A Well Dressing to Remember

On a blazing hot day on Thursday 12th June 2014, the annual blessing of the well dressing of Newholme hospital in Bakewell took place.  There was a good turnout of the hospital’s League of Friends, who raise funds for things that enhance quality of life for the patients, including TVs, newspapers, Christmas decorations, amongst other essential work. Past and current patients of the hospital, which specialises in rehabilitation for the elderly, and older people’s mental health services.

The finished well dressing, to commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War, was admired in the gardens of Stanton Day hospital, which is part of the Newholme Hospital. But where’s the well?

Occupational Therapist Paul Barras explained: “Stanton Day hospital was built on the site of the original well for Newholme Hospital, so if you’re wondering, it’s right here!”

Paul let a short service of thanks, with prayers and hymns. I read a poem I’d written, compiling thoughts and memories about well dressing from patients and staff. For the past year, I’ve been working as a with patients at the hospital, delivering creative writing and reminiscence workshops, in a collaboration between the NHS and Derbyshire County Council, and I felt very proud to be taking part in the well dressing ceremony.

Then we were treated to a short talk on the role Newholme Hospital played in the First World War, as a VAD hospital (Voluntary Aid Detachment), treating wounded soldiers throughout the war, especially those from the local regiment, the Sherwood Foresters. The Newholme Hospital has a long history, starting life in 1841 as the Bakewell Workhouse.

The plaque commemorating Newholme’s use as an auxiliary hospital says 1914-1919. Why 1919, when Armistice Day famously fell on the 11th November 1918? Paul explained: it’s because injured soldiers were still being treated at the hospitals well into 1919, and 40,000 British troops remained in active service due to the Russian Revolution, fighting against the Bolsheviks.

The most moving moment of the afternoon was thanks to hospital volunteer, Barry, who brought in a battered bugle, used by his grandad, who fought on the Western Front. A young NHS employee who plays the bugle in a military band volunteered to play the Last Post, which sounded very poignant. Barry explained that his grandad used to play the Last Post every Armistice Day in his local park.

Tomorrow will be my final creative writing session at Newholme Hospital until the autumn. We’re going to be looking at the poetry of World War One poet Wilfred Owen and we will be writing our own poems to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. We’ve been lucky enough to secure Arts Council funding for anthology of poems written at the hospital, so look out for it next month.

The Well dressing blessings

It’s a busy week at Newholme Hospital. Yesterday my writing workshops were based around the theme of well dressings – an ancient Derbyshire tradition carried out in many villages throughout Derbyshire.

Newholme Hospital has its own well dressing, with staff, patients and volunteers all working on it. So at Stanton Day Hospital, after we discussed the history of well dressings, we settled around the work in progress and added our own leaves and seeds to the design set in the clay.

If you have no idea what a well dressing is and how it’s made, it’s a picture made out of clay pressed into a wooden frame. Natural materials make the different colours and textures of the picture. Some well dressings can be very large and elaborate, with several for each village well: Tissington and Youlgreave are amongst the most famous places for well dressings. However, there are well dressings everywhere in the county, and even some in Sheffield, including my own urban “village” of Walkley, and you can find out when and where well dressings are held by clicking on this link.

Well dressings are always blessed by the local vicar, although a reverence for life-giving water is as old as the human race itself. The Romans erected temples over natural springs. And when the wells of Tissington kept running in the middle ages despite a drought, the villagers gave thanks to God and gave thanks with their well dressings.

Tomorrow there’s a ceremony to celebrate the well dressing at Newholme Hospital. The theme this year is the centenary of the start of World War One, and the role that Newholme played as an auxiliary hospital for wounded, shell-shocked soldiers. I’ll be reading this poem that I’ve written about well dressings, using the things that people at Newholme told me yesterday, and I’ll be telling people about the “Dales Tales” project.

The Welldressing Blessings

– by Anne Grange and the patients, staff, volunteers and visitors at Newholme Hospital in Bakewell as part of the Dales Tales project

Summer: time to thank sunshine and water:
Essentials of all earthly life
A thank you for the flowers; nature’s wonders;
Vivid colours that lift our souls.

Don’t take for granted these things we’re given:
When green comes back to our hills,
We add some of our own beauty.
Nature and art, lumps of clay and frail petals.

It starts with the clay: pond-hewn in Tissington.
Or dug from potteries. Denby clay for Belper.
Or preserved from year to year: plastic-bagged
Puddled by kids and grown men in tin baths.

Spiked wooden frames soaked for days in the river
Left out in the rain for God to water.
Heavy wet clay slapped in, inches deep,
Smoothed flat as a floor with a trowel.

Proud designers reveal their secret plans:
Biblical scenes or commemorations.
Traced onto paper and marked out
By needle dots and lines of wool in the clay.

Flower and leaf collecting begins:
Conifer cones, poppies, golden privet,
Grown to order, gathered in prized meadows
Or stolen from gardens in midnight raids!

The villagers gather: old and young together,
First timers and stalwarts in their usual places
Colouring by numbers in sprigs and seeds
The purists, the cheats and the innovators.

Hauled into position to garland the well;
Or give thanks for the reservoir and the tap.
Glowing natural colours blend and shade.
Tourists gather to admire revived tradition.

Holy water on a branch blesses the dressing,
Pints of ale are sunk, tall tales are told.
Prayers are given, Morris bells jingle
Staving off droughts, plagues; bless Derbyshire rain.

A week’s work for art that only lasts days
If God’s kind, it’ll rain, to keep clay soft.
But in the end it cracks; petals fade and wither
Only our photographs and memories linger.


Shakespeare and the Theatre!

On the 3rd June, I visited Newholme Hospital with a presentation about the life and times of Shakespeare to stimulate the patients’ memories and to hopefully get them to create some poetry.

At Stanton Day Hospital, we got into a discussion about the political intrigue of Shakespeare’s era (1564-1616), which was a turbulent time, with Queen Elizabeth I imprisoning her Catholic rival, Mary Stuart in various houses around the Peak District. In 1588, the Spanish Armada attempted to conquer England. Those times must have been dramatic and dangerous to live in, even in Derbyshire, with beacons lit on high places like Crich to warn of the invasion, and the persecution of Catholics like the Padley Martyrs.

Here’s a poem that I’ve written, using comments from patients, volunteers and staff at Stanton:

Dangerous times

Shakespeare wore an earring
He looks well-groomed
Long hair and earrings look quite modern

How many words do people use today?
Thousands and thousands
And Shakespeare gave us three thousand

He lived in dangerous times
The Spanish Armada fleet kept coming
But England kept its shores safe

Was Shakespeare a soldier
Listening to the Queen’s speech
The heart and stomach of a King?

Did he escape to the army
Fleeing his wife’s tongue,
The dull, small-town life

Making fame and fortune
Strutting the Globe’s stage
Bringing words to life

No carefree Merrie England
There were rival queens
Beheadings, Catholic martyrs

And Will trod precariously
High drama, deadly spies
Loyalty to the aging Queen

And returned to Stratford rich
His adventures paid off
Expecting a long retirement

But he died. Too much ale,
Or was it poison?
Did Will know too much?

A life full of mystery
Adventure and impish fun
Leaving his eternal stories and words.

To be played around the world
On stage and screen
Beamed into our homes.


Later that afternoon, on the Riverside Ward, which is a residential dementia ward, we ended up talking about music hall in Chesterfield! I think you’ll enjoy this one!

Juggling with Rats

Everyone came to the Chesterfield Hippodrome
I used to take my grandma
“Twice Nightly” – always top acts
It was nowt to get Gracie Fields
And there was a man who juggled with rats.

Laurel and Hardy came there
Charlie Chaplain was a regular
Flanagan and Allen – “Underneath the arches”
It was a right place of entertainment
You were lucky to get a ticket.

They didn’t used to love me there
I’d sneak in without paying – no money.
But sometimes we carried cases at the station
And I brought my fish and chips in with me.

“If you won’t stop throwing things,” they shouted,
“We’re not going to show the cowboy picture!”
If they saw you mucking about in the stalls,
They’d use a great long stick to catch you.

The floor would be two feet deep in monkey nuts.
We used to have fun when we were kids!

Work with Helen Mort, Derbyshire’s Poet Laureate

I’ve been working with the patients at Newholme Hospital since July 2013, when I ran a couple of taster sessions in creative writing and reminiscence, as part of a collaboration between Derbyshire County Health Service and Derbyshire Adult Education Service.

I was delighted to be invited back to run a whole term of sessions in September, and I’m now coming to the end of my third term of working with the patients of Stanton Day Hospital and Riverside Ward at Newholme.

I also work closely with the lovely Occupational Therapists, nursing staff, and visitors.

Every time I go to Newholme Hospital, I come away having learned more than when I arrived! And we’ve now been lucky enough to secure Arts Council Funding to put together an anthology of the amazing stories, poems and memories that have come out of my sessions.

At the start of this term in April, the current Derbyshire Poet Laureate, Helen Mort, came to do a session at the hospital. She really enjoyed listening to everyone’s stories and discovering the wealth of experience and local knowledge amongst the patients, staff and visitors. Here’s a link to Helen’s blog, featuring a poem that I wove together from our discussion in the session about Sheffield, ghost stories, and the post-industrial landscapes of Derbyshire.


Lumsdale in Derbyshire - who would have thought that an old bleach mill could be so picturesque!

Lumsdale in Derbyshire – who would have thought that an old bleach mill could be so picturesque!