The Tradition of Well Dressing

We are now approaching a fascinating tradition of well dressing. This is an annual event which takes places predominantly in villages throughout Derbyshire, but it is now also spreading to other parts of the country.

There are various ideas as to its origin varying from offering thanks to gods for a reliable water supply, to celebrating the purity of water to celebrating the waters constancy during a prolonged drought. It seems unlikely that the true origin will ever been established, but whatever its origin it is still very much alive and well today.

The village of Tissington, Derbyshire and its well-dressing or well-flowering as it was previously known, was one of the first that we came across in the Georgina era. This article in the Derby Mercury of 26 November 1823 sheds a little more light on the event.

Courtesy of calendarcustoms.com

Tissington ‘Well flowering’, Tissington, Nov 15th, 1823

TO THE EDITOR OF THE DERBY MERCURY

Sir, – Having a few days ago read in the Derby Mercury, some account relative to the above; I am induced with all deference to Mr. Rhodes, as the author, to submit to your notice a few particulars, therein omitted, which, tho’ trifling in themselves, will not, it is presumed, prove altogether uninteresting they form part of a letter, written by a youth at school, to his parents: –

During my residence in this village, I have been gratified by one of the most pleasing sights I ever beheld. I should much wish you to be present upon a similar occasion. I will, however, in the meantime, endeavour to give you something like a description of the festival to which I have alluded.

Holy Thursday, the time referred to, is observed here with an almost enthusiastic respect, amounting, in some instances, to a degree of veneration.

Tideswell Well Dressing

Perhaps, no part of the world is more peculiarly favoured by providence in the gift of good water than this village; and the above-mentioned day appears to have been fixed upon, by an almost immemorial custom, to make merry and return united thanks for the same, in the following impressive manner.

While the younger branches of the community are busily engaged in gathering flowers, moss etc. during the first part of the week, some few, of rather mature years, occupy themselves in preparing the Springs, or, as they are here called ‘Wells’, tho’ not exceeding in depth a foot and a half, to receive their annual decorations.

Arches, or other fancy shapes, are accordingly formed out of a strong plank, upon which, fine clay, worked to the consistence of stiff mortar, is spread, and the embroidering part, if I may be allowed the expression, commences.

A Well Dressing in the making (Hollinsclough, 2006). Courtesy of Welldressing.com
A Well Dressing in the making (Hollinsclough, 2006). Courtesy of Welldressing.com

Various tasteful devices are now sketched on the clay, upon which, short ellipt flowers, of diverse sorts and colours, among which, the blood daisy, from its rich velvet hue, is held in greatest esteem, are stuck thereon, so extremely close and regular that not the least atom of the ground-work can be seen; each Spring also a flower printed Motto, in allusion to the ascension of our Saviour. For instance

I ascend unto my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God’

St John, chapter 20, verse 17.

On the principal Well, May 16th 1822:

The joyous day at length arrives, ushered in by the ringing of bells, and smiling faces; the decorations are speedily erected over the wells, while garlands, bough etc. disposed in the most fantastic and fairy-like manner, embellish the whole.

And now, labourer, stand thou still ‘tis a holyday for all; the poorest peasant has contrived, out of his hard earnings, to brew a ‘peck of malt’ to treat the passing guest; all doors are thrown open, and all comers experience the English Farmer’s hearty welcome.

‘Around the glossy board in sparkling pride,

The oft fill’d Tankard reels’.

One particular which tho’ last not least, is, that an appropriate sermon is preached; after which the music and signers go around, accompanied by hundreds of visitors from many miles and sing a psalm at each Spring.

With regard to the origin of the above, I have not been able to gather any certain information; prevailing opinion however, dates its rise from the Druids; be that as it may, the custom, as practised at Tissington, far exceeds in beauty and chastity of style everything that is generally conceived of Village rusticity.

Holymoorside well dressing celebrating Jane Austen, and with Chatsworth House in the background.
Holymoorside well dressing celebrating Jane Austen, and with Chatsworth House in the background. Via Chatsworth House twitter @ChatsworthHouse.

For those interested in visiting a well dressing this year, this link will take you to this year’s calendar.

Featured Image

Courtesy of Creative Commons

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