‘Well done. The kids will be delighted’, she said as she turned to face us, trowel poised mid-air, ‘We were a bit short-handed this year, we didn’t have time to put out the explanations.’ It was the music notes that gave it away – although, I admit, not to me, but to Jim. Those, and the big fat moustache. The trowel plunged downwards again and scoopfuls of clay were plopped into a bucket; Elgar crumpled before our eyes. She paused again, a thought obviously occuring. ‘Have you seen the others? Luckily we had, because two of them were already in her bucket.
She was talking about the Queen, Newton, Wren, Stephenson, Darwin and Victoria. Famous bank-note faces and the subjects of Chapel-en-le-Frith’s well-dressing festival; an age-old summer custom, in which village decorate wells, springs, or other water sources with designs created from natural materials.
‘We’ve had lots of children involved this year. The learning-support kids made Elgar – it’s the first time they’ve done one’. They were glorious, natural-material masterpieces. Elgar was wearing a brown fern frock coat, two miniature pine cones adding a certain je ne sais quoi to his lapels. His egg-shell face looked out over a stand-up collar fashioned out of weeny individual white petals, and his seedy eyebrows were raised quizically, as if to say ‘Of course I’m Elgar’.
‘It’s brilliant isn’t it’, the lady continued, stepping away from her demolition work and warming to her subject. ‘I just left them to get on with it, told them I’d help if they needed it – but they didn’t. The scouts made Stephenson. The primary-school kids made another. We set everything up in one place. The kids can interpret the theme as they want, they love it. Some come after school, and if they don’t want to help with the board, they can just mess about with clay. It’s all about community’.
In Pilsley, a village belonging to the Chatsworth estate, Raymond and his partner worked in their garage, huddled over the mammoth board that would be that year’s dressing. They’d begun the day before, checking and preparing the board, packing it with clay, ‘drawing’ the design and outlining it with wool. This was a large, ambitious dressing – a scene from the nearby tram museum at Crich. A row of bright orange marigolds stood to attention, drying, along the bottom frame of the inner board. A neighbour wandered in and out, with straw, berries, some string. ‘All the material comes from the village – just what we can find’, Raymond told me. ‘It’s hard to find colour and it’s harder still if it’s wet’. He scratched his head and looked bemused. His partner carried on, working with a cocktail stick, scissors, and petals. Painstaking.
‘Why do you do it?’ I asked. ‘They say that every now and again you should do something in life that scares you’, he laughed. ‘It can be a worry – we’ve got to get this finished by Thursday morning’. (They were one a half day’s in – precisely halfway). His partner looked up. ‘It’s nice to chat to people from the village. We might see each other across the green and nod hello, but here we talk about everything under the sun. There were about nine people here last night, and hopefully people will come back this evening. And it’s restful’, she added, almost as an afterthought.
I love that this tradition continues for so many reasons. That people take time out of busy schedules for it, that it brings communities together, commemorates history, and creates new stories for next generations. It’s about art, and people, and gratitude. And it’s all finished off with a fete – that most quintessential of English summer activities.
Between May and September around eighty villages in the Peak District celebrate well dressing. For a complete list, times of dedications, and ‘Wells in the Making’ see www.welldressing.com