Monthly Archives: May 2012

Blessing the Wells at Tissington Well dressing

Tissington in Derbyshire claims to be the oldest continued well dressing tradition. Well dressing being almost a Derbyshire speciality (although it has spread to neighbouring counties and beyond these in the twentieth century) is for those unfamiliar where clay is placed upon frames and an image pressed into this by using flowers, leaves and seeds. The art work produced can be of fantastic, but due to the spread of the tradition this quality varies greatly as do the themes, unsurprisingly the Olympics and Jubilee figure largely in 2012 designs. One of the best places to see the tradition is at Tissington, where not only is the art work very high quality, but the theme is very tradition taking biblical themes.

Furthermore, it is considered the oldest location. Local tradition, although I have been unable to verify states that the springs were dressed as a thanks for survival from an outbreak of the Black death in 1349, the local populace believing that the quality of the water was the reason for their survival, apparently only one person died whilst it ravaged through the local area. This notwithstanding, a severe drought, recorded in nearby Youlgreave parish registers where between the 25th March and August 1615 when only three showers fell may be the source of the custom. However, the earliest written reference, quoted by Christian (1966) states that in 1748 Nicholas Hardinge, clerk of the House of Commons recorded:

At Tissington, FitzHerbert’s village we saw springs adorned with garlands; in one of these was a tablet inscribed with rhymes, composed by the local schoolmaster in honour of the fountains, which as FitzHerbert informs me are annually commemorated upon Holy Thursday, the minister with his parishioners praying and singing over them.”

Certainly this reference suggests that the tradition was older then 1748 and although the dressing may have been cruder than today’s effort it does appear to have been showing some development beyond garlands. It is reported in 1758 that the well nearest the church was certainly dressed and perhaps given their name of St. Helen may have been some a left over from dressing of a holy well (although Lord St. Helens was the brother of the first Tissington baronet so it would be a big coincidence!). A report in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1794 noted:

“it has been custom, time immemorial, on every Holy Thursday, to decorate the wells with boughs of trees, garlands of tulips and other flowers, placed in various fancied devices; and after prayers for the day at the church, for the parson and singers to pray and sing psalms at the wells.”

Today there are five wells dressed, certainly in their own right without the dressings, a number of these wells are quite interesting and impressive. The most impressive being that as noted dressed the longest the Hall or St. Helen’s, Hand’s Well named after a local family (as our the following) with its oval basin, Yew Tree or Goodwin Well, Coffin or Frith’s Well and Town Well.

However, it is not until 1817 that a report makes it clearer that boards were being reused each year, in Brayley’s Graphic and Historical Illustrations in The Mirror of Literature, amusement and instruction:

“The well that pleased me most was one that stood in a retired garden, it had an arbour formed from trees with wreaths of laburnum and the common blue hare-bells thrown over, at the top was a picture of pity (holding a medallion of the King), bending to Hygeia, with her accustomed offerings of fox gloves. The drapery of the figures defied all description. The colours were so well chosen.”

A report in 1839 appears to be the earliest definite report of the dressing being a design. A local report stating:

“The stems and flowers are closely inserted, and a brilliant mosaic is thus prepared, forming as it were, a ground work for various ornamental designs, as crowns and stars, and appropriate mottoes, chiefly from scripture, which are most imperiously introduced.”

Indeed, it is clear that the blessing of the well was well established in its modern format by then. One thing that these early reports emphasis is the hospitality of the local people where all and sundry opened their houses, including Tissington Hall, to the visitors indeed it is noted there is

“Open house was kept by everyone according to their means and all comers are received with welcome.”

Indeed many people did come to the wells and that in 1800s that Ashbourne people were ‘ keen to get a lift on a horse, or anything that pulled, in order to get there with the least inconvenience’. Indeed, as the Revd Ward noted in 1827 that the day was ‘concluded with utmost hospitality and festivity.’

Little has changed in the intervening 150 or so years and the village whether on the morning of the blessing of any day until their dismantling is a throng of people, car parks are full, coaches line the main street and although it does sometimes look like all of Darby and Joan has descended upon the village, children can be seen taking full advantage of any ice-cream available!

Interestingly by the end of the nineteenth century Tissington was described as where “the spiritual character and quaint simplicity of well dressing is maintained..elsewhere in Derbyshire has degenerated.”

Perhaps this was a statement on the quality of the dressings or the maintenance of the tradition which has apparently only been broken three times in the last 100 years. The obvious times being the Wars, indeed the last war appears to have caused a considerable gap in the proceedings as Porteous (1949) in his ‘The Beauty and Mystery of Well dressing’ counts himself fortunate that he did not seek out the Tissington dressings before other lesser known sites, as the tradition being in abeyance in the village may have led him to the belief that it had died out elsewhere. He notes that it was hoped that Tissington would start dressing again in 1950. The third time was during the Foot and Mouth Outbreak of 2001!

Ten years only from that cancellation, 2011 I was able to see the blessing, traditionally held on Ascension Day every year (a variable date in either May or June-it was June 2nd in 2012). After a service in the church, the procession led by the vicar Revd Andy Larkin with the Archdeacon of Chesterfield, the Venerable Christine Wilson, the FitzHerberts and choir left the church and made their progress around the village to bless the wells. At each a reading was given, a hymn sung and a blessing made with a large congregation of onlookers.

All in all a delightful day, the artistry of the wells particularly that of the Hands well with its topic Royal Wedding theme was much to admired…as was the Stilton Sandwich…which had virtually a wedge of Stilton! Hospitality is still considerable on Well dressing days..

Ancient wells and springs of Hastings

A visit to Hastings will reward those interested in ancient wells as the town preserves a number of perhaps lesser known sites, many of which still flow and produce large quantities of water. This is particularly true of the East Well, whose water can be sampled by a tap which produces its waters readily below a sign which reads ‘waste not want not!’ The water is enclosed in large conical conduit house sitting at the base of the East cliff railway at Rock a Nore. The East Well is situated next to the East Hill Lift and was built in the 1840’s with part of the money raised from a local fundraising campaign by Dr McCabe, more of him later.

Nearby but presently inaccessible is the spring found in the crypt of St Marys in the Castle, which confusingly is not in the castle grounds but below in the old town. This is a sizable white edifice. This is unusual in an Anglican church as it is a tank for baptism by immersion.  It dates from 1928 and is fed by one of the five springs found emerging from the cliff-face when the church was built.

Hastings like neighbouring Brighton had pretensions to be a spa town and in Alexandra Park is the remnant of this attempt, which appears to have taken its name from the park and became a ‘holy well’ by virtue of its adoption, as it was called St Andrew’s Spa on the 1878 OS map. A building called Spa Grange may be evidence of a spa building utilising the spring. This spring is still extant and can be easily found and the flow is quite incredible pumping out iron rich orange water. The sign of which reads:

chalybeate spring,  originally in open farmland, Robert Marnock incorporated this feature into Alexandra Park in 1880. The underground spring supplies a steady flow of foul iron-rich water once drunk for its alleged health-giving properties.”




















In 1881, Parsons (1881)  in ‘Highlands of Hastings & St. Leonards as a Health Resort’, describes the spring as follows:

“It appears that the water is impregnated with iron, to an unusual extent, containing a larger amount than the waters of Tunbridge Wells, Scarborough, Whitby, Buxton or Bath. It also has the advantage of not causing constipation.”

A nearby well is called Dr. McCabe’s Well and percolates clearer water but very intermittently. The plaque reads:

Peter McCabe, an Irish physician based in Wellington Square, was mayor of Hastings in 1838 and 1843. A committed campaigner for clean water- he constructed both this spring and the East Hill public well at the foot of the cliffs at Rock-a-nore.”

Despite an association with a local doctor does not appear to have been a medicinal spring, although it was was the most well known at the enclosure of the park perhaps because it was the most useful.

It seems likely that either of these spring was once the eponymous St Helen’s Well, which is arguably Hastings only holy well. This may be supported by a medieval settlement being located in the valley of the park perhaps. However, another site is claimed to be St. Helen’s and this is situated in the small area of park land behind the ruined church of the same name. Asking for the location of the site I was given a ‘it does exist…I think I know the site….but not telling you approach’ to helping. Despite this I did find what I would assume was the site, a mossy pool beside the lane.

The final site is perhaps the least well known but more rewarding and impressive. This is the Roman Bath, laying enclosed romantically in the wooded hillside below the Leisure centre on Bohemia road in what remains of the Summerfield estate. Despite what a leaflet distributed in Hastings in the early 20th century which offered 3d guided tours of what it claims was built in AD51 by King Caractus, it was certainly built by a Wastel Brisco who commishioned the building after obtaining the estate in 1831.

The building is made of sandstone and some cement with a retaining wall of about 12 feet in height. At either side were steps, although those of the left are better preserved. These led to a viewing platform over the bath. The bath itself is a rectangular 15 feet by 8 feet sandstone pool with four or three worn cement steps gaining access to its debris strewn but clear waters. The spring which feeds the pool arises in a grotto and once through a lion’s head, now stolen into the pool. A Romanesque archway with colonettes covers this springhead which once had a lion’s head keystone and this is the most impressive of the remaining features. Early depictions show a circular structure with an arched entrance which may have been a changing room if the bath was of course used, or alternatively covered another spring as there is possible evidence of this where this was located. There does not appear to be any evidence of stone work from this structure, which indicates a degree of more organised vandalism of the site perhaps.  The run off channel which carried the water to the stream below is exposed although early photos show it stone lined.

Hasting’s Roman Bath is without doubt the most impressive of the town’s water supplies and deserves to be known better. It is pleasing to see that there is local interest in preserving it and hopefully the vandalism which has gone on will now cease.

The Physic Well Barnet: a case for restoration

This mineral spring, called the Physic Well (TL 230 958) was of considerable fame in the county and beyond, and was the resort of many wealthy and famed Regency folk. Its discovery is noted in 1652, although 50 years earlier, Camden (1551-1623) in his Britannica wrote that:

“Upon the south border..was discovered a mineral is of great service to the Sex where there is general languor, difficult and rheumatic complaints the Barnet Whey is much recommended.”

This suggests it is possible that the well had been long known locally. Furthermore Fuller in his Worthies of England recalls that:

“already a catalogue of cure by this spring amounteth to a great number; insomuch that there is hope in the process the water rising here will repair bloodshed hard by and save as many lives as were lost in the fatal battle at Barnet.”

Chauncy (1700) describes its virtues suggests that its water would be good to:

“..dissolve acid tough Flegm in the stomach and guts, with sharp Choler, much better than other Purgers; and of great Efficacy in Cholicks, proceeding from both those Humours; in short, for most diseases that proceed from sharp and hot Humours (if they pass freely) they prove excellent safe Purgers.”

It was on the 11th July 1664 the famed diarist Samuel Pepys took its waters. He stated:

half a mile off; and there I drunk three glasses and went and walked, and came back and drunk two more. The woman would have had me drunk three more; but I could not, my belly being full -but this wrought me very well; and so we rode home… and my waters working at least seven or eight times upon the road, which pleased me well“.


“arrived home was not very well, and so went to bed, and during the night got worse and worse so that melted almost to water.”

Yet, this did not deter him for on the 11th of August 1667 he returned, but this time he drank only three glasses. He put his earlier experience down to too much water!

Another famed visitor, Celia Fiennes (whose visits to spas are well known) also complained. This time it was about the conditions at the well. She described it then as an enclosed building of lattice work, in which visitors descended steps to take the waters (so deep that one could not see the bottom). She disliked the means at which the water was drawn, being dirty, full of leaves and having to wait for the water to settle.

In 1677, 20s was given; this was to be paid in perpetuity, by a Mr Owen, an Alderman of London, of the Fishmongers Company, for repairing of the well. By 1690s the dipper had gone and people were helping themselves, Daniel Defoe, in 1724 notes that it was ‘almost forgotten’.Indeed, the well was so popular that a clause had to be inserted in an Act of Parliament in George II‟s reign to secure access in perpetuity. The well was fashionable throughout the 18th Century and remained in good conditions until 1790.

Subscription in 1808 was raised for arching over the well, and erecting a pump to aid any invalid who wished to drink. This was finally demolished in 1840, and a farmhouse erected near the site. Even in 1867, however, funding came from a local boy’s school for its repairs. Finally, in 1907 the water was declared unfit for drinking and consequently the well fell into obscurity.

Indeed it was not until 1922, when during excavation for a housing site, that the well-chamber was found to be in perfect condition and described as typical example of 17th Century architecture. A report in 1922 reported :

“ This is a slightly ferruginous, highly saline and alum water, containing an excess of organic matter and a large number of ordinary bacteria. Doubtless this is due to the disturbance of local conditions when opening up the well, as the sample contained fragments of grass and straw, etc. There is no evidence of direct sewage contamination, Streptococci being absent and B. Coli Communis not being present in less than IOO cubic centimetres. It is, therefore, unsuitable for ordinary domestic use.”

Of the building by the Barnet U.D.C. that they should restore the Well to its former position as one of the attractions of Barnet, and the following year they opened the well and found:

 “ an underground chamber and a flight of stone steps leading thereto. The Well Chamber is perfect and undisturbed, preserved by the earth that had covered it up. It has brick-built walls, floor and barrel-shaped roof alike. The bricks are small, red, hand-pounded and burnt. The room would hold about 20 persons. Two sumps, stone-lined, are sunk a foot or so in the floor for convenience in dipping out the water, and into them the spring is led by channels and pipes penetrating the surrounding ground.”

As the structure was in such a good condition, plans were made to preserve it, and a Neo-Tudor black and white well-house was built with a red-tiled pyramidal roof over it. This cost £500 and was completed by 1937.

Copywright christine matthews

Unfortunately, by 1960 it was again in poor condition, and plans were made for its disposal. Fortunately, the hue and cry made by local conservationists saved it, and it was given a facelift. Today, it is surrounded by suburbia, being in the centre of a housing estate. Sadly, it is a little worse for vandalism, and one is unable to test the waters, as it is now padlocked. A peer through the door will show an octagonal well and its glimmering water source. The surrounding green is boggy underfoot, and one can only suggest that this is the spring arising around the area. This site is surely in need of greater protection and care and should be a candidate for Civic Trust openings. I don’t seeing it lasting long without some better protection.