Foolow, The Derbyshire Custom of Well Dressing

The following account of the ‘peculiar to Derbyshire’ custom of Well Dressing was very kindly contributed by Derek Lee on 17th September 2003.


© Derek Lee, 17th September 2003

It has been suggested that the art of ‘Well Dressing’ could be a pagan or druid ritual. Perhaps this was just a floral tribute placed at sources of water giving thanks to the elements. Wells and springs have been an essential source of water for the inhabitants of Derbyshire due to the porous nature of the limestone landscape. Villages were founded where there were wells and indeed many individual dwellings had their own source of water. Well dressing became a part of life and like many other rituals became another religious activity. This developed over the years to the most elaborate displays of floral decoration depicting scenes from the bible and visual representations of biblical texts. Of late we have seen the development of more secular themes with abstract designs or incredibly intricate depictions of places of worship.

Although Foolow has two wells there was no tradition of Well Dressing until 1983 when Chrissie Styles whom with David her husband, ran the Bull's Head and was originally from Litton, suggested that we should do so as a way of generating funds to finance the conversion of a derelict barn into a village hall. Roger Elliot, a builder and resident of the village made the well boards and these are still in use today. The ‘boards’ are really trays to hold the clay into which petals are pressed to make up the chosen design. They usually consist of a base, main and side panels and a header. They have to be big enough to work on but not so big that they are unmanageable when filled with clay. The clay has to be ‘puddled’, that is it has to be kneaded to a smooth consistency and all the stones removed. This is made possible by soaking it in old tin baths and tubs for the previous week. The clay is pressed into the boards to a depth of about three inches and is then laid off with a plasterers trowel to give a surface smooth enough to draw on. Our boards have a lattice like structure fastened into them to enable the clay to be firmly attached. This is to overcome one of the biggest problems, which is that of the clay drying our during the week it is on display, cracks appearing in the design and worst of all, the clay actually falling out of the boards. Careful placing of the erected boards is essential to keep the finished effort out of direct sunshine, even if this means moving it away from the actual site of the well.

The traditional way of applying the chosen design onto the clay has been the ‘pricking out’ of the full size design on paper, using a sharp implement to go through the lines drawn on the paper and thereby register them onto the clay's surface. I was not aware of this fact and used my drawing skills to work directly onto the surface of the clay using a skewer to outline the design and a spatula to erase any mistakes. The drawing usually takes me 10 - 12 hours and this is done on the Sunday, the day after the clay has been pressed into the boards. During the following week the ladies of the village take over and after lining out the design with siscely seeds and peppercorns, start to apply berries, petals and other organic material to fill out the various colours. This process takes until Friday when the boards are then taken to the village green in the evening and erected ready for the Well Blessing ceremony which takes place at around 1 p.m. on Saturday, prior to the Village Fayre. The money raised on this day and in collection boxes throughout the week enables us to make donations to various charities and maintain the village hall. Burdekin Hall as it is called, was an old derelict barn behind the chapel. It was the Property of Mr Burdekin who had resided in the village at some time but then lived at Litton. He was approached to see if he would sell the barn to the village at a reasonable price but he graciously made a gift of it instead.

After a week on display the boards are dismantled and cleaned off. The clay is then removed from the boards and stored in plastic bags for the next year. We have used the same clay, with small additions to make up losses, since we started in 1983. Keeping it in plastic bags keeps it slightly damp so that it does not take too long to become malleable when we next use it. Also the adding of salt to the mix helps to stop it drying out altogether. This works when the boards are on display too.

This account was contributed by Derek Lee in September 2003.

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