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Symbols - What does heaven look like

Well dressing

Well dressing is a summer/late spring custom practised in the Peak District of Derbyshire and Staffordshire in which wells, springs or other water sources are decorated with designs created from flower petals, beans, buttons beads etc all pressed onto wet clay.  So we have the following symbolism all combined into one:

A source of enlightenment, a portal to the spiritual world.  The pictures, before they became religious, were used to preserve the old knowledge - like a picture book of symbolism - in effect they could be used for teaching old truths in a way unlikely to arouse too much suspicion amongst the clergy hostile to old beliefs.  And some of the springs contained sulphur and sulphur is healing, thus by taking the waters people could be healed too.  Warts can be cured with sulphur indicating there is an anti-viral action - a useful attribute at the best of times.

The origins of the tradition are ‘pagan’ which immediately is an indicator that the people were both ‘marking’ the wells as being special and giving thanks for the existence of the well.

If you read the explanatory literature about well dressing, historians come up with some barmy theories.  They say it is to give thanks for the existence of the spring – which is hilarious as the Pennines is awash with springs; for the purity of the water – all the spring water round here is pure; and for religious reasons.  Religion certainly took over the ceremony. 

Christian leaders have been very clever at superimposing Christian meanings to old rituals, so that we now have Christmas, Christmas trees, Easter eggs, crosses, and so on – all of which had earlier spiritual significance.  But no, the wells were nothing to do with Christianity.

Rhodes - Peak Scenery.

An ancient custom still prevails in the village of Tissington, to which indeed it appears to be confined, for I have not met with any thing of a similar description in any other part of Derbyshire. It is denominated well-flowering, and Holy Thursday is devoted to the rites and ceremonies of this elegant custom. The day is regarded as a festival; and all the wells in the place, five in number, are decorated with wreaths and garlands of newly-gathered flowers, disposed in various devices. Sometimes boards are used, which are cut to the figure intended to be represented, and covered with moist clay into which the stems of the flowers are inserted to preserve their freshness; and they are so arranged to form a beautiful mosaic work, often tasteful in design, and vivid in colouring; the boards thus adorned are placed in the spring, that the water appears to issue from among the beds of flowers. On this occasion the villagers put on their best attire and open their houses to their friends. There is a service at the church, where a sermon is preached: afterwards a procession takes place, and the wells are visited in succession: the psalms for the day, the epistle and gospel are read, one at each well, and the whole concludes with a hymn which is sung by the church singers, and accompanied by a band of music. This done they separate, and the remainder of the day is spent in rural sports and pastimes.

By the 19th century, well dressing had declined terribly, it was celebrated in only one or two villages in Derbyshire by then.  But it started to be reintroduced in the latter half of the  19th century, in places like  Youlgreave, to celebrate the supplying of water to the village "from a hill at some distance, by means of pipes laid under the stream of an intervening valley ". 

Now this has importance, for although any ancient well dressing cereremony with very obvious pagan origins may be a good marker for a ‘healing’ well suited to spiritual experience,  many of the so called well dressing dressing ceremonies are newer and do not mark wells of any use in our context symbolically or spiritually.

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