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..