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Blore Hall

Peak District, England

Saying it with flowers: the art of dressing well(s) in Derbyshire

Posted by Jonathan Broom on May 16, 2018
Saying it with flowers: the art of dressing well(s) in Derbyshire

The Peak District National Park, most of which lies to the north of Blore Hall, has a gentle southern area, known as the White Peak, while further north lies the more austere but equally beautiful Dark Peak, all granite and windswept moorland plateaus.

The whole region is a walker’s paradise; but if the weather should prove too inclement for even the hardiest rambler (or you just fancy a change) there are some enchanting towns and villages to choose from. Buy a tart in Bakewell; ride the cable car to Matlock’s Heights of Abraham; or marvel at the diminutive perfection of Buxton – a mini-Bath whose crowning glory has to be the eponymous Opera House: compact and bijou indeed.

But depending on the time of year that you visit these, and other, charming villages and towns, you might come across a curious site: a central, public well, festooned with a dazzling array of flowers, usually artfully arranged in a highly accomplished ‘picture’.

In a custom latterly most commonly associated with the Peak District of Derbyshire and neighbouring Staffordshire, the well has been dressed.

A well dressing in Buxton commemorating the Great War centennial

A summer tradition, well dressing dates back to the 6th, 14th, 18th or 19th Century – depending on who you believe. The Irish and the Scots have a history of worshipping wells that goes back to the Dark Ages; UK-wide, villagers had cause to give thanks to clean water in the 1300s for deliverance from the Black Death; and there have plenty of other cataclysmic events recorded over the centuries that might have left the surviving locals with cause enough to adorn their village wells with flowery garlands to give thanks to God – or gods – for having been spared.

But if this has you thinking that well dressing in Derbyshire has similarly romantic, lost-in-the-mists-of-time origins, prepare to be disappointed: it really only dates from the mid-19th Century and, as was so often the case, the Victorians had a hand in it. Well dressing was introduced in Buxton in 1840, “to commemorate the beneficence of the Duke of Devonshire who, at his own expense, made arrangements for supplying the Upper Town... with a fountain of excellent water within easy reach of all”. The ‘craze’ caught on; by the late 1800s at least 12 Derbyshire villages were at it, and pretty much any public water source, including standpipes, was considered fair game.

A clever well dressing of a well dressing, complete with spectators, in Barlow

Today, over 80 villages and towns proudly display their floral artworks next to wells, fountains and other water features during the spring and summer. They are both beguiling and absolutely beautiful.

It would be easy to be a bit ‘sniffy’ about well dressing in the Peak District – to consider it somehow bogus, an invented tradition with no real claim to great antiquity. But the locals have never suggested otherwise; and as you travel around the area, this summer, next summer or any summer, coming across a well-dressed well is a treat for the eyes.


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Jonathan Broom
Author: Jonathan Broom

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