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Well dressings

Well dressings in Derbyshire are an integral part of the culture of the county and have a firm place as the foundation of many of the festivals that happen around the county in the summer season.  Find below, the details of all the places where well dressings will be happening this summer in Derbyshire. All you have to do is sit back, peruse the list and figure out how to divide up your weekends of viewings!

History of well dressings

Well dressings are a Derbyshire summer custom where wells, springs and other water sources are decorated with designs created with flower petals. The origins of this custom have been lost in time; however, dating back to the 14th Century, some say that it was originally a pagan tradition, and some that it was a form of thanksgiving for the purity of the county’s water. 

Well dressings had a special significance in the 17th Century when the plague raged through the village of Eyam. Nearby villages, particularly Tissington, gave thanks for their escape from the disease. The tradition had almost died out by the early 20th Century, but was revived in the 1920s and 1930s with most villages in Derbyshire taking up the craft. Some villages in neighbouring counties also joined in with the custom.

The ritual of well dressings

Well dressings are a ritual quite particular to Derbyshire, with a few happening in Staffordshire and Yorkshire too, that involves the creation of artworks, often Christian in theme, made up of petals and other living plants pressed into clay. The origins of the ritual are still a little mysterious, but it is thought that the remoteness of Derbyshire prevented the many different invaders of Britain over the centuries from imposing their own customs upon the local people, which is why it isn't found in other regions of the country.

Making of well dressingsWhen the Christians eventually took over they looked on well dressing as a kind of water worship, and tried to stop it. However, it was re-introduced in 1349, Tissington being the first village to bring it back.  After this, villages begun to dress the new water taps when piped water was introduced, and you can still see these beautiful creations around the county when the villages dress their wells and springs from early May until September.

Pictured on the right is the process of making well dressings; Over Haddon and Brackenfield well dressings are in progress here. The boards on which the dressings are displayed are soaked and then filled with clay, which is kept covered and damp through the entire process of making the well dressing. Thousands of petals, leaves, seeds, twigs and other natural materials are gathered - traditionally from the local environment - and pressed into the damp clay to make the displays. Photographs courtesy of Ann of Brackenfield Well Dressings and Deborah Porter for the Over Haddon well dressing.

The gathering of materials can be a difficult process in itself.  Likely blooms that will be 'in season' are usually taken into account when designing the wells on paper, but once the dates are set, it can sometimes be a challenge to find the correct colour palettes if some flowers are late to bloom or already finished prematurely.

Dressings begin in early May until mid-September.

Well dressings commence early in May at a wide range of places across the length and breadth of the county. Perhaps the May dressings are some of the most challenging to produce. So early in the season, there are less flowers to choose from. However this may be mitigated by the more temperate climate in this month. Dressings on display at the height of summer can be subjected to some very drying temperatures and some well dressings can disintegrate in a matter of a few days as the clay dries, cracks and falls to the floor. 

The well dressings season finishes in September with two wells on display in the middle of the month in Chesterfield and Hartington.  You will also be able to see the tail end of the Holymoorside, Foolow, Eyam and Wormhill Wells that went on display at the end of August.

Brackenfield well dressing 2009Pictured here is one of 2010's Brackenfield wells, photograph supplied courtesy of the Brackenfield well dressers. 

Get involved 

The people at the website have pulled together a whole host of information about well dressings in the region, including a searchable map of the wells, plus the dates when you can go along and observe the 'petalling' (generally speaking petalling takes place in the week prior to the display dates given above).  Many of the well dressers are happy to let you have a go for yourself and are happy to discuss this Derbyshire tradition with visitors. 

If taking up a cocktail stick captures your interest sufficiently then there is even a downloadable recipe for making a Well Dressing of your own! You may need the assistance of a responsible adult or two though, since the average well dressing takes a team of people up to a week to produce.

If you prefer a printed copy of this information, you can pick up a Well Dressings and Glorious Gardens brochure at Tourist Information or Visitor Centres throughout Derbyshire.  The brochure also gives you an abundance of information on the glorious gardens you can visit in this beautiful county.  The guide takes you on a tour of all the great halls and houses and their magnificent gardens, including the work for which Capability Brown is perhaps best known, the garden of Chatsworth House.  The lesser known hidden gems such as those of Eyam Hall and Renishaw Hall are also profiled and there's a run down of gardening events taking place throughout the summer.

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