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The construction of the Peak District well dressings is an ancient and beautiful folk-art

The Peak District covers much of Derbyshire and parts of Staffordshire, Cheshire and Yorkshire. There are many interesting features, such as wild flowers, well dressing, lead mining etc

Well Dressing Art

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
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
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
Erecting the well dressing
Tideswell 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.

Soaking the well dressing board
0 - Soaking the well dressing board
Softening up the clay
1 - Softening up the clay
Puddling the clay
2 - Puddling the clay
Putting the clay onto the board
3 - Putting the clay onto the board
Smoothing out the clay
4 - Smoothing out the clay
Petalling the design
5 - Petalling the design
Petalling the design
6 - Petalling the design
Petalling the design
7 - Petalling the design
Petalling the design
8 - Petalling the design
Teamwork - petalling the design
9 - Teamwork - petalling the design
Lifting the heavy main board into position
10 - Lifting the heavy main board into position
Securing the main board
11 - Securing the main board
Attaching the surrounding sections
12 - Attaching the surrounding sections
The well dressing erection team
13 - The well dressing erection team
The completed well dressing
14 - The completed well dressing