The History of Well Dressing
The origins of Well Dressing are lost in antiquity. They may even have their roots in pagan customs later given a Christian meaning. One theory says that the custom began just after the Black Death of 1348-9. Although 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. Two more showers fell between then and the 4th of August, so that the greater part of the land was burnt up, both corn and haye.”
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.
As far as we know, the custom has continued ever since with very few breaks (such as the war years). Tissington has pride in the antiquity of the custom in our village and trust it will awaken in you a thankfulness of God. Thanks for our inheritance and for the gift of life through the water so often taken for granted.
The Art of Well Dressing
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, using a pointer or a toothed wheel, 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. This process takes many hours and occupies all of the three days preceding Ascension Day.
The dressings are erected on the eve of Ascension Day. This 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 following the service in Church at 11am on the Thursday. The Clergy progress round the village and bless each well in turn. The dressings remain in place until the following Wednesday evening, during which time very many thousands of people will have visited the village to see the spectacle.
Well Dressing Dates
29th May – 4th June 2014
14th – 20th May 2015
5th – 11th May 2016