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Well-Dressing in Derbyshire

by John Ravenscroft

Well dressingThe man I saw pressing flower petals into damp clay back in 1974 was a giant. He had shoulders like a prize bull, hands like a pair of hams, and it was hard to believe he could handle those fragile flower petals with such delicacy. But when he stepped away from the frame and showed the watching crowd the results of his efforts, there was a warm buzz of admiration. He'd done an excellent job, and knew it. In my memory, he's still taking his bow.

Thinking back over thirty years to that pleasant, late-May, Derbyshire afternoon, I'm aware that memory is unreliable. In reality, I don't suppose my Flower Man was really seven feet tall, and no doubt his fingers were only half the size they've since become in my imagination -- but he was certainly big enough to create a lasting impression. The contrast between his great size and the delicate nature of his task that afternoon made me grin -- and remembering it now, I'm grinning again.

I never found out who my large friend was -- probably a local resident -- but whoever he was I'd just happened to catch him taking part in a ceremony that's been a feature of Derbyshire's Peak District for hundreds of years, and one that continues to this day: the time-honoured custom of Well Dressing.

Water is one of our most basic requirements, so it's no surprise that springs and wells have long been venerated by the ordinary people who've used them for generations. The custom of Well Dressing is an attractive demonstration of that veneration.

During the Black Death of 1348-1349, when perhaps one third of the population of England died, some Derbyshire villages escaped untouched. One theory regarding the origin of Well Dressing in Derbyshire suggests that local people who had been spared felt their water supply was the cause of their good fortune, and began decorating their village wells as an act of thanks. However a pagan root seems more likely, especially given the fact that a feature of many of these Dressings is the crowning of the 'Well Queen' a probable echo of ancient fertility rights.

Well dressingIn Pagan times it was the norm to make sacrifices to the water gods. Without their good favour the precious sources of water might stop flowing, and if that happened the land would become infertile. Famine would swiftly follow. So for centuries chickens, goats and even human beings were offered up as a sacrifice to the water gods, but over time these gory practices died out and the far more civilized custom of hanging green branches and garlands of flowers over the spring or the well was adopted instead.

In this way, Well Dressing was born.

The arrival of Christianity was initially bad news for well-dressers. Water-worship was strictly forbidden -- so much so that Henry VIII's Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, oversaw the destruction of all the well dressing equipment his men could find. During Henry's reign, a number of crippled water-worshippers visiting the well at Buxton in Derbyshire in hopes of a cure had their crutches confiscated and destroyed.

Gradually, however, the ancient springs and wells lost their pagan associations and were rededicated to one or another of the Christian Saints (or more recently to other beloved and "acceptable" characters, such as Beatrix Potter's Miss Tiggy-Winkle, left). The people could once again decorate their wells with flowers and greenery, as long as they did it in a Christian fashion, and as an act of thanksgiving to God for the gift of water.

It's not surprising, therefore, that when well-dressing became rather more arty and pictures began to appear, many of the subjects of those pictures had a religious theme. That remains the case to this day, and in most of the villages that still practice the custom the decorated wells are still blessed by church officials. There's a carnival atmosphere, and a brass band often provides a little music to add to the sense of occasion.

Well dressingSo what are the practicalities? How do you go about dressing a well?

In pagan times, it was a simple affair. You gathered flowers, berries and greenery and fashioned them into garlands, and you used these garlands to pretty-up your well. But from about 1818 something new began to happen. Wooden frames some five feet wide and six feet high appeared. They held a base of moist clay perhaps one inch deep, which was prevented from drying out by immersing the entire frame in water for a week before it was due to be used. This was a process known as 'puddling'.

The construction of these clay-holding frames was the first stage in creating the new-style Well Dressings. The next steps in the process are the same now as they were back in the 1800s. The chosen design is drawn on sheets of paper the same size as the frame, and the paper is carefully placed on top of the damp clay. By pricking through with a skewer, the design is transferred to the clay, and then the paper is peeled off.

The resulting outline is marked out with black wool, which is pushed into place with a knitting needle, and a team of well-dressers then begins the long, slow process of building up the design. Working from the base of the frame upwards, the team presses flower-petals, leaves, berries, bark etc. into the clay and gradually the picture takes shape. Obviously, because designs vary in size and shape, the time taken to construct a Well Dressing varies -- but an average example may take a team of twenty people seven days to complete.

Once finished, the Well Dressing has to be transported to the well site, where it stays in place for a week or so, although its actual life depends very much upon the English weather. Hot, windy conditions can do a great deal of damage to these delicate, flower-petal pictures, despite the water-spraying efforts of locals like my oversized Flower Man who have worked so hard to create them.

If memory serves I last saw Flower Man sharing a pint of bitter with his friends outside one of the village pubs, and as you'd expect the landlords are always keen to offer refreshment to the many visitors drawn to the area by Derbyshire's Well Dressings. After all, flower-arranging can be pretty thirsty work!

Where and When?

For current venues and dates, please see http://www.derbyshireuk.net/welldressing2008.html

John Ravenscroft is a teacher-turned-writer who lives in Lincolnshire, England. He spends much of his time struggling to write fiction and co-editing Cadenza Magazine. His short stories have won prizes in various literary competitions and been published in numerous magazines, and his work has also been broadcast on the BBC. In 2005 he is planning to write more nonfiction articles. Visit his website at http://www.johnravenscroft.co.uk.
Article © 2006 John Ravenscroft
Photos © Edward Rokita


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