Well-Dressing

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By Margery MacKay

Remembering both my July holiday week at the Nightingale Centre, Great Hucklow, Derbyshire and the most enjoyable Water Communion Service, led by Ida Silkenat on 3 September, I thought I would tell you a little about well-dressing. This custom is virtually only seen in Derbyshire although I have heard of some flower festivals in Liguria and elsewhere.

In his booklet ‘Well-Dressing in Derbyshire’ Roy Christian states that the idea almost certainly came from Pagan thanksgiving offerings for water, possibly of Celtic origin, with some Roman influences. Wells and springs are very important in the Derbyshire Peak District, especially the ‘White Peak’ where the rocks are limestone and porous and rainwater seeps though the rocks to leave the surface dry, hence some dry valleys. You will know of the springs at Buxton. You can get Buxton water at St Ann’s Well, Buxton free; the same water you buy in the bottles. A bit far to travel, I know.

The re-introduction of well-dressings took on a Christian stance. The themes were mainly biblical (one is recorded at Tissington in 1758) with the well-dressings being blessed by Christian ministers. Today many of the themes are secular and anniversary based. In the 1930’s about fourteen villages participated; today there are almost one hundred villages that keep the Derbyshire tradition, including Great Hucklow since about 1999.

I have a soft spot for the Bradwell well-dressings, the first I ever saw. Bradwell is an old lead mining village about three miles from Great Hucklow. I remember seeing the one in the photo on the far left, and also seeing three other Bradwell well-dressings being made, including a children’s one, in various garages; a generational community building effort by the villagers who are very friendly.

In Bradwell the well-dressings are made by placing wet clay in a large frame, laying a paper pattern of the drawing on it and cutting out individual sections to work on. The lines of the section are often filled with sweet cicely seeds. Next flower petals, often hydrangea, and greenery of all kinds are pressed onto the clay. Nowadays other natural things such as sheep wool may be used. The well-dressings are made in less than a week and placed where there are or use to be wells for about another week or so. There is a blessing ceremony and sometimes a carnival or fête.

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