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From squelchy mud to a thing of beauty – how our villages say thanks for their life-giving water

By Ashbourne News Telegraph  |  Posted: May 22, 2014

  • Tissington is said to be where framing the well dressings began in Derbyshire. Above: Les and Elaine Alcock in the village with their dressing; below: crowds gather in Mayfield; right, a dressing being created by pressing flowers into the clay frame.

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The clay is out and the flower petals are ready. It can only mean one thing – the well-dressing season is upon us. Reporter Joey Severn looks at the history of this long-standing tradition.

THE feeling of clay between your toes is something you have to experience to fully appreciate it.

The thick, grey material looks impossible to transform at first, before it becomes a glassy substance which will eventually be the bed for a beautiful display of flower petals.

As the water is added and you press your feet into the clay for the first time, the squashing and squelching which accompanies your work becomes almost hypnotic.

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At least, it would be, if not for the shouting and squealing from children – also making the most of what can only be described as the best possible reason to get messy.

There can be no better activity for youngsters.

They get covered in clay, wear themselves out and, unlike their usual mess-making, it serves a fantastic purpose.

Maybe that is actually the true reason for well dressings.

Perhaps pagan parents simply wanted to find a way of getting their children to blow off steam in the early days of summer.

Others may contradict this – but the real origins of well dressing are not completely clear.

There is a consensus the tradition started in Derbyshire and Staffordshire.

Many believe it was derived from a pagan custom of making a sacrifice to the gods of wells and springs, to make sure of the supply of fresh water. Then, like many folk traditions, it was appropriated by the Church as way of thanking God for his gift of water.

The rebirth of the dressings appears to have occurred in the Victorian era, when the tradition of pressing flower petals into clay began.

In the early days, they would have been simple displays of flowers and other materials.

Sources of water are celebrated all over the world in this way but the Derbyshire tradition for framing the dressings began – and can be best seen, some say – in Tissington.

Well dressings have a long history in the village. One legend is that the dressings started to take on greater significance following the plague which wiped out nearby Eyam. Villagers in Tissington gave thanks for their deliverance, which they put down to the purity of their springs.

In fact, they had actually been saved by their neighbours sealing themselves off from the outside world in order to stop the spread of the deadly disease.

Another tale recalls that the custom began after a great drought in 1615, which killed thousands of cattle and destroyed crops.

While all around was ruin because of the lack of water, the five wells in the village kept giving their water.

So, when a thanksgiving service was held at the wells, they were decorated to mark the occasion.

As far as villagers know, that tradition has continued ever since – only stopping because of war – with 2015 being the 400th anniversary of the celebrations. And the village still likes to keep the process of creating the dressings local.

Clay is dug up close to the wells which are destined to adorn the wells, along with the flowers which give the displays their striking colour.

Across the county, the designs are created following the same process.

First, the frames in which the clay is housed are soaked for up to a week, so the wood has to be of a high quality.

This allows the clay to be placed on the board without it soaking up the water and, in turn, cracking the clay.

Clay must then be "puddled" in a technique which is much the same as tramping grapes – to create a smooth texture for the petals to be placed upon.

The frame then has nails inserted into it, which helps the clay stay in the frame when it is lifted up.

Clay is then thrown at the frame and smoothed out by hand, with between 2cm and 5cm of clay.

The picture is then traced out on to the clay and the painstaking process of infilling each part begins. Each petal must overlap one another.

Once finished, they are then taken to their various places, where they will spend the next week or so on display.

Despite what has been said of tradition, not all dressings are placed at the site of wells. Sometimes they are placed in areas where wells used to stand.

And, while some towns and villages may be able to date the history of well dressing back hundreds of years, others are in their infancy in comparison.

But they are just as well-loved by young and old.

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