Throughout the British Isles there are numerous traditions that have evolved to celebrate the passing of the seasons and the providence of the natural world. One such is well dressing which happens chiefly in the Peak District of Derbyshire in the early summer. It is believed to have begun as a pagan thanksgiving for a clean reliable water supply but has gradually evolved over many centuries. Some people believe that survival of the Black Death in 1348 or from a drought in 1615 may have influenced it.
By the beginning of the 19th century well dressing had developed a Christian focus with 12 villages taking part. Now there are 27 participants and the event takes on more of a village festival style with a variety of associated happenings.
In the earliest times the well dressings took the form of simple floral decorations or ribbons attached to the water sources but over time this has changed. Large wooden frames are now constructed and filled with damp clay and then painstakingly decorated with natural materials – flower petals (hydrangea seems to be a favourite), leaves, seeds and nuts – to create beautiful pictures. Keeping true to tradition most are on a religious theme but we also saw quite a number with an environmental bias and also some depicting the very topical moon landing of 1969.
On our way to a recent holiday in Yorkshire we spent a couple of days visiting friends in Sheffield and took the opportunity of looking at some well dressings. Our first stop was the village of Hope, near Hathersage, where there were four dressings as well as a very entertaining Scarecrow competition – one was even found lurking near the bus stop!
Moving on, we arrived at Litton, a delightful village with a broad green area adjacent to the school and churches. Here we found two more dressings and the Methodist Chapel was open for a small flower festival and cake sale. Later in the day children from the school were due to perform maypole dancing on the green.
Tideswell is one of the larger villages in the area and the main dressing here was a most beautiful depiction of Whitby Abbey in almost photographic likeness. Our final stop was at Youlgreave where there were no fewer than six different dressings in a variety of locations, including three historic well sites and here we found some excellent refreshments served in a delightful garden.
Despite somewhat indifferent weather we very much enjoyed our little tour round this part of Derbyshire and could only marvel at the imagination and creativity of those who keep such traditions alive – from the youngest school children to the very experienced artists. We were very grateful for the opportunity to view them first hand.