Some Well-Dressed Wells in Derbyshire

Well dressing involves the dressing, or decorating, of wells and springs with flower petals, and, as such, it is sometimes known as well flowering. The custom is an ancient one and seems to be unique to England. It is particularly associated with the limestone villages of the Peak District of Derbyshire and parts of Staffordshire (which I’ll say more about in the next few posts) although one or two other areas also practise the tradition.

Map of the Peak District National Park, UK. Source: Office of National Statistics Geography. Ordnance Survey OpenData. Author: Nilfanion, created using O.S. data

The origins of the custom are still uncertain. Some maintain it could have developed from a pagan custom of sacrificing to the gods of wells and springs in order to ensure the continuing supply of fresh water. As many other traditions, it was later adopted by the Christian Church as a means of giving thanks to God for supplies of drinking water. A tradition of well dressing in the Malverns (a range of hills in Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucester) dates from the 12th and 13th centuries.

Some sources hold that the practice began following the Black Death (plague) of 1348-9. A third of the population of England was wiped out at that time, although a few of the villages were untouched.

The Danse Macabre (Dance of Death) by Michael Wolgemut in 1493. Public Domain

The people of those fortunate villages attributed their luck to the clean fresh water supply from their wells and started dressing them as a way of giving thanks. Still other people believe the custom arose during a prolonged drought of 1615 when people celebrated their own wells’ reliability. Then there are those who attribute the custom to the time of another plague – the Great Plague of 1665 – during which time many Derbyshire villages, including Eyam, were decimated. Yet some villages had remained untouched, like nearby Tissington, and the people gave thanks at their wells for their deliverance.

Whatever its origins, well dressing seems to have disappeared for some time in most Derbyshire villages, with only a few still celebrating it in the 19th century. The main one of those villages was Tissington, as mentioned by Ebenezer Rhodes in his book ‘Peak Scenery’ in 1835. The custom was introduced in the town of Buxton in 1840 and was  recorded as being followed in Wirksworth in 1860. With the arrival of piped water supplies, the tradition was extended to include the dressing of not only wells, but taps, too.

The custom of well dressing rose and fell in popularity over the following years. Then, in the 1930s, the Shinwell family of Tideswell made considerable efforts to revive it. Well dressing has since been restored in many villages and small towns and, throughout the summer months, it is one of the attractions that draws people from all over the world to Derbyshire.

Today, the first well dressings are in May, with Tissington village being the first. Naturally, the flower petals don’t last for long, so the villages follow a regular calendar each year. While we  were in Derbyshire last week, we managed to visit four of the five places with newly dressed wells for that week.

Our first view of well dressings was in Buxton, a spa town which has the reputation of having  ‘the highest elevation …. of any market town in England’. These are a few ph0tos of the three ‘dressed’ wells in the town:

The next well dressing we visited was in the busy village of Hathersage. (Little John of the Robin Hood stories is said to have been born in Hathersage and buried in the churchyard there.) These are photos of the well we found. The theme of this one, as can be seen on the board itself, is ‘Give Peace a Chance’.

Peak Forest was the third of the well dressing villages we got to. It’s a small village and its one ‘well dressing’ was beside a tap. The theme was a very rural one:

On the last day of our stay in Derbyshire we headed out to the small town of Chapel-en-le-Frith (which translates from the Norman French as Chapel in the Forest). We found seven well dressings here, all with the theme of ‘Famous Britons’. Some had been created by children’s groups.

The construction of a well dressing is a long and skilful process which can take up to ten days. It often involves the whole population of the village. First, wooden frames are constructed and wet clay is spread to a depth of a couple of inches across the wooden backing board. The required design is sketched out on paper and ‘pricked out’ onto the wet clay.  The picture is then filled out with natural materials such as flower petal and leaves, entire flower heads, moss, sheep’s wool, wheat or barley straw, berries and nuts e.g. beech nuts, as on the Buxton Children’s well, and even immature fruits like the tiny apples on the Isaac Newton well dressing in Chapel-en-le-Frith. Coloured (or painted) stones, pebbles and gravel are sometimes used, too.

Throughout the well dressing season, some of the villages hold festivals or galas and decorate the streets with colourful and fun models. These are a few we came across in Hathersage:

It was very enjoyable visiting all these wells and looking at how they’re constructed. I think next year we’ll try to get out to Tissington in May. It’s a very quaint village, only a couple of miles from where we were staying, and we met some lovely ‘locals’ there. We’re looking forward to going back.

About milliethom

I am a reader and writer of historical fiction with a keen interest in the Earth's history and all it involves, both physically and socially. I like nothing better than to be outdoors, especially in faraway places, and baking is something I do when my eyes need respite from my computer screen.
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40 Responses to Some Well-Dressed Wells in Derbyshire

  1. MG WELLS says:

    Lovely. So colorful. Wishing you had lots of fun. It looks like a great time. Enjoy.

    • milliethom says:

      Thanks, MG. We had a lovely week and visited lots of great sites. I’ve come back with several
      more posts to write up (to add to my already very long list!)

  2. These are so amazing Millie, I’ve never seen this before. It is so sweet and beautiful! Thanks for sharing this. ❤

  3. What a lovely custom! Thanks for sharing, Millie.

    • milliethom says:

      Hi Giff. Thank you for the nice comment. It is a lovely custom and adds so much interest to many little villages. We enjoyed looking for them all, too.

  4. irinadim says:

    Delightful post, Millie. And what a lovely custom! There’s nothing nicer than drinking water from a spring. Love the beautiful, colourful photos. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  5. milliethom says:

    Thank you, Irina. We’ve seen the odd well or two in the past while having days out in Derbyshire, but this was the first time we’ve actually stayed there for a few days. We were determined to do a well hunt this time, as well as visiting lots of other great places in the county. 😀

  6. leggypeggy says:

    Wow, I had never heard of this tradition. Love the pics and explanation.

    • milliethom says:

      The tradition seems to be quite unique to this part of the world and many visitors just ‘happen’ to come across the odd well or two when visiting the Peak District for its many other attractions. Yet the well-dressing villages are always swamped with tourists (as some nice people in Tissington told us. They can’t move when their well dressings are up in May). Thanks, Peggy.

  7. manisha says:

    These are so amazing Millie, I’ve never seen this before..Thanks to share.

  8. draliman says:

    A lovely tradition whatever its origins, very pretty.

  9. milliethom says:

    Thanks, Ali. I agree, it’s a lovely, quaint tradition. If you ever get up to Derbyshire in the summer, you’ll find ‘dressed up’ wells in at least a few of the villages.

  10. Norma says:

    That’s a very cool art and also a difficult one needing a lot of dedication and several working hands. I hope you enjoyed, Millie. 🙂

    • milliethom says:

      You’re right, Norma, well dressing is clever art, and so colourful and pretty. The people of those villages grow up with it and even groups of youngsters create some of the boards. We had a lovely time in Derbyshire, with lovely weather, too. It was perfect for photographing in all the places we visited. 🙂

  11. Very nice. Enjoyed the pictures, the history, and background of well dressing. I always learn something new and wonderful when visiting your blog.

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you for that lovely comment, Jack. I’m just happy to be able to share what I see in nice places I visit. Well dressing is an unusual tradition, especially as it’s mostly confined to the one area. I’m not surprised so many people around the world haven’t heard of it – there are many British people who haven’t either! We go to the Peaks quite often, and there are always wells dressed in one village or another in the summer. The well dressing villages get thousands of visitors each year, many of them from abroad, so the word about them must be getting around somehow. I’ve just done my bit to help that along.
      How’s it going with your book? I imagine you’re close to publishing by now. Then you can get cracking with Book 3! 😀

      • Welcome, milliethom. I always enjoy unusual traditions, especially if they are of the colorful and artistic type (which well dressing clearly is). Thank you for asking about my book 2 progress. It is going well but as for being ready to publish I must borrow a line from the comedians and say I’m “close but no banana” (not yet, anyway). 🙂 And your book 3? How’s that progressing, if I may ask?

      • milliethom says:

        Well, I hope you can see your banana sitting on your fruit bowl waiting to be picked. 🙂 My book is simply ticking along slowly at the moment but it is, at least, moving. Things here are only just getting back to normal after a few unsettled months. We’re starting to have a few short breaks now, although holidays abroad are out this year. We don’t want to be away for too long at any one time.
        I can understand how your artistic nature would appreciate the well dressings.

  12. what a beautiful tradition! I’m glad they revived it! thanks for this lovely tour!!

  13. doodletllc says:

    Fascinating History – such fun to read…love the photos…so glad I “found” you, Millie.

  14. milliethom says:

    What a lovely comment, doodletllc. I’m very happy you found me, too – and that you like the Derbyshire well dressings. We really enjoyed finding them and taking the photos.

  15. Sheila says:

    Beautiful! I’ve never heard of this before, but it’s a nice way to give thanks. I love how the bird feathers look so fluffy.

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you, Sheila! Looking closely at the birds on the Hathersage well dressings, the material used looked like sheep’s wool – some of it dyed as required. It did give a nice fluffy look. I think the people involved in the well dressings make sure they collect natural materials all year round. There were beech nut husks and hawthorn berries on some boards from last. autumn. They’re all put to good use. It is a nice old custom and I’m sorry we don’t do it next door in Nottinghamshire!

  16. Aquileana says:

    Such a beautiful tradition…. and I like the explanations behind it, and that it was maybe a pagan tradition which later on was adopted by the Christian Church as (quoting you) “a means of giving thanks to God for supplies of drinking water”. The fact that it could be a way to “Exorcise” the great plague and celebrate Life instead is such a powerful message too.
    The photographs are gorgeous… Thank you for sharing, dear Millie ⭐ Sending love!

  17. milliethom says:

    I like the idea of well dressing originally being a pagan custom, too. Worshipping the gods of water sources such as wells and springs sounds very plausible. So many pagan traditions were adopted and adapted by the Christian Church over the years. Thank you for reading and liking, Aquileana. ❤

  18. So beautiful, thanks for sharing this 🙂

  19. milliethom says:

    Thank you, Galit. It’s an unusual tradition and I thought it might be nice to share it. The ‘dressings’ look so lovely and colourful. 🙂

  20. Fabulous! Wonderful shots, too. I really must take a look at well-dressing – and, in fact, explore that part of the world some more.

  21. Christy B says:

    Millie, I have not heard of well dressing before! This is all new to me 🙂 Lovely creations, and my favourite one is the “give peace of chance” themed well.

    • milliethom says:

      That particular well dressing in Hathersage was my favourite, too. I loved the theme as well as some of the materials used on the pictures. The use of sheep’s wool is very effective. I’m not surprised you haven’t heard of this custom before, Christy. As far as I know (and have read) the Derbyshire area is the only place in the world where it’s done. It’s an unusual tradition, but a lovely one.

  22. Nell Rose says:

    Hi, I never knew people did this! How amazing! fascinating read, I learned something new!

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you, Nell! I love learning new things, and we never know where we’ll find them. I’ll be sure to check out your site very soon. I’m sure I’ll learn something new there.

  23. reocochran says:

    My main interest in life is family, closely followed by art and music! I had a short series around 4-11th of July where my brother painted huge murals on a brewery garage door (semi truck size with a mountain man on it) and a 70 foot long mural of a truck carrying hops for this brand new brewery. He got paid but I was proud sister. 😊 🎈

    • milliethom says:

      Your brother must be a very talented artist and you’ve every right to feel proud! I take it the murals are on your posts of earlier this month? I’ll be sure to have a look at those when I have browse of your blog. 😀

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