known; perhaps Derbyshire and Staffordshire people moved around the country and took the custom with them; or perhaps because local historians discovered these ancient rituals. Whatever the reasons behind 'new' sites taking part, the claim that the Peak District is the only area in the country celebrating well dressings may soon have to be revised. It would perhaps be truer to say that the Peak District was the 'original home of well dressing'. Here are two examples of well dressings further afield:
In 1978 there was a revival of a 13th Century custom of dressing a well in Malvern Spa on May Day. Research by local historians had revealed the long forgotten custom of decorating the local well in thanks for the reputed healing properties of the spring water. Unlike the Peak District well dressings, the local wells, pumps and spouts are dressed with flower garlands, ribbons and poetry.
St Chad's Well in the city of Lichfield, Staffordshire is also a venerated Holy Well. St Chad was believed to have stood in the waters of this well to pray and baptise his followers. As part of the local custom, the priest nowadays blesses the congregation by sprinkling them with water from the well at the outdoor ceremony held on Ascension Day. The dressing takes the form of decorated boards, similar to those in the Peak District. This is a modern revival, begun in 1995.
The Future: Leisure, Tourism and Heritage
In bygone years it would have been unusual to travel to see well dressings; they would have merely been a private village function. Now they have become part of this area's tourist attractions. Alongside the well dressing ceremonies there are often other events taking place such as maypole and morris dancing, carnivals and fêtes.