23 August 2002

Well dressings and blessings in Peak area

WELLS were a vital source of water for the farms on the limestone uplands in Derbys, and perhaps that is why "well dressing", or decorating springs and wells, along with blessing the wells, has survived in many of the areas villages and towns.

Our pagan ancestors worshipped at springs and wells, and there are echoes of water worship, no doubt, in well dressing and blessing, although they appear totally Christian now. Every year, three wells are dressed in the village of Eyam, known as the plague village. They commemorate the plague years of 1665-66 when, although 257 villagers died, the village isolated itself, to prevent the spread of the disease. It is a heroic story and coachfuls of tourists now come to the village to watch the making of the well dressings.

The "well dressing", also known confusingly as the well, is a framework, containing a picture or design made out of natural products. At Eyam, where the wells are dressed in late August, such natural products include leaves, berries, flowers, petals, alder cones, lichens, senna pods, sweet cecily seeds, maize and even lentils. Some villages also use egg shells, coffee beans or fluorspar.

The well dressing takes about 10 days and involves large numbers of people. First, the large wooden frames are soaked and clay is prepared by puddling or mixing with water, before being trowelled on to the frames as a bed for the designs.

In the workshop, the designer pricks the design through thin paper on to the clay, and helpers make the outlines of shapes with sweet cecily seeds. Then, over a period of about three days, people fill in the coloured areas, firstly with leaves (which last longer) and then with petals, overlapping them like roof tiles.

On the Saturday, a team of men with tractor and trailer rises early and sets up the Town Head Well, the Childrens Well and the Town End Well at either end of the village. Stone troughs are put in front of them to symbolise the old, working wells and in the afternoon a procession with band, vicar, choir, dignitaries, Wakes Queens and villagers marches through the village for the opening and blessing of each of the wells.

The day culminates with dancing in the village square. The Eyam wells stand, richly dressed, for the whole of Wakes Week (from Aug 24) and are then taken down, the clay cleaned of its dying petals, and clay and frames put away for another year.

Jacqueline Sarsby

More information about Well Dressings in Derbys and the Peak District is

available from the Tourist Information Centre (01246 345777/8). Well dressing in the making can be seen at Wardlow

(Aug 27-30.), Longnor (Aug 28-31)

and Chesterfield (Sept 2-7).

Flower power at Eyam: Petalling a rainbow for the outer Town Head Well (above).

Sweet Cecily seeds outline this design (left) which is filled with camomile and hydrangea petals.

A final touch of white paint for the Childrens Well (below) designed as always by Mark Askey.