Greal Longstone well dressing  © Michael Cummins
Ashford-in-the-Water well dressing © Michael Cummins

Well Dressing in the Peak District

The art of Well Dressing in Derbyshire and Staffordshire

With a rich and yet unclear history, the time-honoured summer custom of Well Dressing is most closely associated with the Peak District and the surrounding areas, and to this day remains largely confined to rural Derbyshire and Staffordshire.

The ancient custom had practically died out by the early part of the 20th century, but has since been revived primarily for the tourist industry.

The practice is attributed by some sources to the period of the Black Death in 1348-9, when it was estimated a third of England’s population succumbed to the deadly pandemic.

Well Dressed

Some villages, such as Tissington, were mercifully untouched and locals put this down to their clean and pure water supply, and gave thanks by 'dressing' the village wells with an ornate image created from berries, leaves and petals.

However, it is largely agreed that the people of Tissington were in fact reviving the Well Dressing, with its roots going way back to Paganism.

Well Dressing is continued today mainly in the limestone villages of the Peak District, with a sequence of different villages dressing their wells between the end of May and early September. Tissington is traditionally the earliest in late May, and Eyam is the last of the larger festivals beginning at the end of August.

Well Skilled

So how do they do it? In pagan times, it was said to be a simple affair. Flowers, berries and greenery were collected and formed into garlands which would decorate the well.

But from the 19th century the process became more advanced, with the method – known as ‘puddling’ - still used today. A wooden frame is soaked, usually in the local river or stream, and filled with soft clay. The image’s outline – already sketched on paper - is then traced onto the clay, at which point the team of ‘petallers’ intervene, carefully crafting and flowering the picture into the finished article. This painstaking and skilful process can take a large team up to ten days to complete.

A well blessing ceremony usually signals the start of a week’s celebration (also known as 'wakes') with a series of events, often ending with a carnival at the end of the week. 

Between May and September the presence of dressed wells in the Peak District is constant, with the surrounding areas also getting in on the act. Dressings can be found in places such as Whitwell, Pleasley (both Nottinghamshire), Holymoorside (Chesterfield), Gee Cross (Cheshire) and several in South Yorkshire.

While Well Dressings continue to attract tourists, they remain very much a community effort. Coin collections can be found at most dressings with the proceeds going to local and national charities.

Well Dressing is one of the Peak District’s great idiosyncrasies, a throwback to a past both blessed and tragic. You haven't really experienced Derbyshire until you've visited a Well Dressing. You won't find them anywhere else.

Sean Cummins

 

Last Updated: 10 Jun 2015