The History of Well Dressing
The origin of well dressing is difficult to establish and much disputed. Some claim that it goes back to the Celts who arrived in Britain in 400 BC. Certainly it was a Celtic practice to worship the local water gods. The Celts were also responsible for other local ceremonies which have survived into the modern age such as garland festivals, corn dollies and maypole dancing. Trying to prove whether folk the Iron Age decorated their wells and springs with flowers, as we do now, is impossible. So we will have to leave that up to our imaginations!
Others claim that it derives from the time of the Black Death or great plague of 1348-1349 which ravaged the country killing up to half the population. In villages which had a lower death toll, some people incorrectly believed that salvation had come from the purity of the local water supply. Perhaps because of this, they felt thanksgiving and celebration needed offering.
Well Dressings in the Peak District
What is more certain is that the first undisputed record of well dressing was at Tissington in 1615. This took place after the five wells of the village had continued to flow even at the end of the severe drought of that year which had lasted for over 4 months. Many other villages on the limestone plateau of the High Peak took up the practice thereafter. Before the arrival of a piped public water supply, the White Peak was entirely dependant on spring water. Although the Peak District is well known its rainfall, there were not many reliable springs . This is because the rain can very easily seep through the porous limestone. Most of the water then finds its way into underground channels without emerging above ground before reaching the rivers.
Well Dressing in Wormhill
Wormhill is known to have had its own well dressing in the 1800’s. Perhaps even before the Brindley Memorial was constructed in 1875. John Leyland referred to it in 1891 : “Where the streamlet bursts from its earth-bound course at Wormhill Springs, the ancient custom of well dressing was kept up, as at Tissington, within living memory, and the peasantry of the neighbourhood used to awake the echoes of the ravine with the sounds of their rustic jollity”.
In Wormhill, the Well Dressing ceremony was reintroduced to celebrate the Festival of Britain in 1951. Since then, it has taken place almost every year. It is a time when everyone comes together to create the well decoration and put on a week of activities and celebrations. It is a major fund raising event for the village. We use the profits to help keep the village hall and St Margaret’s Church open, and to support local charities.
Wormhill Well Dressing celebrations run for a week at the end of August, the exact dates vary year to year. The week starts with a blessing of the well on a Saturday at the village green/well. Are you likely to be in the area the week before? Why not come along and see the process in one of the local farms. You can even have a go at doing some of the decorating!
For more detail have a look at my next post – what is well dressing?