Today the 21st of May is Ascension Day, a key date in the Christian calendar. Prior to it being adopted by the Church it was an important date and event in the Pagan year. Today would also mark the start of the Derbyshire Well Dressing Season.
The Pagan belief was in the need to ‘Bless’ the life giving purity of the waters from these natural springs and wells in the villages. A need for purity that may ring rather true today.
Tissington village would in a normal year be packed with people, both for the Blessing of the Village Wells by Church Leaders. Then a Procession round to each Well.
It is quite a spectacular. Sadly in these trouble times this cannot happen. So I have cheated and adding two links to todays page. They recap visits in earlier happy times. Take a look at this rather unique event.
I hope you find the tradition interesting 🙂
Please Remember ….
Stay Safe …. Be Kind…. Look After Each Other
(C) David Oakes 2020
Tissington Well Dressings
It is that time of the year when some very talented folk create some great works of art with which to ‘Dress’ the village Wells.
It has long been the tradition in the Derbyshire village of Tissington, that for Ascension Day the village Wells are ‘Dressed’ with floral decorations and on Ascension day itself a Church service is held in St. Mary’s Church. Following the Service the Congregation then proceed to visit each Well in turn and Bless them to ensure both purity and continuity of the water.
It is a tradition, rooted in a Pagan custom, later adopted by the Christian Church. It was given added importance following the Black Death 0f 1348. It should also be mentioned that Tissington like so many of the Derbyshire villages is built upon Limestone. Limestone being porous allows water to ‘vanish’ below the surface…. so any location that had a natural spring soon became a well and its waters protected.
Well Dressing has become a skilled and creative artform. Each well has its own display boards, boards that have been used for many many years. The boards are covered in local clay onto which the design is etched in outline. Then petals, leaves and other natural materials are ‘pricked’ into the clay, each overlapping the other like tiles on a roof. As for the Design, well obviously there is a religious story but also a different theme is chosen each year. This year it is Nursery Rhymes and Children’s stories.
Hall Well and the Children’s Well
Yew Tree Well
(celebrating 50 years since Woodstock)
So named not for its shape, but a place on the ‘Coffin route’ when folk had to carry their dead to Church for burial, a journey over fields, dales and some times long distances. It is here that the Coffin was laid on a flat stone whilst the mourners rested prior to entering the Church.
Saint Mary’s Church, Tissington
Standing on a hill in the centre of the village, the Norman church of St. Marys still casts a watchful eye over its village. Tissington remains a small village and is part of the wider Tissington Estate that has been in the ownership of the FitzHerbert family since the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1. Little has changed, cottage and farms, gardens and meadows, a couple of shops and of course a Tea Room…. all overlooked both by St. Marys and Tissington Hall.
For 7 days the village is packed with visitors, then the boards are stripped, cleaned and safely stored till next year….but the thinking of what designs to use will start at once.
(C) David Oakes 2019
Hands Well, Tissington, Derbyshire
In the Derbyshire village of Tissington the custom of Well Dressing continues with much vigour, its a village effort that continues a tradition that is reckoned to have its roots in Pagan times, its importance brought into close focus at the time of the Black Death and the need for ‘pure water’, it was a custom adopted by the Christian Faiths and continued each year since on Assentation Day.
Well Dressing put simply is the Blessing of the sources of pure water in the village at its six Wells.
Each year a different theme is chosen for the illustrations on the various decorated displays at each Well. This year twin themes to mark the End of World War 1 in 1918 and also 100 years of the Votes for Women. The displays are created by pricking petals and mosses in to a clay board…the clay has been soaked in the village pond for over a week and watered regularly so this creative display will last at least a week. So here is just a flavour of the various creations produced this year….
Tucked away behind the Church in a cottage garden is one Well always sought after by visitors…..Perhaps it is the fact that it is known as the Coffin Well. It is suggested that it is here those that carried the coffins to the Church for burial, often after tramping across miles countryside, paused refreshed and composed themselves for the last short distance to the Church…
The Coffin Well, Tissington
As to the Village of Tissington itself… I did describe it as a Quintessential English Village and it is just that…a village that has remained much the same for centuries as new building (apart from farm out buildings) is not permitted and as I understand it the cottages are passed from Local Family to Family.
Like all old English Villages it is centred round both the Church (Saint Mary’s) and the Manor House, Tissington Hall the home of the Fitzherbert Family since the reign of Elizabeth I. Surrounding those two key village elements are a mix of Farms, Fields and Cottages and even more recently a Methodist Chapel. Perhaps the only logic for the location of these buildings round the village are the locations of the Wells. Its does illustrate the inter-mix of all that was essential for a village community… the spirit of which continues today….
Tissington Hall and The Village
Well Dressing Services and Events will occur across the summer and autumn in various Derbyshire Villages.
(C) David Oakes 2018
In Derbyshire and no doubt in many villages, the Parish Church is located on high ground above the village. Many of the relatively newer churches were built on such sites as a sign to others that the village was of some note. Often the churches were ornately constructed to further illustrate the wealth of the community…even constructing bigger church towers and spires to emphasis the point.
But much older churches are built on sites that afforded clear views of the surrounding countryside as a means of early defence. Of course many such sites were also places were religious ceremonies and worship had taken place for centuries before a church was constructed.
One such church is that overlooking the village of Tissington.
Saint Marys is a Norman construction. Built in the early 12th century on a site that is believed to have been a place of Celtic and Saxon worship. Not the most pretty of buildings, however the construction is solid from local local stone. There are few windows, all are small and located high above the ground, that and its stout tower indicates that perhaps the church had to also provide a defensive role….a place of safety.
The few windows also make the main nave very dark and one can imagine that by candle light it was far from a welcoming building…..
The darkness of the interior was much enhanced when a sanctuary was added in which the alter is located together with large stained glass windows. A refreshing burst of much needed light….
I did suggest that Saint Mary’s was not the most pretty of buildings, indeed its squat tower and solid walls are rather stark. But it is that location on the hill, surrounded by trees that gives Tissington Church its very individual beauty.
In addition to standing guard over the village, Saint Mary’s is also located above the main village Well.
This is Hall Well and one of several wells arround the village. The bounty of these wells is celebrated each year on Ascension Day with a service in the Church followed by a procession to each well in turn to Bless them. To add to the occasion each well is ‘Dressed’ with floral tributes depicting religious texts. The ceremony is known as ‘Well Dressing’. Click on this link and it will take you to a blog of one such event in the neighbouring village of Youlgrave.
© David Oakes 2013