’s Quad arts centre Derby the well dressers are hard at work. Before them is a 2ft by 4ft wooden frame into which a thick layer of moist clay has been smoothed. Onto it a design has been transferred from a pattern and the pin-pricked lines are being set out with pepper corns. Some of the shapes within the lines are being filled in with orange and lime green coloured chips of stone.
I’m invited to take part, and gingerly place bits of orange stone to create a flower petal within one of the outlines, but I find my fingers far too big and stubby for such delicate work. I press the chips too hard into the soft clay and my fingers become smeared with it.
What I am rather clumsily engaged in has an ancient pedigree. The dressing of springs and wells as a thanksgiving for the blessing of clean water has been a tradition in Derbyshire since, it is believed, pre-Christian times.
It is still a part of the rhythm of life in the Peak District. In Tissington, well dressing each Ascension Day can be traced back to 1349, and appears to have gained added significance in the 17th century when it became a thanksgiving for escaping the plague, which ravaged nearby villages. Today, 80 or 90 towns and villages take part in the tradition, creating a total of around 350 dressings, and choosing a week between May and September in which to practice their art.
Yet what I am failing to help with seems to have little to do with any tradition of thanksgiving. For one thing, this dressing will be displayed in an arts centre rather than alongside a well or spring. For another, the theme of the illustration – the 40th anniversary of the moon landing -- appears to have nothing to do with water; quite the opposite, given the arid condition of that lump of rock. Nor are the dressers using flower petals, which are the traditional ‘painting’ material for these portraits. But things are in their early stages. Between today – Tuesday – and Saturday when the dressing goes on display, it will be covered with thousands of flower petals, each pressed individually against the soft clay, and become a vibrant living portrait of a rocket leaving the bountiful earth and climbing through a hydrangea sky towards its destination.
So has well dressing become a secular enterprise? Yes and no.
I am fortunate to have met up with Glyn Williams, a foremost expert in Derbyshire well dressing, and he guides me in the art.
As we watch the well dressers at work, Glyn tells me that the simple, timeless tradition of decorating water sources with flowers and boughs was transformed in the nineteenth century. He says: “Well dressing in its simple form seems to have developed from a pagan custom of making sacrifice to the gods of wells and springs to ensure a continued supply of fresh water. Like many folk traditions, it was later adopted by the Christian Church as a way of giving thanks to God for His gift to us of water.
“The very elaborate well dressing that we see today seems to be a Victorian invention -- the Victorians were great ones for reviving ancient crafts and traditions – and it is this form of well dressing which is pretty well unique to Derbyshire.
“Often the dressing is to commemorate the arrival of piped water in the centre of a village from a distant spring, so these are more properly called tap dressings.”
On my way to meet Glyn, I take a sunny drive through the Peak District, and stop off at villages whose well dressing celebrations coincide with my journey, and which he has recommended as demonstrating some of the finest examples.
In Tideswell, (pictured top and left) a charming little market town far enough off the main road between Manchester and Chesterfield to escape the roar of traffic, I find the well-less setting of the churchyard of St John the Baptist housing two dressings. They have been created by children; one on the theme of Smile, Learn, Improve and Care, the other about an adventure camp trip called Escape from
. The dressings are a good six feet square and full of colour. Meanwhile, in the church, is an exhibition of arts and crafts entitled Tideswell’s Got Talent. Clearly it has. Wesley Island
Elsewhere in the town there is a dressing at a water source. A modern fountain burbles at what was the site of the first piped water to the village, but its subject matter is secular: an illustration of
to mark the 40th anniversary of the investiture of the Prince of Wales. Glyn tells me later that this, Tideswell’s main dressing, is always a portrait of a building. Caernarvon Castle
Moving south on my way to Derby I come to the quiet village of Youlgrave , which has a 180 year tradition of dressings, as well as having the most tempting of inns. Here there are five dressings, including at the church, All Saints, and at a 1,500 gallon water tank known as The Fountain (sign in churchyard pictured below).
A plaque commemorates the endeavours of the Friendly Society of Women who gave the village its first convenient supply when water was piped here from a spring at nearby Mawstone in 1829. There is a Biblical theme to several of Youlgrave’s dressings, with phrases such as “Where there is sadness, joy” and “Make me a channel of your peace” worked into the designs. The multicoloured carpets of petals that make up these dressings really are quite spectacular.
As at many centres, the Christian heritage of Youlgrave’s dressings is maintained with a blessing conducted by the vicar. The ways in which the dressings are made can also have Biblical significance. “At Tissington for example,” says Glyn, “they leave the flesh of the figures as plain clay, and that goes back to Adam being created from the clay.”
But, Glyn adds, the secular is in the ascendant. “Often, dressings celebrate anniversaries, or other events important to those who make them, and the links to water and the religious tradition are not maintained in many cases.” Charles Darwin is a big favourite this year.
“Schools like well dressing; it teaches about the environment, arts and crafts; they can get out in the country to gather the things they need to make the dressings.”
Glyn has created a comprehensive record of well dressings on his website*, and from the photographs there, it seems roughly 70 per cent are on secular themes. In some villages, there is a mix of religious and non-religious dressings.
This loosening of the ties to faith has concerned some clergy. In 2006 the Rev Andrew Montgomerie, Rector of the
, refused to perform the traditional blessing ceremony on one of the village's three wells because it contained a representation of the Green Man. He told the Derbyshire Times: "To me this is a pagan symbol. As a Christian I see it as an inappropriate subject matter and I cannot be expected to bless it – I can't simply brush my beliefs under the carpet to keep people happy.” village of Eyam
Traditionally, Derbyshire’s Catholic churches have not taken part in well dressing. But in the past few years a handful have. Canon Daniel Bowdren has two churches – Immaculate Conception in the hamlet of
near Charlesworth and St Charles Borromeo in Hadfield. He says: “We are in the last hiccup of Derbyshire here, quite a way from the heart of things, but we are very enthusiastic. Both my churches have wells in their grounds and we dress them both. New York
“About six years ago I thought why don’t we do it and found great enthusiasm – it becomes quite a cultic thing and people come from miles to take part. We have always had religious themes, this year at Immaculate Conception, which is the main focus of our efforts, our subject is
St Paul, it being just the end of the year of . St Paul
“I use water from our well for baptisms and in mass -- I’m a liberal sprinkler of Holy water.”
While the well dressing tradition appears to be vibrant, it has ebbed and flowed in popularity. “There was a decline from the 1950s which I think was because we have become so work-orientated,” says Glyn, “and the current revival is a backlash against that.
“There was a peak of popularity at the millennium – then everyone seemed to want to do a well dressing, but since then there has been a falling off again.”
If dressing should decline, it won’t just be admirers of the tradition and the expertise of the dressers who will lose out. Among the most ardent admirers of the flower-filled designs are bees. “Bees love them,” says Glyn. “You’ll sometimes get bees all over them.”
*Glyn Williams’ comprehensive guide to Derbyshire well dressing can be found at www.welldressing.com