I crawled stealthily on hands and knees through the graveyard, my furtive passage between the tombstones flooded with moonlight. Trying to ignore the silent protests of the eternally slumbering inhabitants lying all around me, I instead concentrated my discomfort on the damp which was beginning to seep through my trousers. It had rained recently and the church lawns hadn’t been mown in a while. Ghoulish statues glared down at me disapprovingly, and an owl hooted from his lofty perch overhead. I hoped he wouldn’t mistake me for a mouse. Well Dressings sure had a lot to answer for!
Whimpering pathetically, I continued on my midnight mission and with relief finally spied the target. As I began carefully scraping the spongy green moss from a particularly fanciful grave stone, I wondered whether Mrs Elspeth Wainwright, wife of Edgar, would mind. She had departed this world over 200 years ago, so I figured she’d probably be ok with it.
It was Well Dressing week in my Derbyshire village and as usual we’d run out of material the night before the grand unveiling. Being a free and energetic source of labour, the village kids had been tasked with scouring the neighbourhood for supplies. Namely flowers, alder cones…and moss!
The tradition of Well Dressings
‘Well Dressing’ is a centuries old tradition unique to Derbyshire in the heart of rural England. Each summer between May and September, village communities across the county come together to create living art installations made from natural materials.
No-one knows for certain the true origins of Well Dressing in Derbyshire. It is widely accepted that it began as a Christian thanksgiving ritual, celebrating the gift of water in times of severe drought. Some believe that Well Dressing stems from a pagan custom before being later adopted by Christianity. Whatever the case, this floral decoration of wells still thrives today, and whilst some remain religious, others prefer to celebrate special anniversaries or local events.
Each village involved erects several display boards, created by different groups such as the Women’s Institute, the local school, and the Brownies and Guides.
I grew up in Derbyshire, and as both a Brownie and a Girl Guide I was involved in our village well dressings for as long as I can remember. Every night after school during well dressing week I’d be helping out behind the scenes, running errands and collecting material (hence the midnight dash to the graveyard for moss!). It’s something that is engrained in the lives of locals, yet often unheard of in the wider community.
So I thought it was time to put this rather different part of our heritage on the map!
I dragged hubbie down to the quaint village of Tissington in South Derbyshire so he could experience his first Well Dressings. To be honest he hid his enthusiasm like a pro. Admiring floral displays created by the likes of the W.I. wasn’t really high on his agenda. Yet once he was there, strolling around in the sun, an ice cream in one hand and a camera in the other, he admitted he was actually rather enjoying himself. You don’t have to be into flower arranging to appreciate the Well Dressings. It’s perhaps just a great excuse to explore hidden hamlets and experience rural village life without feeling like an intrusive tourist.
Tissington Well Dressings
I chose Tissington as hubbie’s baptism of flowers because the village is one of the most famous and ancient Well Dressing locations. Tissington has remained true to the religious origins of the tradition, perhaps because the villagers here have more reason than most to be thankful.
It is suggested that the Well Dressing began here after Tissington escaped the Black Death in 1348-9, whilst many in nearby Eyam perished. The Tissington community believed this was thanks to their pure water supply, and so began the custom of decorating wells to show appreciation for their miraculous deliverance. In reality, the plague remained contained in Eyam thanks to the selfless actions of the stricken villagers, who shut themselves off from the outside world to avoid spreading the disease further. It’s perhaps these people who should be thanked!
The first step to Well Dressing is soaking the wooden boards for a week before work begins. Often in the village pond! The wet wood keeps the clay moist and the designs fresh, as well as ensuring the boards don’t crack once the clay is applied.
Next up is the clay preparation, affectionately known as ‘clay puddling’. This was always my favourite part as a kid. The locally dug clay would be tipped into an old bath and we’d tread it for hours, just like grapes, making it smooth and properly mixed.
Clay is plastered into the boards (now rescued from the pond!) which are then laid flat in someone’s garage or shed ready for the artists to work their magic. A design is pricked out in the clay using a cocktail stick, and then the hard graft really begins.
Over the course of several evenings (and towards the end, nights!) intricate pictures are brought to life using all manner of natural materials sourced from around the village. Borders and edges are painstakingly outlined in alder cones, tree bark or coffee beans. Backgrounds are filled in with pebbles or sometimes seeds. Leaves become trees, sheep wool becomes clouds and berries become rosy lips.
There are buckets of flowers, waiting patiently in water to be used at the eleventh hour. Once plucked they soon shrivel, so it’s important to put these on at the end. The petals are laid individually, overlapping to allow rain to run off easily. This is a job for the most skilled, and something I was never allowed to do until I was much older!
The hard work doesn’t stop once the boards are up. Petals are periodically sprayed with water to slow the rate of decay and keep the clay moist, and if you’re a local Brownie or Guide you’ll have the honour of ‘guarding’ the well throughout the day. I used to do this every year, and to my horror, once ended up on a postcard that stayed in circulation for years. Hugely embarrassing for an 18 year old to have her Brownie image circulating in the village for everyone (including potential boyfriends!) to see!
Where you can see them
Well Dressings take place all over Derbyshire during different weeks throughout the summer. The Visit Peak District website is the best place to check out listings and dates.
Tissington is one of my favourite places to experience the Derbyshire Well Dressings. They are erected on the eve of Ascension Day, and blessed on the Thursday by a procession of clergy who progress around the village visiting each well in turn. The Well Dressings remain in place for a week, and draw visitors from near and far.
It’s a beautiful village, with lots of very English cottages, leafy lanes and of course a duck pond. Tissington Hall can be visited on certain dates throughout the year, and is still lived in by the FitzHerbert family who have owned the Estate since 1609! If it’s closed on your visit, you can still peer through the gate and dream about how the other half live!
There’s also a lovely tea room called Herbert’s which does excellent ploughman’s platters, and sells home made cakes and jams. Can you get any more English?
Just around the corner you’ll find the cutest little vintage sweet shop selling all manner of old fashioned treats.
I couldn’t resist temptation and came out clutching several brown paper bags full of goodies I remembered having as a kid. I somehow also managed to acquire a free ice cream from the lovely folks in the shop, I must’ve smiled sweetly!
You can easily spend a couple of hours wandering around the village, stopping for lunch and visiting the church. Just don’t get too jealous of all the lovely estate houses…
Stay the weekend
The Peak District National Park is a hiker’s paradise, and with valleys, rocky outcrops, forests and moors, it’s a beautiful place to spend a few days once you’ve had your fill of well dressings. And sweets!
We stayed at Dannah Farm Country House in Shottle, not far from Tissington. It’s a traditional farmhouse with a 5* boutique vibe, and had one of the quirkiest beds we’ve ever slept in!