Well dressing is not unique to Derbyshire, but it is the county where the tradition is the strongest. Almost all the wells dressed every year are either within the county, or only a short distance from the county boundary.
Visitors flock to Derbyshire year after year, not only to admire the dedicated work of the well dressers in producing such intricate, if short lived works of art , but to enjoy the many events that take place at the same time in most towns and villages. Normally the wells are dressed for a period of three to eight days. It is best to try to visit during the first few days as the displays tend to deteriorate quite rapidly. The problem occurs when the clay dries out quickly. particularly in hot dry weather made worse if there is a wind blowing.
When visiting well dressings, if you are travelling by car, it is wise to avoid peak periods, particularly if there is a carnival taking place at the same time as the streets and car parks tend to fill up very quickly. But do not be deterred as the well dressings and carnivals are eagerly awaited not only by local people, but by many visitors who return every year.
The festivities that accompany well dressings are normally traditional in style and often offer a programme of events covering several days. Morris dancing, brass band concerts, sporting events and flower festivals are amongst the most common events that take place. There are though a number of more unusual events that attract large crowds, such as the sheep dipping at Ashford-in-the-Water and the Eyam Commemoration Service in remembrance of those people who lost their lives during the plague.
Children have always been involved in helping in the preparation work for well dressings. Now they are more involved than ever with the introduction of an increasing number of children's wells, often supported by the local school. In Derby, a special school well dressing competition takes place, and in 2003 there were 51 exhibits displayed in the Cathedral.
Well dressing is extremely hard work. It takes a team of volunteers many hours, from gathering berries, mosses, flowers and all the other essential materials required to complete the design to the erection of the boards at the chosen site. Even then their work is not done as the well has to be supervised. A collection box is usually placed unobtrusively close to the well, the proceeds from which go to both local and national charities.
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Well dressing is a custom that seems to go from strength to strength, unlike so many others that are in decline. It brings together communities of all ages and provides visitors with a wonderful free attraction.
Originally only wells, or springs as they are also called, were dressed to give thanks to Water Gods. This was extended with the arrival of piped water when stand pipes and taps were dressed.
Nowadays, following the rapid increase in the number of wells dressed, the most eye catching location is often the one selected, despite it being no where near any form of water supply.
That is a question most frequently asked and to which there is no precise answer. Probably the fact that the tradition of well dressing is at its strongest in the limestone region of Derbyshire provides a clue.
Visitors at Tissington
Even after heavy rainfall the water quickly seeps through the porous limestone. Making the presence of a regular supply of water that never dries up essential to early settlers and something for which they wished to give thanks.
Another important factor has been the refusal of the well dressers at Tissington to let the custom die out. At the beginning of the 19th century only Tissington was recorded in the county as still continuing to dress wells.
An increasing number of places organise Flower Festivals in the church to coincide with Well Dressing Festivals. Also a number of villages where well dressings do not take place arrange Flower Festivals that are well worth seeking out.
All the images on this page have been kindly supplied by John and Irene North and have been taken from their highly acclaimed Well Dressing Video, which is narrated by BBC Radio Derby's Paul McKenzie.
For full details of their video collection contact:
Alpha Audio Visual www.derbyshirevideos.co.uk
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