The Method

There is no definitive way that the wells are dressed in Derbyshire and to state that this is the way that welldressings are done would inevitably be inaccurate for another village. This is a description of how the wells are dressed in Barlow where tradition dictates that we should only use things that grow, that we use the full flower head (not petals) and we dress the well in situ (many well dressing panels are dressed offsite and taken to the well site when they are finished).

During the time that the work is carried out a tarpaulin is draped in front of the site. The reason for this is to keep out the wind in order to keep the clay moist not because of shyness or secrecy.In fact anyone venturing behind receives a warm welcome and will probably be roped in to fetch some flowers.

Early in the year the team get together to decide what the theme and the pictures will be. These are chosen from illustrated storybooks or calendars and are often of a religious nature. Once the fighting is over and the blood and spit is mopped up the accepted four (pictures) are given to someone with the necessary skills to draw them full size. The artist is charged with making outline drawings ‘actual’ size bearing in mind the problems presented to the dresser working with flowers.

The ‘Main’ well at Barlow often takes the form of a triptych and is thought to have been inspired by the beautiful Dutch Memling triptych painting at Chatsworth House. Sometimes though there will be four or one large 'wrap around' picture. The site is prepared during the week before the well is dressed, the frames are erected and the moss and heather are collected.

Puddling (mixing) the clay is the first job. Part of the tradition of the Barlow wells is that the same clay is stored and used from year to year. Most of the clay is 'Victorian' and it was last topped up in 1957. At the present time ‘home’ for the clay is Church Farm. The clay is prepared for use by puddling or treading it until, mixed with water, it is expertly seen to be right. It is then taken to the well where it is applied to the ‘walls’ by hand at a depth of about two inches. The surface is then trowelled smooth.

The work begins in earnest on Saturday morning with the aim to finish the job by Wednesday at noon. The main reason for the haste is that the clay must be covered with flowers as soon as possible to stop it drying out. Once the thing is done it isn’t touched until it is dismantled. It isn’t sprayed with water as is often suggested, this would discolour the flowers where they came into contact with the wet clay. The flowers shouldn’t be wet when they’re set in the clay for the same reason.

The next step is to place the drawings onto the wet clay then a sharp knife is used to follow the line and prepare for the insertion of larch bark to form the outline. The knives are honed and sharpened ready to be used to cut the paper, cut the flowers and the grasses and to protect your bark from other dressers. Bark is handed down over the years and becomes the responsibility of the individual. Woe betides anyone with their hands in another’s bark box looking for that piece that is just the right size and shape!

The paper is then removed leaving the bark to show the lines of the picture, flower heads are then pressed into the clay for colour and detail. One of the traditions at Barlow is that whole flower heads (floret) are used - not petals, this poses a problem with some colours, blue in particular. Other than flowers anything that grows, grasses mosses and berries, is allowed.

Work on the uprights and the arch is left for as long as possible because this part of the dressing is the most exposed to the weather. When most of the work on the pictures is done the decision is made to start on the uprights. The tarpaulin is removed from the front of the well and scaffolding is erected. The rest of the puddled clay is applied and the tarpaulin replaced around the whole thing. Patterns, including the year date, are depicted in bark, flowers, berries and moss. When the clay is covered the tarpaulin and scaffolding is removed, the site is generally cleaned up and a carpet of heather is laid.

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