What is this ancient custom that so fascinates the outside world? And why is it only found in or around the borders of Derbyshire?
Well dressing is something of a mystery. It may date back to the Celts - or perhaps even earlier. Could the remote Derbyshire hills have escaped the waves of invasion by Romans, Saxons, Danes and Normans that swept other parts of Britain into new cultures and new customs?
At any rate, the early Christians saw it as water worship - and put a stop to it. But the tradition refused to die. Tissington revived well dressing in 1349 after the village escaped a terrible outbreak of the Black Death that wiped out almost half the people of Britain. Barlow claims it started dressing wells in Elizabethan times, but many places (including Chesterfield, Youlgrave and Tideswell) began 'tap dressing' when piped water first came to town.
So how are such intricate and detailed pictures made using only what Nature provides?
Each dressing is set in a huge wooden tray - perhaps as high as a tall man, maybe 4 feet wide, and over an inch deep. This 'tray' is thrown into the local pond or river to soak, hauled out and filled with soft, wet clay.
The artist brings the design, drawn full size on thin paper, and smoothes it over the clay - then the work begins.
First, the outline of the picture has to be transferred to the clay, and every village has its own way of doing this. In several villages, including Wormhill and Heath, they use a system called ‘pricking out’. This involves making a series of marks along each line, like a dot-to-dot puzzle, removing the paper and then using black wool, alder corns or other materials to join the dots. In the villages around Barlow, including Chesterfield and Cutthorpe, the process is called ‘barking’, a cut is made along each line then, without taking the paper off, small pieces of wood are pushed into the clay. In Hope they don't bother outlining the design at all!
The next stage is to 'colour in' the picture. At Ashford-in-the-Water, this is called 'petalling', but in Holymoorside it's called 'flowering'. Why? Because they use whole flower heads rather than individual petals.
Flowers aren't the only things that make up a well dressing picture. Chesterfield well dressers use rowan berries, eggshell, peppercorns, pumpkin seeds and even, on one occasion, a seashell.
Whichever method is used, a well dressing takes up to 7 days of work, by a whole team of people, to finish. And it will only last about a week before the clay dries and cracks, and the flowers fade. Then it's taken down and the boards stored away - until next year.
The best way to find out what a well dressing is and how it's made is to visit one of the well dressing under construction events where you can meet the well dressers and ask them about this unusual and unique Derbyshire art.
Donations gratefully accepted.
|Notes||A well dressing or well dressing under construction is usually on in at least one village from the end of April to the middle of September. For a full list search the website or contact Chesterfield Tourist Information Centre (Tel: 01246 345777/8)|
Tourist Information Centre, Rykneld Square, Chesterfield, Derbyshire, S40 1SB
Map reference: SK 384711 Lat: 53.23554 Long: -1.42613