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.