Saturday, 9 June 2012

The Rotary Well

It began in my aunt and uncle's living room with a roughly drawn sketch and ended as a finished Well Dressing; on display near the centre of Wirksworth over the weekend of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. 

A Derbyshire tradition, Well Dressing stems from the desire to give thanks for the precious gift of water. The practice  is believed to have begun in Tissington and spread to neighbouring towns and villages around the county.  

Once the theme and design have been agreed, an artist outlines a full sized drawing in readiness for the pre-display period, when a team of people embark on a solid week of work preparing the Well for display.

First, the tray is made ready. In the case of the Rotary well, the tray has three sections; a triptych. Nails are hammered all over the surface, standing proud to a height of around 3/4". The tray is then covered with puddled clay until it is level with the top of the nails. Once the tray is prepared, the artist's drawing is laid over the clay and the outline is marked out by following the lines and pushing a sharp tool through the paper to create a kind of dot to dot pattern.  

The paper is removed, the outline is traced round with black wool and the 'colouring in' can begin.

Ideally, all of the materials used should be natural and the Rotary Well sticks rigidly to this tradition. My uncle did the work on the centrepiece. The path is made from individual curls of pine cones, hand plucked by my aunt. The layers of the sky include spices and, when I leaned in close enough, I could clearly scent their exotic aroma.

My aunt made the left panel showing the dove of peace. Many, many flower petals have been pushed into the clay. The process begins from the bottom of the picture, the petals being layered like the tiles on a roof to encourage rain water to run off the picture.

It is not necessary for the two sides of the triptych to mirror each other, but it does draw the eyes in towards the centre and give this design a pleasing wholeness.

And the symbol of the Rotary completes the Dressing.


  1. That's wonderful! I was never quite sure how the well dressings were made and you have described the intricacy of the process so well. What a lot of planning and hard work went into the final piece:)

  2. I remember the practice of well dressing from when we lived in Sheffield and used to travel in the Peak District often. Good to see such crafts and traditions being preserved.

  3. A friend sent me a book with photos of the many well-dressings around her town. I found it fascinating. Such a lot of work - and all cooperative.

  4. When we lived in Lichfield many years ago, we used to come to Tissington to see the well-dressing. Glad to hear that it is still going on. Now sure we need to give thanks for water this year though.

  5. Lovely.
    Where is the well ? under the dressing.
    Do this stay up all year till the new one is put in place or are they taken down after the week ?
    We in the desert are very thankful for any water. We are tracking the monsoons and hoping for some summer rains this year. But we really need the winter rains the most.
    Some of the new desert dweller and the younger generation seem not to care and are very wasteful of water.

    cheers, parsnip

  6. I love the well dressings. I first remember seeing them as a child on holiday in Derbyshire. I took Ian and his brother on a search for some a few years back when staying near Tissington. Such a lot of work and clever crafting, the natural materials making the colours and shades just perfect. We were pleased to see many still used bible texts in their designs too.

  7. An Excellent account of well-dressing. Very informative and well illustrated. Thanks!