Thursday 2 November 2017

The Art of Well Dressing

Every year throughout summer many villages in Derbyshire and Staffordshire decorate their wells and water sources—a custom known as well dressing. Villagers take large wooden boards, coat them in clay and press flower petals, twigs, seeds and other natural objects to create scenes from the Bible or fairy tales. These boards are then used to adorn local wells and springs.
While the true origins of well dressing have been lost in time, it likely began as a pagan custom of offering thanks to gods for a reliable water supply. In mediaeval England, lack of hygiene lead to frequent outbreaks of diseases like plague and cholera which claimed dozens of lives in every village whenever the epidemic struck. During the Black Death of 1348-1349, when approximately one third of the population of England died, some Derbyshire villages escaped untouched. One theory is that the local people who had been spared felt their water supply was the cause of their good fortune, and began decorating their village wells as an act of gratitude. Another theory is that during a prolonged drought in 1615, a village well was the only source of water, and thus began the tradition.

Initially, the Christians were not happy with this kind of pagan worship and sought to end it. Gradually, however, the ancient springs and wells lost their pagan associations and were rededicated to one or another of the Christian Saints. Once again people began to decorate their wells with flowers as an act of thanksgiving to God for the gift of water.
Quite a number of town and villages in Derbyshire and Staffordshire have a long standing tradition of well dressing going back to the late 19th or early 20th centuries. One village that has kept the tradition alive since medieval times is Tissington in Derbyshire. The last few decades of the 20th century saw a great revival of the craft with more than a hundred villages in Derbyshire taking up the tradition.

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