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Come to Derbyshire for the Well Dressing


If you visit Derbyshire from May onwards you are likely to see some beautiful decorations along the roadside, usually close to an old well, spring or water fountain.

Take a closer look and you will see that these detailed pictures, which look like gorgeous paintings, are actually made entirely of individual flower petals, moss, seeds, twigs and tiny stones. This is the ancient tradition of Well Dressing.

As water was an essential part of life in rural communities, it is likely that Well Dressing began as a pagan ritual to the water gods either in thanks for past supplies or as a petition for future water. The tradition is known to date back to Roman times, although it was probably an even older Celtic custom.

Bollington Well Dressing 2007 12 (c) donald judge via Flickr
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Well Dressing 2012 (c) sidibousaid60 via Flickr
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Well Dressings today often coincide with religious festivals and the pictures are often of saints or religious scenes.

How a Well Dressing is Made

Local artists and villagers sketch out the design for their Well Dressing ahead of the actual event. A generous amount of natural clay is collected about a week before the Well Dressing is constructed and

Whitwell Well Dressing 2010 (c) Simon Haytack via Flickr
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it is then "puddled" to soften it. A little water and salt is added to the clay to soften it and the well dressers walk over it, treading it like grapes to remove any small stones, grit, twigs and other matter that may cause bumps in the clay bed.

The base of the construction is a large wooden frame filled with nails. Onto this "bed" they spread the prepared clay about 25mm (one inch) thick. The picture is outlined using tiny seeds or small stones and the images are then filled in using natural material.

Hydrangea petals make a wonderful sky, moss creates greenery and bark is used for trees and buildings. It takes an experienced "well dresser" about seven hours of painstaking work to complete a Well Dressing and the finished decoration only lasts about one week.

12 Well dressing detail (c) davosmith via Flickr
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The petals are laid from the bottom of the picture upwards so that they overlap like tiles, allowing any rain to run off. However, wind is the biggest enemy of any Well Dressing as it dries the clay and the petals start to blow away. The colour, shading and detail of the Well Dressings using mainly flower petals make them a breathtaking work of art.

Where to See Well Dressings

Well Dressings are found mainly in the small villages of the Peak District and Derbyshire. The most famous village for Well Dressing is Tissington, which holds its Well Dressing on Ascension Day and is one of the earliest. The village has six wells and each of them gets its own special Well Dressing.

A Buxton Well Dressing (c) SteveR- via Flickr
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Tissington Well Dressings (c) amandabhslater via Flickr
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The delightful village of Ashford has six wells which are dressed the last week in May; Bakewell (home of the Bakewell tart) has no functioning wells but has five Well Dressings at the end of June followed by the Hathersage and Stoney Middleton Well Dressings the first week in July.

Untitled (c) steve p2008 via Flickr
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Untitled (c) steve p2008 via Flickr
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Untitled (c) steve p2008 via Flickr
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Untitled (c) steve p2008 via Flickr
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Other villages with noteworthy Well Dressing are Tideswell, Wirksworth and Youlgrave. Finally, Eyam's Well Dressing is the last week in August, so plan your Derbyshire visit accordingly!

Wirksworth Well Dressings Community Well 9 (c) Phil Richards via Flickr
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Buxton Well Dressing St Annes Well (c) Ian Parkes via Flickr
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