Peak District Well Dressings

Dates for well dressings in the Peak District.

The blessing of the water supply, in the form of the well, is an ancient custom which is unique to the Peak District and the surrounding areas such as South Yorkshire and East Staffordshire. The custom had almost died out in the 1950s, but since then it has been revived with great vigour, primarily for the tourist industry.

Some sources attribute the practice to the period of the Black Death in 1348-9, when probably a third of the population of England died of the disease, but some villages such as Tissington were untouched.

The local people attributed this to their clean water supply and gave thanks by 'dressing' the village wells. However, it seems very likely that the practice goes back much further than this - probably to pagan times - and the fact that many well dressings have a 'well queen' suggests echoes of ancient spring fertility rites.

The practice is continued mainly in the limestone villages of the central and southern peak with a succession of different villages dressing their wells between the end of May and early September. Traditionally, Tissington is the earliest in late May, and Eyam is the last of the large festivals at the end of August. Outside the Peak District, places which 'dress' their wells include Chesterfield, Etwall (near Derby), Endon (near Stoke on Trent) and Penistone (South Yorkshire).

The construction of the well dressings is a skilful art in which frequently almost the whole population of the village is involved, and usually takes about ten days to perform. Wet clay is spread to a depth of a couple of inches across a wooden backing board, a design is 'pricked out' using a paper pattern and then petals and other items are placed in the areas laid out by the design. This is a laborious and time-consuming process, and the clay has to be kept damp or it will crack and the petals will fall off.

After the well dressing is erected next to the well it is blessed in a short outdoor service, and usually a brass band will be hired for the occasion. Since many of the towns and villages have several wells, there will then be a procession around the town to bless each one in turn.

The well blessing ceremony is usually the signal for the start of a week of celebrations (or 'wakes') with a range of events often culminating in a carnival at the end of the week.