Wednesday, September 28, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Summer of wells, flowers and parades returns to England after pandemic

In a village called Hope in the East Midlands of England, an age-old regional tradition to worship water by decorating wells and springs with flowers has been revived as the world enjoys a summer with the coronavirus pandemic on the wane.

HOPE, England (CN) — Flower petal by delicate flower petal, the villagers in this Derbyshire hamlet quietly labored to bring a floral phoenix into life from out of a bed of clay and revive an ancient tradition.

Petal by petal, their tedious work also helped close the lid on the coronavirus pandemic here, the specter that made Hope, a stone village along the River Noe in the Peak District, even more remote than usual.

This summer, the towns and villages here are once again celebrating their mysterious and unique practice of water worshiping with flower decorations: A tradition known as “well dressing.”

Well dressing is a custom with pagan roots and thought to be unique to this part of the East Midlands. Every summer, wells and springs are adorned with pictures made from living plants and flowers.

The tradition sputtered out as the pandemic ran rampant across Europe, bringing the curtain down on so many public events: Oktoberfest in Bavaria, Easter processions in Italy, bull fights in Spain, arts festivals in France.

At long last, in Hope as in the rest of Europe, the gloom of the pandemic has slowly been lifted this summer.

A procession with village children dressed as royalty, religious ministers, a marching band and hymn singers goes through Hope, England, to kick off a week of festivities in June 2022. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News)

Inside Hope's community hall, the sound of church bells sallied through open doors leading to where a handful of villagers sat inclined over their flower petal work, speaking in murmurs. The room was bathed in a peach glow from a mellow sun.

On the surface, it was a calm scene on a late Thursday afternoon at the end of June. But the clock was ticking: Tradition says their giant flower creations – made by delicately pressing flowers and other natural things into beds of clay contained inside large wooden frames – needed to be in place on the lanes of Hope by Friday evening.

“When it gets to about 6 o'clock tonight it will suddenly bubble over,” said Alannah Greenan, a 24-year-old library assistant who was born into a family of dedicated well dressers.

Promptly, her childhood friend sitting next to her, Heather Coyle, looked to see what time it was. “It's gone 6 o'clock! Oh, my god!” Coyle exclaimed and chuckled.

“Ah!” Greenan replied. “You see, now I'm panicking!”

“Tomorrow it will be an absolute mad house,” Coyle said in anticipation of the rush of villagers hurrying to finish the village's elaborate floral panels.

Heather Coyle, left, and her friend Alannah Greenan work on putting petals in clay to create a picture of a phoenix for a well dressing in Hope, England, in June 2022. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News)

For centuries, people have carried on what historians believe was a Celtic ritual to offer sacrifices to water gods by adorning springs and wells with flower garlands during the summertime in the belief that the offerings ensured their water sources would not run dry.

“In the summer all the water disappears because it's mainly limestone here,” said Peter Mummery, a longtime well dresser in Hope. “So, they used to put flowers and things up. And then in the winter, all the water comes back in: So, they think, 'Oh, that must be the right thing to do!'”

“I think that's where its origins are,” he mused, his eyes smiling. “Whether it's true or not, I don't know! But it's quite a good thing, actually.”

The tradition has survived despite the advent of modern water systems that have made wells and springs obsolete. In the past century, well dressings have become ever more intricate and now serve as the catalyst for a week of summer festivities that include marching bands, fairs, parades, scarecrow competitions, carnival days, running races and feasts.

These creations are first etched into clay beds and then filled with natural things. Chrysanthemums, gerbera daisies, hydrangeas, lavender and shrub leaves are among the favorites.

Over the decades, people in Derbyshire have produced fabulously intricate and beautiful well dressings with scenes of Jesus, episodes from the Bible, figures from Chinese astrology, local landscapes and much more.

ADVERTISEMENT

In Hope, villagers erect their well dressings outside the Methodist church – not far from where there was once a well and a coach house and stables – and at a spot on a lane where there's still a well, though it was covered up long ago. The village's two schools also produce their own well dressings.

After the disruption of the pandemic, the villagers said they were keenly aware of how important it was to keep the tradition alive.

“We've grown up with it and I feel that there's not that many people our age who still do it,” Coyle said. “But I love it. I find it really mindful to come and stick petals into clay!”

“I mean, if we haven't moved on from sticking petals into clay in the past 300 years, I feel like it's here to stay,” Greenan surmised.

Not knowing how many people would turn up to help after two years in which the pandemic killed off festivities, the well dressers said they chose to make relatively simple pictures this year.

“We knew that we would not have very many people,” Greenan said, plucking a big orange petal from a gerbera. “A lot less petaling than usual in this one.”

Darkness had fallen on Friday evening by the time the villagers triumphantly installed their well dressings outside St. Peter's Church and at the spot on Edale Road where the old well is located.

A band of men rounded up from the nearby pub were in charge of the installation. With the help of a forklift, they got to work.

“Keep moving it! Move it out,” a man shouted over the sound of the rumbling forklift engine outside the church. This flower panel depicted the golden calf from the Bible.

Men in the village of Hope, England, install a large flower well dressing panel in front of St. Peter's Church in June, 2022. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News)

“Drop it down!”

The gaggle of villagers who'd spent so many hours pushing petals into clay looked on with pride in their work.

“This is how it ends up when it's a hard week,” said Vicky Greenan, raising a glass of sparkling wine to her lips. She designed the phoenix that her daughter Alannah worked on.

Harriet Mummery, Peter's wife, stood nearby, clearly relieved their work was a success.

She watched the men put the heavy panels in place and said: “We mustered them and got them out of the pub.”

“They kept going back to the pub when they realized we weren't ready yet; and then they'd come and have another look and then go back to the pub again," she said. "They gradually got more and more wobbly. Now, they're quite blasé about the whole thing.”

Amused, she winced and said: “It's just worrying when you see them putting their knees in the clay!”

A well dressing showing a phoenix rising out of the ashes is displayed on Edale Road in Hope, England, in June 2022. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News)

Standing upright in the village roads, the flower pictures were magnificent to behold the following day in the light of day.

Hope's week of summer festivity officially kicked off on Sunday evening with a procession where the village's vicar and priests walked to each well – accompanied by the music band and a court of children dressed as royalty – and gave their blessings.

Hymns and church bells filled the summer air.

Over the next week, nature played its part too.

A day of gusts pulled a few petals off the well dressings; a spot of rain tugged at a few other petals; a sunny spell dried things out, a few pencil-thin cracks appeared in the clay.

Life was back to normal in Hope.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

A well dressing in Tideswell, England, in June 2022. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News)

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...