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.
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.
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.