Imagine if you could collect all the best bits from nature – the bright colours, the fresh smells, the calm serenity – and put it all together on a board to symbolise something much bigger. Well, that’s exactly what they do in Derbyshire in the UK. Every year.
“Welldressings” have been going on for a couple of centuries in the Peak District of England. The idea originates from people celebrating water coming from the well and paying their respects in colourful displays.
Nowadays, it’s a week-long event where (almost) the whole village comes together to create different boards each showcasing a different design. I was lucky enough to take part in creating the one pictured below (June 18-23 2018). Here's a bit about how it works!
The boards are covered in clay down by the river, where they’ve been soaking for about a week. They are smoothed over… and it’s not unusual to see people walking through the village covered in grey muck at this time. The boards are laid horizontally on stands overnight. Five big boards are to be worked on separately and bolted together at the end of the week to form one massive design. So each welldressing group has multiple boards to work on.
The design has been scaled up to real size and cut into each board. This paper plan is laid onto the slightly wet clay, and all bubbles squeezed out. It’s then time to ‘dart’ the design into the clay. By piercing tiny holes into the paper and down through the clay along the drawn lines, we mark the outline for the next step, which is…
We then use scissors and darts to carefully ‘wool’ the boards; basically laying a string of wool over the top of the dotted lines and pressing it delicately into the clay. Different colour wool is used for each part, and some writing is done.
After all the outlines are done, it’s time to start filling in the design with parts of nature that aren’t so perishable, such as black-knobs and grasses. In between each day, newspaper is laid over top of the boards and sprayed with water to keep the materials from drying out.
The petal-ling happens later in the week as the flowers must be as fresh as possible for the display on Saturday. On Thursday we begin to skilfully press the petals on in a random but arranged order. We start from the bottom of each board and layer upwards to create a tiled roof affect, the idea being that any rain will run down all the petals and just fall off at the bottom. This is the hardest part, for sure! Each flower has a different texture and tiny petals are very fiddly! There is nothing else to secure them to the board but the wet clay.
At the end of the week, the bottles of fizz are cracked and sometimes this can be quite late into the night! This year, the finishing buttercups were laid around 8pm and from there we celebrated accordingly and stood the boards up against the wall to admire them. [Of course we went to the local pub, had far too much fun, and went to bed as the sun came up…].
Assembling & Hanging
This happens at 6am on Saturday morning (after about 2 hours sleep – not necessarily in the itinerary but worth mentioning – luckily we were only required for moral support and tea drinking at this hour). The 5 boards are loaded on to a truck, driven through the village and bolted together in place in the frame on the Well. This is a photo of the hanging-and-bolting process... not easy work!
At 2:30pm all the boards are up throughout the village and there is a parade through town as each welldressing is admired and blessed. We get to see the other designs and realise it’s truly incredible how these can be created in just 4 days. Someone worked out that if one person worked full time 9-5 on one board, it would be a year’s work.
Each board represents a message, chosen carefully by the designer. One of my favourite ones was this one. No caption is needed but I encourage you to look at the detail in this until you feel you have understood everything it is trying to convey! Can you spot the Sainsbury's plastic bag in the turtle's mouth?
If you want to find out more about the Derbyshire Welldressings and how you can get involved, get in touch. If you’re in need of a detox, there’s nothing more therapeutic than spending your days collecting nature, dissecting it, and re-assembling it onto a board with absolute care and the precision of a surgeon… all to be part of the community and long-standing tradition.
…Especially if in the same week you get up to watch the sunrise on the longest day of the year for Summer Solstice.