Posts Tagged ‘English customs’

The 2015 Well Dressing season is underway!

My local town has SIX exhibits this year. The themes are what may be expected for watchers of current British cultural interests. But with one spectacular exception!
The themes have been commemorations of Victory in Europe Day (VE Day): 70 years. Magna Carta: 800 years. The Battle of Waterloo: 200 years. I will come to the exception later – none of you will guess what it is!

There are many and conflicting theories about the origin of Well Dressing.

The most touching I heard was that it was a kind of blessing and thanks for God’s mercy for sparing villages from the plague. Once villagers’ showed symptoms, it was said, the whole village took it upon themselves to isolate themselves from surrounding villages to not to spread the contagion further. Any food or necessities were left at the village boundary and no contact whatsoever was to take place. It is recorded that every member of some families died; even the village the priest died. No one was there to bury the dead. Terrible times. The few who remained afterwards blessed the well – maybe thought to be the one fount of clean water.

Was it a blessing to the local naiad; then Christianised and dedicated to a Saint connected with the local parish church? Or was it indeed a later attempt to introduce local colour and custom? It is  also claimed the Tissington well in Derbyshire was the first to bless its well, after a 14th Century plague.

Wikipedia has it the ceremony was started in the Nineteenth Century, at the instigation of local wealthy landowners

The ceremony takes place now throughout Derbyshire as well places in Staffordshire, Cheshire, South Yorkshire, Shropshire. There has even been a ceremony in Kent. (Reprinted from last year’s blog)

The exhibits:
The weather was holding out well; hot sun, dry;summer clothes, and good spirits. A crowd had gathered, the local  vicar was in attendance, and then the town major came forward to open the Well Dressing. She spoke of the origins on Well Dressing in the fourteenth century plague years, commenting wryly on how long it had taken this town to catch on to the practice. The northern English and small, mostly rural, town inhabitants appreciate the wry tone, the understatements that carry a stubborn pride in place, but that is not blind to the shortcomings either.

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The full display had to wait until the crowd dispersed:

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The two small side panels mention the local nursing home: Mount Hall (nearly adjacent) and the other side the tenth anniversary of well-dressing in the town.
I was interested in the craft of the display, so have tried to show how finely the flower petals are set in their wet clay base, and carefully arranged for effect:
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The hair of the soldier is constructed from coffee beans! The helmet and conflagration background are tight dried flower heads. Other effects are produced by using course sand.
The Opening Ceremony was followed by a year-nine children’s dance piece to ‘Blue Suede Shoes. Four rows of alternating boys and girls, and dressed like members of the film Grease. Why? See the next exhibit:
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This is an expressionist display commemorating eighty years of Elvis Presley. Yup, he would have been eighty this year!
The display was made by St Gregory’s School.

The town is a linear settlement. These first two exhibits are for one end of the town. A mile and more down the road into the hills we come to the other displays:
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A particularly fine exhibit commemorating eight hundred years of Magna Carta.
Its uses as a legal document have been notoriously varied. The first copy’s effectiveness was greatly diluted by the time the standard version was issued. It started as means of barons limiting a king’s power, and became in the standard issue a means of binding the barons to the following king. It has been used to support slavery, as well as to denounce it. A charter for all seasons? The question remains, however: where would we have been by now without it?

And then in the Memorial Gardens:
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The side designs  are of the colours of the various regiments of local men. The old willow tree behind still has Commemorative poppies twined in its foliage,
I find it strange how the overseas and commonwealth serving people still do not receive the recognition they deserved.

We now come to a large and well-executed exhibit:.
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This is a particularly fine display. You cannot tell the size from the photo but the two panels together must be over six feet in length. And you actually see the well that it is set above.
It is interesting to note how Wellington is shown fully, for all his obstreperousness, and Napoleon Bonaparte only shown from the back.

I have recently had the honour of meeting a man, getting on in years now, who was reduced to sleeping rough in this area. He knew this well and praised it for its ‘sweet water’. Thankfully now he has accommodation.
I had written above of the local people; they admire resilience, and also enterprise – of a certain kind, and up to a point. Anything beyond those limits easily tips over into vehement dislike.
What they don’t value are people who do not or cannot live up to this. People like this man. It is fear at the back of it, the ages old rural fear of poverty. To be poor in the countryside is to be really very poor. Rural poverty has the characteristics of the plague, in that is viewed with the same fear, and presumed as virulent and easy to catch from association. It is perhaps fitting that he knew and used this well that here partly commemorates the plague years.
The homeless carry around with them their loss: to lose one’s home leaves a major psychological gulf, it is though one loses part of oneself. It is very difficult to recover from it. And so this man wanders around the main town; he can often be seen feeding the pigeons. It is as though they are his only companions. We speak and spend time with him, but I doubt we can ever know him now. It is as though something has been lost in him.

The last exhibit:

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Ok, I had two goes at catching this one: a three-panel piece – but the light was beyond my camera to do anything about. Shows what a glorious day it was, though!
This was the last exhibit, at the far end of the town. Another Magna Carta theme, and you can see how the far left panel has wanted to catch a medieval-illustration effect. The right panel is based on an imaginative Runnymede setting.

This last exhibit was surrounded by seats, a stall selling cakes, and a stall providing tea and coffee. All for the weary traveller following the Well-Dressing route.There was a special leaflet with the route (see link below), provided free at the Opening Ceremony.

Further information and links: http://www.bollingtonwelldressing.co.uk/

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There are many and conflicting theories about the origin of Well Dressing.

The most touching I heard was that it was a kind of blessing and thanks for God’s mercy for sparing villages from the plague. Once villagers’ showed symptoms, it was said, the whole village took it upon themselves to isolate themselves from surrounding villages to not to spread the contagion further. Any food or necessities were left at the village boundary and no contact whatsoever was to take place. It is recorded that every member of some families died; even the village the priest died. No one was there to bury the dead. Terrible times. The few who remained afterwards blessed the well – maybe thought to be the one fount of clean water.

Was it a blessing to the local naiad; then Christianised and dedicated to a Saint connected with the local parish church? Or was it indeed a later attempt to introduce local colour and custom? It is  also claimed the Tissington well in Derbyshire was the first to bless its well, after a 14th Century plague.

Wikipedia has it the ceremony was started in the Nineteenth Century, at the instigation of local wealthy landowners

The ceremony takes place now throughout Derbyshire as well places in Staffordshire, Cheshire, South Yorkshire, Shropshire. There has even been a ceremony in Kent.

The practice is the same in each location:

a large wooden frame is constructed and plastered with wet clay. This has to be kept very wet, and dunking in a local river or stream becomes part of the ceremony. The design for the year is then traced onto the clay and filled out with flower petals. Originally these must have been the plentiful local field flowers. Modern farming methods have all-but eradicated those, so presumably garden flowers are used, supplemented no doubt by Garden Centre hybrids and exotics.

The design of the board shape need not be standard, either. There have been boards with staggered recesses giving a sense of moving into or through a local scene. There have been triptychs, and boards shaped like Romanesque church vaults. Most Dressings now commemorate some local view, activity, religious date, or event.

Not all Dressings commemorate such serious events. In 2012 the town of Bollington in Cheshire produced this board:

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It shows media personality and astronomer Professor Brian Cox, before the Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope.

The Dressing is then installed, usually covering the local water source. This installation ceremony may be accompanied with Morris Dancing, or ceilidh music, religious readings, to the theme of the Dressing.

The ceremonies take place between May and September in various places; sometimes more than one in a village. The Dressing is kept in place for a week or two, depending on the atmospheric humidity and the dry-out rate of the clay.

2014 Bollington, Cheshire, Well Dressing commemorates the local brass band. The two half side panels show a player performing, the central board a variety of brass instruments in lovely gold petals; and the bottom board the commemorative plaque in petals.

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There are two smaller off side panels in white. Those are local doctors John and Jean Coope. They helped set up many cultural events for the local community. John Coope received the MBE medal for his activities; Dr Jean Coope did wonderful work, and also deserved much recognition for her work in the areas of women’s health.

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http://www.bollingtonwelldressing.co.uk/