Fingers crossed on July 15th ...

A tribute to Vincent Van Gogh at Tissington well-dressing.
A tribute to Vincent Van Gogh at Tissington well-dressing.

by Heather Elvidge

Glorious sunny days, glowing evenings when the sun seems reluctant to set – could this be summer?

What we’re experiencing is an Azores High, the high-pressure system that gives us summers worthy of the name. A strong Azores High directs wet Atlantic weather to the north of the British Isles and keeps it there.

You’ll hardly need reminding that this has not happened for several years. However, forecasters are optimistic that the current high pressure will persist until the end of the month.

So will this miracle affect our area, or will there be a north-south split? For us, the old lore suggests periods of sunshine interspersed with spells of wet Atlantic weather.

The only time we must all cross our fingers is on July 15:

“St Swithin’s Day if ye do rain, for forty days it will remain. St Swithin’s Day if ye be fair, for forty days ‘twill rain nae mair.”

We shouldn’t take this too literally — forty days was a Biblical term, used to mean a very long time. But it’s worth paying attention. In the field of weather forecasting the ninth-century Bishop of Winchester has a respectable record.

That’s because after the solstice, the weather tends to settle into a pattern. So what happens in mid-July sets the trend until the end of August, due to the position of that Azores High.

Well dressed

Let’s hope the rain gods are not eavesdropping, because we’re going to talk about water: pure, drinkable water.

In Britain, we’re lucky that it’s something we don’t have to worry about. Yet in the not-so-distant past all our water had to be fetched from a well, stream, or spring. Uncontaminated water was a precious substance, to be celebrated.

Decorating springs with garlands of greenery has a long history. But around 1800 someone in the Derbyshire village of Tissington had an idea for something different. Wet clay was spread onto a wooden board and flower heads were pressed into it, forming a colourful Biblical scene.

Today over 80 Derbyshire villages carry out this elaborate well-dressing custom between May and August. Tissington, with its eight wells, installs its displays for Ascension Day.

It’s a lengthy process, producing a well-dressing, but these are the basics.

Thick wooden boards are pre-soaked and studded with nails to anchor a thick layer of clay. The design, drawn onto sheets of paper, is laid on and the lines pricked through into the clay. Cones, seeds, or bark are pressed in to form the outlines.

Then the work begins of filling in the sections with individual petals, whole flower heads, leaves, moss and berries. Visitors are drawn to watch this painstaking process, which can take a week.

The finished boards are assembled around the spring, with scaffolding needed to support the largest displays. That’s not the end of it — some materials are kept back for refurbishment and the clay has to be kept moist so the flowers stay fresh.

Although this type of well-dressing has spread throughout the country, many visitors are attracted to Derbyshire, the custom’s original home. See for information and tips on how to try it for yourself.