What is Well Dressing and what does it involve?

Following on from my previous post on the History of Well Dressings, I thought I would look a bit more at what a Well Dressing is, and what is involved in creating a Well Dressing. The village well dressing committee begins work many months before the preparation of the well for the August Bank Holiday weekend. Creating a well dressing takes a lot of effort from a lot of people.

Each village has its own slight variation in this is done, but the basics are nearly always the same. The main display board is actually made up of several wooden frames each filled with clay. After they have been decorated, they can be attached together and then transported (very carefully!!) to the village well. In Wormhill 2 well dressings are put up. One by the Brindley Memorial (the main Well) and a smaller one, done by the children in the village, is put up in the church.

Picking the theme

A key early task is the selection of the theme for the main picture and the detailed design of the central panel. The design has to be carefully chosen and drawn, as the picture has to be able to be suitable for making out of what ever is growing locally. This is a real work of art and takes a lot of time and effort. The theme of Wormhill well dressings started out with biblical scenes in the 1950s. However in recent times the depiction of churches and cathedrals is more more usual.


Clay is soaked in water and then trodden upon which is know as puddling. This ensures that it gets to a nice smooth consistency. At the same time the wooden framework is soaked in water which helps prevent the clay base drying out. When ready the clay is then carefully applied to the framework and smoothed out. The framework is then kept covered whenever it is not being worked on, again, this is to prevent it drying out. Also any maintenance jobs such as weed clearing and general tidying up around the well are carried out.

with 1 week to go..

The actual construction of the Well Dressing starts a week before it goes on display. Villagers can also be seen scouring the fields, gardens and river banks for flower petals, leaves, berries and other natural materials to be used for the decoration. They strictly avoid using artificial and man-made materials. This is also why work starts so last minute. Any further in advance and the clay will have dried out and the petals will shrivelled!

spreading the clay for the well dressing

The main picture of the central panel and the patterns for the outer frames are transferred to paper. Then it is traced onto the clay using a toothed wheel. This outline is marked out with reeds and sometimes with alder cones gathered from the nearby valley of the river Wye.

marking out the well dressing

Then comes the delicate and laborious task of constructing the picture with a combination of the petals and other items gathered to create the desired colours, shades and textures.

decorating the well sides

The well dressing team of volunteers place the petals in rows and overlaid like like roof slates. They have to carefully  select the right size and colour of the petal to create the right shading and artistic effect. It also help to repel any rain while the well is on display. They use other plants such as statice and parsley as necessary for background.  . Many dedicated villagers gather in the barn at Hargate Wall to create the dressing. They work through the day and night for 5 days; several hundred hours work goes into the dressing to make the Friday night deadline.

The completed Well Dressing

After evening milking on the Friday night a few brave people set the Well Dressing up at the Brindley Memorial. I say brave, because would you want to risk being responsible for breaking it after all the the effort that has been put in! The second smaller well is also on show in the churchyard of St Margaret’s Church. They remain on show for 9 days.

setting up the well dressing

On the first Saturday evening there is an open air church service at the well. A local brass band normally accompanies this, and is always strongly supported by the village community. Visitors come from far and wide to see the Well Dressing. The village often put on other displays in the church and around the village. Additionally refreshments and cake are on sale in the village hall. The proceeds from the well dressing week provide an essential support for the local community, church and village hall. It also provides a focus of activity and pride for the whole village.

wormhill main welldressing 2008 the children's well 2008

This process is repeated in lots of villages in the Peak District. If you are visiting the area, have a look and see if a Well Dressing is happening near where you are going. The Visit Peak District website publishes a guide to when they are happening.