The construction of the well dressings which adorn the Derbyshire countryside in the summer is a beautiful and delicate folk-art which has survived in this region over many centuries. Frequently almost the whole population of the village is involved, and it usually takes about ten days to perform.
Puddling the clay
The well dressing is constructed on a wooden tray onto which a layer of wet clay is pressed. Usually the tray has lines of nails on its base to keep the clay in place, and the clay has to have the water thoroughly worked into it - a messy process known as 'puddling', which is normally done in an old bath.
Spreading the clay
A design is drawn and its outline pricked out onto the surface of the clay. The design is then realised by pressing thousands of flower petals into the clay, using different coloured petals for the various sections of the design. Considerable skill goes into creating a design for which the appropriately coloured petals will be available at the time the well dressing is made - especially early in the summer when relatively few plants are in flower. The clay has to be kept damp or it will crack and the petalls will fall off.
Some plants are especially prized - blue hydrangea petals are used universally for blue sky, for instance - and occasionally flowers will be specially purchased for special colours or effects. Sometimes other materials are used too - sage, straw, alder combs, even lentils and macaroni!
Erecting the well dressing
Tideswell well dressing
A well dressing has a very limited lifespan, so the design has to be put together very quickly during the week before the well dressing is due to be erected, and it is a time-consuming and labour-intensive process. The well dressing will usually stand at the well for a week, by which time the clay will be drying out and cracking and the petals fading.
There is no set text for a well dressing design - often they will show a biblical scene but they may commemorate some local or world event (the 40th anniversary of the Peak Park for instance), a local building (even the Midland Railway) or any other topic which has caught the designer's fancy. Some villages have distinct 'themes' - so Tideswell well dressings show a different cathedral each year, for example.
Whatever they represent, they are often creations of great beauty.
See also the article on Well Dressings
and the current well dressing list