When Dave and I were living in Sheffield, we visited the Derbyshire well dressings. Every summer hundreds of wells, springs and street taps have wonderful pictures made of natural objects placed by them. This is the tradition of well dressing which is unique to Derbyshire.
No one knows for sure what its origins are, but it probably started in pre Christian times. One suggestion is that villagers made sacrifices to pagan gods as a thanksgiving for the water in the well and as an off ering for the continued supply of water in the coming year.
With the spread of Christianity, the tradition was absorbed by the church, and today well dressing has strong religious links. The majority of pictures have a religious theme, and the wells and springs are blessed by the clergy as the pictures are unveiled. People who come to visit make donations which are given to local and national charities.
Each village has a slightly diff erent way of producing their pictures, but most are mounted on boards covered in clay mixed with salt. One year the villagers of Wirksworth counted up the materials they used in producing the picture for a single well. Onto their clay background they stuck 3 buckets of parsley, 3 buckets of spurge, 7 jars of seeds, 80 metres of cones, 3,500 leaves, 3,800 bits of corn, and 10,000 petals. It's not surprising that it took 80 people who worked a total of 400 hours to produce the finished picture.
Well dressing unique to Derbyshire because of the limestone landscape which absorbs water and stores it underground. So before the introduction of mains water, springs were vital for survival. People built settlements in places where several springs emerged. And if the spring failed, so did the life of the village. Perhaps that is why this age old tradition of giving thanks for the gift of water arose. It is a reminder that without water, people cannot survive or thrive.
There are well dressing ceremonies in diff erent Derbyshire villages throughout the summer season from May until September. If you want to visit, you can find out the dates and locations of the well dressings from the website www.welldressing.com It also contains over 6000 photos of well dressings over a number of years which highlight the creativity and skill of those involved.
Apart from the wonderful art work, the well dressings remind us not to take the gift of water for granted. We are blessed in this country with a temperate climate and, generally speaking, plentiful supplies of water. Let's be thankful that we can access clean, fresh water at any time of day or night, unlike many who live in other parts of the world.
Joy (Vicar of Eaton Bray with Edlesborough)
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About the Vicar's Letter
The Vicar's Letter has been appearing in the villages Focus magazine since August 2002.
The Rev. Peter Graham also used to publish The Vicar's Letter in the parish magazine of 1964. Please see the Vicar's Letter area for these.