River Rother Well Dressing

What is well dressing?

Well dressing is an ancient calendar custom in Derbyshire, first documented in Chesterfield in 1864 when the town decorated the market place water pump during a very dry summer. However, it’s thought the custom of dressing wells began long before this with, some historians suggesting Roman and Pagan origins before it’s use in Christian churches. Like many of the UK’s calendar customs, the tradition over time died out, but was revived in Chesterfield in 1991 and has continued ever since.

The dressings are created on wooden boards which are soaked for several days in water. Traditionally local village ponds and even rivers were used to soak the boards, which once soaked were pulled out to be coated in clay. Once the clay is smoothed the design can be applied and is outlined onto the clay. We used peppercorns for our outline, but traditionally locals would have foraged alder cones from riverside trees. The shapes are then carefully filled with layers of natural materials such as petals, eggs shells, seeds and leaves. Decorating the well dressing feels wonderfully eco-friendly, with materials sustainably foraged from gardens and wild spaces.

The beautiful creations are ephemeral in nature, often only lasting a week or two before the clay dries and cracks & the petals wilt and discolour.

The River Rother Well Dressing

A result of restrictions in events and social distancing, the Hidden Heritage Secret Streams team sent out mini-well dressing kits to twelve families, or bubbles, in Chesterfield & Sheffield.

With just a week to design and create their masterpieces we were so impressed with the beautiful dressings returned! Why not flick through our gallery to admire the detail of each one.

Together the individual well dressings show a colourful picture of a leaping Atlantic Salmon, to celebrate the salmon found in the River Rother earlier this year and the ecological recovery of the river, once considered the most polluted in Europe.

A huge thank you to all the people and families who got involved, Geoff Bell from Men in Sheds for creating the wooden boards and frame, and to Tapton Lock Activity Centre for hosting the display. Funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund as part of the Hidden Heritage Secret Streams project.