Wirksworth Heritage Centre
This beautiful custom is all but unique to Derbyshire. Once known as 'well flowering', it's thought to have originated in pagan times. Did the remote hills of Derbyshire escape the waves of invasion by Romans,Saxons, Danes and Normans that swept other parts of Britain into new cultures and new customs? However well dressing began, it was banned by the early Christians along with all other forms of water worship - but the tradition refused to die.

So what is it? The ancient custom of Well Dressing is an offering of thanks for the continuous supply of water. At its simplest, it's the art of decorating springs and wells with
pictures made from growing things. The dressings are set in clay-filled wooden trays, mounted on a wooden frame. They take hours to complete, and townsfolk often work through the night to finish in the early hours of the first festival morning.

This once pagan custom has since become adopted by the church and many of the designs now have a religious theme. In Wirksworth t is understood that Well Dressing dates from 1827, when the town first received a piped water supply. The water grounds on Wirksworth Moor providedwater by means of soughs (underground conduits), pipes and sometimes donkey transport to supplement the wells and springs of the town.

The Wells decorated by Wirksworth dressers are pure examples of this traditional art. Using only natural materials, e.g. flower petals, moss, lichen, fruit skins, seeds and many more things, imaginative designs are created from a wealth of colours and textures. The ancient methods of construction used in Well Dressing ensure that none of the decoration need be manufactured or chemically treated.

The stages in the making of a Well Dressing are exhibited
in the Heritage Centre and follow the sequence:-

A large number of galvanised nails are hammered into a frame of
wooden boards to give the coating of clay omething   to 'key' or cling on to.

The boards are soaked for a period of time. This prevents the clay from drying out too rapidly once it has been applied.

Clay is 'puddled' or mixed with water and some salt, and then spread smoothly over all the boards.

The design is drawn to full size on paper and the paper then positioned on to the clay.

Holes are pricked through the paper and into the clay to mark the outline of the design.

The paper is then removed and the outline again marked in the clay with alder cones or black lichen.

The first materials to be laid on to the design are dry or non-perishable such as lichen, cones, seeds, feathers, hair, fruit peel and bark. Later, fresh leaves are added such as lime, beech, ivy, yew, privet and evergreen. Parsley, moss, grass stems and rhubarb stems and seeds are also applied at this stage.

On the night before the dressing is to be displayed petalling begins. Wild flower petals were always used at one time, but nowadays Hydrangeas, Geraniums, Pansies, Carnations, Honesty and Candytuft are just a few of those used.

Interesting Well Dressing Web Sites:

The ancient custom of Well Dressing in the Peak District.

Eyam Well Dressing 1998.

Glyn William's Well Dressing pages

Wirksworth Heritage Centre
Crown Yard, Market Place, Wirksworth, Derbyshire
Tel: 01629 825225 during opening hours (or leave a message at other times)
Email: enquiries@storyofwirksworth.co.uk