Every year from May to September some 35,000 visitors travel to the Peak District and Derbyshire in order to see the well dressings displayed in over 80 villages and towns. It is sometimes incorrectly believed that well dressings are unique to this area. Although this is not the case and they also form part of the tradition of other UK regions (and even other countries), it is certainly correct that well dressing is most closely associated with the Peak District. Buxton is host to an annual Wells Dressing Festival established in 1840 and three wells are dressed in the town every year. Market Place Well and St. Ann's Well in The Crescent are dressed by volunteers and the Children's Well in Spring Gardens is dressed by pupils from Buxton Community School with teams spending as many as 300 hours on just one creation.
So what is the attraction? Nowadays we are surrounded by so much which is artificial and mass-produced. In contrast the uniquely detailed mosaic pictures of well dressing are made using only natural materials. Displayed outdoors, the well dressings only last for little over a week (depending on the weather) but this brief existence somehow adds to their beauty.
The origins of dressing wells (or springs) are uncertain. The custom is thought to have its roots in pagan offerings to water gods. The Celts revered certain rocks, trees and water and obviously water is essential to life. Particular wells or springs were thought to have healing powers and, throughout early Christian times, offerings continued to be made to them. Over the years the Church tried to outlaw the practice but it seemed to survive nevertheless. Nowadays, as part of the annual well dressing festivals, the wells are blessed by local clergy.
In 1863 Buxton Station was opened by the London and North Western railway line. A few days after the opening between 20,000 and 30,000 people arrived by train to view that year's well dressings. The popularity of this unusual art may have reached its zenith at that point but the town is ensuring that the tradition does not die out. In 2012 the Buxton Wells Dressing festival took place from 5th to 16th July and included the opportunity to see the dressings being created, the festival fair, the crowning of the Festival Queen and Rosebud, a car treasure hunt, a pet show and carnival day itself.
Dressing of the Wells 4th-6th July, Blessing of the Wells 7th July
NEW FOR 2013: Well dressing tours on the 'Wonder of the Peak' tram. Ideal for those with mobility issues. Pre-booking essential. Contact Netta on +44 (0)1298 79648
Secretary: +44 (0) 1298 71352 (Mr C Simpson)
Senior Well Dresser: +44 (0) 1298 24201 (Mrs A Gould)