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Every year throughout summer many villages in Derbyshire and Staffordshire decorate their wells and water sources—a custom known as well dressing. Villagers take large wooden boards, coat them in clay and press flower petals, twigs, seeds and other natural objects to create scenes from the Bible or fairy tales. These boards are then used to adorn local wells and springs.

While the true origins of well dressing have been lost in time, it likely began as a pagan custom of offering thanks to gods for a reliable water supply. In mediaeval England, lack of hygiene lead to frequent outbreaks of diseases like plague and cholera which claimed dozens of lives in every village whenever the epidemic struck. During the Black Death of 1348-1349, when approximately one third of the population of England died, some Derbyshire villages escaped untouched. One theory is that the local people who had been spared felt their water supply was the cause of their good fortune, and began decorating their village wells as an act of gratitude. Another theory is that during a prolonged drought in 1615, a village well was the only source of water, and thus began the tradition.


Photo credit: Simon Harrod/Flickr (left), SteveR/Flickr (right)

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