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.

WW1 Day at Crich Tramway Museum

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Last Sunday, July 19, we headed off to Derbyshire with our 16-year-old grandson to visit the Crich Tramway Museum (the letter i in Crich is pronounced like the word ‘eye’). The museum is situated in the Crich Tramway Village, close to the town of Matlock and is an hour-and-a-half drive from where we live:

Map of Derbyshire civil parishes, highlighting Matlock Town. Author: Rcsprinter. Commons
Map of Derbyshire civil parishes, highlighting Matlock Town. Author: Rcsprinter. Commons

We specifically picked this weekend because it was a World War One weekend, and the event was attended by a number of people in period costume or WW1 army uniform. A re-enactment group were also in uniform or other Edwardian dress. Shop windows displayed WW1 foods and there were various recruitment posters about:

It’s thirteen years since we last visited Crich, when Kieran was only three. On that occasion, it was a Thomas the Tank Engine weekend, and Kieran was mad about all the different, colourful engines. His love of Thomas and friends dwindled very soon afterwards, when real steam engines took over. His passion for those has never waned. In fact, trams fall a long way short for him, but he enjoyed the day well enough.

The heart of the village is Tramway Street, a cobbled street with a shiny ‘lacework’of metal running along it, flanked by period buildings. Above, the overhead wire has been described as ‘a mad woman’s knitting’. Both the tracks and wires have been retrieved from towns and cities all over the country…

… as have the buildings and street furniture, some of which were moved stone by stone from their original destinations. There is a pub – the Red Lion Pub, a cafe (Rita’s Tearooms) an old-style sweetshop, the Yorkshire Penny Bank and the impressive Derby Assembly Rooms with its grand Georgian frontage (originally built between 1765 and 1774). It now houses the video theatre and other displays about Britain’s tramways. There is a bandstand in a little park area, and a number of old gas lamps and a couple of telephone boxes. The village is also home to the Eagle Press, a small museum dedicated to letterpress printing, including an 1859 Columbian printing press:

The Bowes-Lyon Bridge (seen above) crosses the road. From up there we could watch the trams going underneath us. These pictures give a good view of the ‘mad woman’s knitting’ design of the wires, with the tracks beneath:

There are fifty trams on display at Crich, both single and double-deckers, some from places abroad, including France, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, South Africa and the U.S. The idea is to portray each of the significant stages in the evolution of the British tramcar. The gaps have been filled in with tramcars from outside the U.K.

Several trams run through the village and visitors can ride up and down the one-mile track along the edge of the beautiful Derwent Valley.

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018 (2)

Visitors can get on and off a variety of trams at different spots to view the sites. These include a lead mine, with the rails for the trolleys, a woodland walk with some unusual wooden sculptures (several of the Green Man) and views of the quarry:

The Derwent Valley was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO due to its historical importance. The valley can rightly be described as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. The village of Cromford, only a mile away, was where Richard Arkwright built his new mill in 1771. George Stevenson, the great railway pioneer, had a close connection with Crich and the present tramway follows part of the mineral railway he built to link the quarry with the village of  Ambergate.

On their arrival in Britain in 1860 from the US (where they were developed) trams were welcomed as a means of transport that gave a far smoother ride than previous horse drawn buses. They also provided a far cheaper form of urban transport for the masses. When the electric tram arrived in 1900, it was a wonder of the age. By the 1920s there were 14,000 electric trams in Britain. The trams at Crich mostly ran along the streets of cities in United Kingdom before the 1960s, with some trams rescued and restored (even from other countries) as the systems closed.

Besides the trams constantly rumbling along the streets, there are many inside the exhibition halls to be brought out on different days, and some in the workshop undergoing restoration:

Decline of the trams came after WW1, notably when the internal combustion engine was developed. Vehicles powered that way offered reliability and perceived low cost, and were not restricted to rails. However, it took many years before buses became swifter and carried more passengers than trams. Even when the motor car was developed, public transport still thrived. But few towns invested in new trams and the cheaper buses eventually took over. By the 1950s only a handful of tramway systems were left. Blackpool closed before the 60s and Glasgow Corporation Tramways in 1962.

There has been a recent revival with new networks such as the Croydon Tramlink, Sheffield Supertram, Midland Metro, Edinburgh Trams, Manchester Metrolink, and Nottingham Express Transit being built and extended. Whether or not other cities will follow remains to be seen.

Here’s a smile inducing piece of information to end with, complete with illustration, from inside the Discovery Centre: