The Derbyshire Well Dressing Tradition
Origins of Well Dressing
The exact origins of well dressing are unclear, but it is thought that the tradition started as a means of giving thanks for clean water supplies. Although it is believed that the tradition dates back to Roman times, it was in the 17th century that it took on a special significance.
In 1665, the Great Plague hit London. It is estimated that within 18 months, the plague had killed around 100,000 people. Although London was the main part of England affected, the plague also reached Derbyshire. In August 1665, a parcel arrived from London at the home of a tailor living in Eyam. The parcel was infested with fleas carrying the plague, causing an outbreak in the village in which 260 out of the 350 villagers died. The inhabitants imposed a quarantine to prevent the disease from spreading to other villages. Following this, nearby villages such as Tissington dressed wells to give thanks for being spared from the plague.
Since then, many more Derbyshire villages have taken up the tradition. The dressings take place at different times in different villages, but most are between the months of May and October.
Making the Well Dressings
A strong board is needed to make a well dressing, as it needs to be able to take the weight of the clay required to hold the materials in place. The board needs to be soaked before it can be applied, otherwise it may swell and cause the clay to crack.
Before the clay is applied to the board, it needs to be ‘puddled’. This process involves working the clay with hands or feet until it is the correct consistency. It is important that it is neither too wet nor too dry.
The picture for the well dressing then needs to be drawn on paper and placed onto the clay. A toothpick can be used to prick through the paper, providing an outline for the design in the clay. Once the outline is completed, the materials can be added.
For most well dressings, only natural materials are used. Petals usually form the majority of the design, but other materials such as seeds, leaves, twigs and bark are also commonly used.
The work may be carried out over several days, with the most perishable materials added last.
Themes and Subjects
The range of themes used for well dressing designs is incredibly varied, with subjects including local attractions, historical events and popular children’s characters. Religious subject matters are often chosen, such as designs featuring the local church or depictions of religious scenes.
Well dressing designs are also created to commemorate special events, such as the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II and the London Olympic games. Themes are also chosen to mark the anniversary of historic events. In recent years these have included the Titanic disaster, the First World War, the signing of the Magna Carta and the 150th anniversary of the birth of Beatrix Potter.
A village with several wells may choose a common theme for all dressings, or there may be a different theme for each one.
Visiting the Well Dressings
The well dressing season usually runs from May up until the beginning of October, with most taking place during the spring and summer months. They are usually only on display for one week in each village, but with so many villages taking part summer visitors shouldn’t have too much difficulty in finding one! A list of the dates and locations of the dressings can be found at welldressings.com.
Well dressings can be damaged by weather conditions, so it may be better to visit during the first few days of the display if possible. Wind and rain can cause damage, but so can hot, dry weather as the clay may crack. Some dressings remain in good condition until they are taken down, so it is still worth visiting near the end of the display time.
The blessing of the wells usually takes place on the first day of the displays. There may also be a procession through the town and entertainment, such as music from a live band, depending on the size of the event.
Many of the villages that take part in well dressings are fairly small, so the wells should be easy to find. There will often be one by the village church, with schools and village greens being other popular locations. Some of the larger villages may have maps to help you find them.
There is no charge for visiting the well dressings, but there will usually be a collection box to make a donation. This may be to contribute to the well dressing fund for future years, or a donation to a local, national or international charity. There should be information displayed to tell visitors how the donations will be used.
The villages that take part in the well dressings take immense pride in the event, so visitors can expect to enjoy a special experience unlikely to be found elsewhere. This beautiful craft provides some stunning and unique displays, so be sure to take your camera!