The origins of Well Dressing are lost in antiquity, but are thought to have originated in the beautiful estate village of Tissington. The present custodian of Tissington Hall, Sir Richard FitzHerbert, whose ancestors have lived on the estate for over 500 years, explains the possible origins and art of Well Dressing.
One theory suggests that the custom began just after the Black Death of 1348-9, when the population round about was ravaged by plague, in Tissington all escaped, and the immunity was ascribed to the purity of the water supply. It became the custom to decorate the wells in thanksgiving.
Another tradition recalls the severe drought of 1615: “There was no rayne fell upon the earth from the 25th of March until the end of Maye, and then there was but one shower.” Despite the severity of this drought, when thousands of cattle perished and crops were lost, the five wells of Tissington flowed freely and the surrounding district had cause to be most grateful for the unending supply of water from the little village. A thanksgiving service was held and the wells were decorated each year in memory of the deliverance, and as far as we know, the custom has continued ever since with very few breaks (such as the war years).
Clay is dug locally and is mixed with salt and trod (like grapes!) to the right consistency. The design is prepared weeks before the event. For some days before the process of dressing begins, the boards on which the pictures are mounted are soaked in the village pond. After this they are plastered in clay.
Flowers are picked locally. The picture is traced onto the boards, and marked out with cones from the alder trees or with coffee beans. Then comes the delicate and laborious task of infilling with flower petals and other natural materials. No artificial or synthetic materials are ever used at Tissington. Each petal has to be put in separately and they overlap like tiles on a roof so that the rain will flow off the picture, a process which takes many hours and lots of patience!
When the dressings are erected it is the first time that those who have worked on the pictures see what the effect is really like, as the pictures appear distorted when they are horizontal. They are then ready for the ceremony of Blessing. The Clergy progress around the village and bless each well in turn. The dressings remain in place for a week (14th – 20th May 2015), during which time very many thousands of people will have visited the village to see the spectacle.
This exquisite custom has spread far beyond the village of Tissington, with many of the towns and villages in the Peak District & Derbyshire creating their own Well Dressings. Visit the website for all the dates of Wells Dressing throughout the area, or pick up a leaflet at tourist information centres and other selected outlets.