Well dressing in a plague village

Up into the hills beyond Chesterfield lies the village of Eyam.

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I suspect its fame lies in the fact that in 1665 during the great plague in London, Eyam contracted the disease. It arrived when a flea infested bundle of cloth was delivered to the local tailor George Vicars. The tailor, his assistant and several villagers were soon dead and the following year, as summer approached, the rector of the parish church the Reverend William Mompesson and a local Puritan Minister, Thomas Stanley introduced a number of precautions to ensure that the disease did not spread to the remainder of Derbyshire. They effectively sealed the village off from the outside world and insisted that the villagers quarantine themselves. The measure was effective at a cost. Some say that only 83 villagers survived out of a population of 350.

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Today the population of Eyam is just under 1000. Each year at the end of August deliverance from the plague is commemorated but also three wells in the village are “dressed.”

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Well dressing is a great tradition in Derbyshire. Like many local traditions its origins seem a little strange to me. It is all to do with water gods. This is perhaps not a great topic on which to focus, although the importance and essential nature of water is something which I think out to be remembered and celebrated. And celebrate it they do in Derbyshire, especially in Eyam where at the end of August they decorated three of their wells.

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It’s a great skill which involves a tray of mud into which is pressed flower petals seeds and grasses. My knowledge of gardening is not great (you didn’t have to nod there!) but even I can tell that flower petals, even when pressed into damp mud, are not going to remain fresh or indeed secure for very long. So the job has to be done quickly and very near the day when the dressings are presented.

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I marvelled at the artistry of these three wells. They are designed by local people and one of them is constructed by the children of the village. You are allowed to guess which one that is.

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On the day of the blessing the Carnival Queen and her attendants, along with the local minister process to each of the wells in turn. They are led by a local band – or at least one which escaped over the border from Yorkshire – and most of the villagers. Each well in turn is blessed and that signals the beginning of Carnival Week.

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It’s a great tradition and one with many photo opportunities. Sadly I don’t feel it is as well-known as perhaps it ought to be. On the plus side one could say that so far it has escaped the world of commercialisation and perhaps that is the way that the villagers would prefer it.

Maybe next year one or two of my readers might quietly and unobtrusively go and see this interesting and in my book spectacular village event for themselves.

 

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