Derbyshire Well Dressing, DerbyshireStarting as is traditional with Tissington on Ascension Day (which some suggest is the original source of the tradition) and ending at Eyam in late August, the well-dressing season spreads over months in the Peak District of Derbyshire. Other areas beyond that county have taken up the custom, mostly copying the thing, though some places in Yorkshire have cause to claim it is traditional there too.
As with so many of our customs, there is great debate about its origins, the two most frequently cited theories being that it dates back to pagan times (the choosing of a well-dressing Queen being given as evidence, however flimsy, of the antiquity of the custom, and links to the water-worship known to have been important to our pre-Christian forebears, being thrown in for good measure, and doubtless with many a sacrifice of goat, chicken and virgin if available); or that it began in the 14th century as a way of giving thanks for the plague having bypassed certain of the more remote villages in the hill country.
In earlier times some reports describe the custom as little more than the leaving of floral offerings at wells and springs; but if this was once the case it is no longer so. Today villagers band together over a week and even longer to decorate a special board which will be placed with some ceremony at the well once ready. The board has a raised edge, and its surface is studded with nails to give some strength to the sloppy clay which is placed over the thing. A sheet of paper on which the design chosen - much discussed and worked up perhaps from the end of the previous well-dressing - is drawn, and the paper laid atop the prepared board, skewers and needles pricking it to leave the outline on the clay. Scenes from the bible are most often used, but quirkier pictures see the light of day when inspiration moves.
The board thus marked out is then decorated, starting from the bottom and working upwards, with flower petals, berries, seeds, pine-cones and suchlike pressed into the clay which will hold the items in place. As can be imagined this is painstaking work, and with deadlines to meet the decorating teams have been known to labour round the clock as the great day approaches all too fast.
When the appointed day arrives and the colourful and elaborately dressed board is complete it is taken to the well or spring, often accompanied by a local brass band, and blessed in a short service by the vicar - rather different from the time when such things were suppressed by the church, as in Henry VIII 's time when the practice was very much discouraged, and equipment pertaining to it smashed by the authorities.
By the mid-20th century the custom was falling into disuse, but with an increased interest in folklore, and an eye to the tourist market, well dressing was revived and now flourishes, partly as a truly communal activity that can unite old and young, and something that can be drunk to when done.
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