Perhaps it was the swinging sixties and folk music that did it. Perhaps it was a realisation that in our clamour for modernity we were losing something important to our heritage. Or perhaps it was just a fundamental human need to go back to the land that triggered in the last few decades a resurgence of ancient customs first eroded, then obliterated by the Industrial Revolution, two world wars and the Space Age.
From cheese-rolling to morris dancing the past thirty-odd years have seen old, often long-lost customs revived, rejuvenated and reinvented for a new age.
The origins of the Peak District’s Well Dressing custom, one of the most picturesque and gentle British traditions, go back so far that no one really knows where they came from. Most likely a pagan rite, a sacrifice to the gods of wells and springs, it was, like so many of our best customs, adopted by the early Christian Church, as thanks to God for the gift of water, then took on special significance during medieval plague times, when fresh spring water was a symbol of hope.
The earliest recorded example of the custom is at Tissington, which always dresses its six wells on the Feast of the Ascension, but it would seem it was already an established rite before 1349 when those particular medieval well-dressers were giving thanks for the end of a particularly nasty bout of the Black Death. The practice took on a renewed lease of life in the 19th century when ‘Tap Dressings’ became all the rage, celebrating the coming of piped water to villages.
Well-dressing had, by the mid-20th Century, died down to just a few towns, but the general interest in traditional crafts and customs in the sixties and seventies saw a major revival and it cannot have gone unnoticed by local tourist boards that the villages that had kept the traditions also enjoyed a fair flush of visitors during their festivals.
What almost certainly started out as a few sprigs of flowers by the village well or a hillside spring had, by Victorian times, taken on the elaborate form we know today. Large wooden frames are soaked for a week, ideally in the village stream or pond, ready to be filled with wet clay, traditionally ‘puddled’ in an old tin bath by expert adults’ hands and enthusiastic youngsters’ feet to get the correct consistency.
Fresh flower petals, leaves, seedheads, berries, dried flowers and other natural objects, collected from the local surroundings, are then pressed into the clay by ‘petallers’. It’s a fiddly, delicate skill that takes years to perfect. If the clay is too wet, the petals fall out. Too dry and the clay cracks.
The design is pricked out into the base then any strong outlines are created, often formed using seeds or tiny alder cones, before being filled in. Non-perishable objects, such as bark or nuts are applied first; the petals themselves, having a very short lifespan, are added on the last day.
Hands and faces can be made with eggshell, though occasionally the clay is left bare, to represent the first human, Adam, being formed from clay by God.
By the time they are finished the frames weigh huge amounts and often require the services of the local farmer and his tractor to winch them into position.
The ornate designs are usually topical, religious, seasonal or with a theme to do with that particular village’s history.
Particularly good well-dressings, for example, can be seen at the Derbyshire village of Eyam whose 17th Century inhabitants are still revered today. When they realised they had contracted plague from a bolt of cloth brought from London, the people of Eyam took the extraordinary step of closing their borders to prevent the disease’s spreading, effectively sacrificing themselves for their neighbours. The villagers’ selflessness, many of whom succumbed to the disease, the rest suffering the perhaps worse fate of watching their loved ones die, has been the theme of Eyam well-dressings on several occasions.
Stoney Middleton, a mile or so down the hill, advertises, in time-honoured tradition, by the presence of copious bunting and hand-written signs on fluorescent card at the side of the road.
An ancient village of chocolate-box charm, first inhabited by the Romans, Stoney Middleton is lucky enough to have three springs, all of which have been dressed, once a year, including wartime, for seventy-five years.
True to local character, Stoney Middleton’s well reflects the village’s history. Dressers use stone, lead and leather alongside the usual flora in their frames to represent local industries.
The main frame, which last year depicted Britannia, is sited close to the delightful, octagonal church. The ‘children’s frame,’ decorated by tomorrow’s well-dressers, is nearby and the fabulous, ‘expert’ frame, as detailed as any work of fine art, is a little further out, over a spring by an ancient Roman bath.
Well-dressing can be found mainly in Derbyshire. Each village sets aside a weekend in the summer; dressings generally take place between late May and early September and because of the sheer number of villages that now dress their wells, it’s likely that any one given weekend will see at least one, perhaps several well-dressings somewhere around the Peak District.
If you’re driving around the Peaks in summer it won’t be long before you see a notice or two by the roadside. The dressed wells themselves are usually accompanied by a village fete or craft sale (I found some rather wonderful cottage garden plants at Stoney Middleton’s stall, the seeds of which have come up beautifully this spring), occasionally a dance and, centrally, a special church service on the same weekend.
If you’re a bit early, several of the villages are happy to let visitors watch them making the pictures, and one or two will even let you have a go yourself.
Ask local tourist boards for dressings on particular dates, or check the Welldressing website for general shows.
This feature by Sandra Lawrence originally appeared in British Heritage magazine. If you would like to syndicate this story or commission Sandra to write something similar please contact her at the following address, missing out the obvious gap…