Beautiful Well-Dressings Make an English Summer Special
The Well-Dressed Well
Well dressing, the decoration of wells and springs or even sometimes fountains and taps, is a tradition I'd never heard of until recently. Throughout the summer months, especially June and July, various towns and villages in Derbyshire in the northern midlands of England decorate their wells or other sources of water.
It isn't always during the summer, and it isn't always confined to Derbyshire (in fact I've heard it now extends as far as my home county of Kent) but wherever and whenever it happens, there is a beautiful display over or beside the well to give thanks for the life-giving water.
Nobody really knows when or why well-dressing started but it was almost certainly a pagan festival to ensure the continuing supply of fresh water. In time it was adopted by the Christian church and adapted as a way of giving thanks for the water supply. There is a legend that in the 1600s during the Black Death it was to give thanks for escaping the plague.
In the early days the dressing of the well would have been a lot simpler that it is nowadays, possibly just some flowers. The village of Tissington was one of the earliest known to have made the more intricate decorations seen nowadays, and it still continues to dress wells today.
Most of my information has come from Derbyshire Well Dressings which also has a comprehensive calendar of the individual events.
Tissington is Usually the First
Tissington and Youlgrave in Derbyshire, and Endon in Staffordshire are villages which have continued the tradition for a very long time. Others have joined in and fallen by the wayside over the years. Recently it has become a great deal more popular.
There is a tradition that the village of Tissington holds its well dressing festival on Ascension Day. In the past, before fixed date May holidays, it would be the first of the year with others following at at Whitsun. Now though, it may or may not be the first, depending on when the date of Ascension falls relative to the May Bank Holidays.
There are six wells in Tissington and one of them is Coffin Well.
From May until August
The festivals run right through the summer until the beginning of September.
There is a very comprehensive calendar of events held at the Derbyshire Well Dressings site. It relies on people submitting their dates so it is a great source to find out what may be on in the area if you are passing through. It includes links to maps to help you find the wells.
This year, 2015, the calendar has events from the beginning of May to mid-September, as it has been doing in recent years. The last one is generally Kemsing, near Sevenoaks in Kent.
How to Make a Well Dressing
The base for a well dressing is usually a large, shallow, wooden tray which has been soaked in water for days. The tray is then lined with a layer of wet clay so obviously the board does have to be sturdy enough to support it. The pre-soaking of the board means that the moisture stays in the clay and helps preserve the decorations that are now added.
The decoration usually consists of natural materials such as petals, leaves, mosses, bark, twigs. The design will have been planned out first on paper and transferred to the clay. The most delicate of the decorations, the petals, are added at the last minute so that they last well throughout the festivity.
Again, the Derbyshire Well Dressings site has full details and advice, enough for you to make your own!
How to Dress a Well in 10 minutes 37 seconds
A Variety of Well Dressings - Some Secular, Some ReligiousClick thumbnail to view full-size
Do It Yourself
If you are inspired by the well-dressings, whether seen in person or otherwise, you can create something similar yourself using tabletop gardening methods. The Royal Horticultural Society covers miniature and tabletop gardening in some of its courses and has published a book called "Teeny Tiny Gardening" giving instructions for 35 different projects.
Vertical gardening is somewhat similar but of course that can be on a very large scale. If taken down to a manageable scale for an individual it has the advantage of taking up little space while giving you the benefit of plants or vegetables, and all without bending!