The story behind Well Dressing

The story behind Well Dressing


Posted 10th Jun 2016


Do you know the origins of Well Dressing?

The practice is an ancient and unique custom from the Peak District and surrounding locations like South Yorkshire and East Staffordshire. It was a custom that had very nearly died out by the 1950s - however what followed was a vigorous revival, primarily driven by the tourist industry.

Some claim that the practice came about during the Black Death in 1348-9. At a time when a third of England's population died, villages such as Tissington were untouched - this was attributed to their clean water supply. Villagers subsequently gave thanks to their wells by 'dressing' them. However it could date back even further than this, even as far back as pagan times. With well dressings often having a 'well queen' it has been suggested that there are echoes of ancient spring fertility rites.

The practice is now generally carried out in limestone villages of the central and southern peak. A succession of villages will dress their wells from the end of May until early September - traditionally Tissington will be the earliest in May and Eyam will be the last of the large festivals to be carried out at the end of August. 

The only other areas which dress their wells outside of the Peak District are Chesterfield, Etwall, Endon and Penistone.

Well dressing itself involves the vast majority of the village, and will generally take around 10 days to perform. Wet clay will be spread onto a couple of inches across a wooden backing board and a design will then be 'pricked out' using a paper pattern. Petals and other items are then placed into areas which are laid out by the design. The process - which can be quite time-consuming - will result in clay having to be kept damp or chances are it will crack and the petals will fall off.

Once the well dressing has been erected next to the well, a short outdoor service takes place. After the blessing has been carried out, it is normal for a brass band to be hired to mark the occasion. With the majority of the towns and villages having more than one well there will normally be a procession around the town so that the procession can be carried out at each one in turn.

The ceremony is usually the prelude to a week of celebrations which will see numerous events. This range of events will end with a carnival at the end of the week.

Image courtesy of Getty / Oxford Scientific / Robin Bush





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