The custom of well-dressing takes place nowadays in dozens of villages, including Wirksworth, Belper, Youlgrave, Barlow, Bradwell, Tideswell, Stoney Middleton, Hope, Ashford-in-the-Water, Wormhill, Bonsall, Eyam, and Buxton, but Tissington is the best known and, most probably, the oldest. The well-dressing season runs from May to September with each village having its own regular time. In some cases this is a Bank Holiday, while others are fortunate to have a convenient saint's day associated with their parish church. Tissington is one of the earliest, taking place on Ascension Day.
Dressing takes a similar form in most villages. A large (up to twelve feet long) shallow wooden tray is constructed, into which a base of smooth soft clay is packed. Elaborate pictures or patterns are made by pressing thousands of flower petals into the clay, plus other natural materials such as moss, stones, or shells. The trays are mounted vertically on scaffolding erected across, behind, or round the well. The pictures are most often biblical scenes, with an appropriate short text or caption, but other subjects can be presented and views of the local church used to be popular. Many have a single panel, others have two or three.
The custom probably arose around the turn of the 19th century, evolving from the more widespread, but less picturesque, decoration of wells with ribbons and garlands. A visitor to Tissington in 1758 commented that ‘We saw the spring adorned with garlands; in one of these was a tablet inscribed with rhymes’. One Ebenezer Rhodes, however, writing in 1818, reported ‘newly-gathered flowers disposed in various boards … cut to the figures intended to be represented, and covered with moist clay into which the stems of the flowers are inserted’ which sounds similar to how it is today. Hone's Every-Day Book gives further details. Well-dressing is still growing in popularity and more villages are added to the list nearly every year.
Crichton Porteous, The Well-Dressing Guide (1970);Stone, 1906: 73–5;Hone, 1827: ii. 318–20;Shuel, 1985: 93–102;Kightly, 1986: 231–3;Charlotte A. Norman, ‘Annual Well-Dressing—Another Brilliant Success’, in Buckland and Wood, 1993: 137–46.