Derbyshire well dressing
When I visited Derbyshire in the summer of 2019 I saw a local custom that I just had to incorporate into a story set at Pemberley. In An Appearance of Goodness, Darcy takes his guests to see a well dressing.
Well dressing or well flowering is a practice that takes place exclusively in Derbyshire villages from May until late summer. A well-dressing is a wooden board, coated in clay, with flower petals and other natural materials pressed into it to make pictures, words, and patterns that are then placed around wells and springs.
An early recorded mention is from 1818, when a scenery enthusiast named Ebenezer Rhodes wrote of “an ancient custom” in Tissington involving “boards… covered in moist clay into which the stems of flowers are inserted… to form a beautiful mosaic work, often tasteful in design, and vivid in colouring.” Another record from 1758 mentions Derbyshire wells being adorned by garlands.
But the origins likely date back farther. One possibility is from 1348, when an outbreak of plague skipped Tissington allegedly due to their pristine water supply, or possibly from 1615, when that same water supply saved everyone from a drought. But pagan roots are also likely. Celts and Romans had their own practices showing gratitude for water involving garlands and branches at springs and wells.
But why is it still in practice today, and only in Derbyshire? The Derbyshire hills and dales make it difficult to pass. If well dressing dates back to the Celts or the Romans, then perhaps the Derbyshire’s remoteness prevented Saxon, Danish, and Norman invaders from imposing their customs, and instead the ancient custom was adapted and preserved when it was incorporated into Christian festivals.
Here are a few pictures of Bakewell’s well dressings from 2019 and one from Holymoorside in 2017 celebrating Jane Austen's bicentennial.
The construction process begins by building a large a wooden frame upon which to create the image to be positioned over the well or spring. They could be community images, Bible stories, historical events, or even inspirational quotes or children’s stories. Teams of villagers create mosaics using natural materials such as leaves, moss, tree bark, petals and even coffee beans, on a bed of clay.
Most villages hold a blessing ceremony with a procession from one well to the next and is followed by a festival for the community. Beside each well there is typically a donation box raising money for local churches, the village hall, or other charities.
Here is a time lapsed video of construction of wells in Buxton in 2014. Skip to about the 45 second mark to see them begin. If you like watching the behind the scenes look at the Parade of Roses, you’ll like this video.
If you watch the video, the one with the WWI soldier decoration is at St Anne's Well, near the Buxton crescent. It's been in use since Roman times and was one of the "Seven Wonders of the Peak in Derbyshire" by Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century. Members of the community still take jugs to fill, and so do visiting tourists who need to top off their water bottles.
What do you think of this custom? Aren’t they lovely? Be sure to read An Appearance of Goodness to see how this charming festival gets incorporated into a romantic day out for Darcy and Elizabeth.