The summer of wells, flowers and parades returns to England after the pandemic

In a village called Hope in England’s East Midlands, a centuries-old regional tradition of worshiping water by decorating wells and springs with flowers has been revived as the world enjoys a summer with the coronavirus pandemic on the decline.

HOPE, England (CN) – Flower petal by delicate flower petal, villagers in this Derbyshire hamlet have been working quietly to bring a floral phoenix to life from a bed of clay and revive an ancient tradition.

Petal by petal, their painstaking work has also helped close the lid on the coronavirus pandemic here, the specter that has made Hope, a stone village along the River Noe in the Peak District, even more remote than usual .

This summer, towns and villages here are once again celebrating their mysterious and unique practice of water worship with floral decorations: a tradition known as “dressing well.”

Dressing well is a custom with pagan roots and considered unique to this part of the East Midlands. Every summer, wells and springs are adorned with images made from living plants and flowers.

The tradition died out as the pandemic raged across Europe, ending many public events: Oktoberfest in Bavaria, Easter processions in Italy, bullfights in Spain, arts festivals in France.

Finally, in Hope as in the rest of Europe, the gloom of the pandemic slowly lifted this summer.

A procession with village children dressed as kings, church ministers, a marching band and hymn singers passes through Hope, England, to kick off a week of festivities in June 2022. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News)

Inside the Hope Community Hall, the sound of church bells came through the open doors leading to where a handful of villagers sat bowed over their flower petal work, talking in low voices. The room was bathed in the peach glow of a soft sun.

On the surface, it was a quiet scene on a late Thursday afternoon in late June. But time was running out: tradition says their giant floral creations – made by gently pressing flowers and other natural things into beds of clay contained in large wooden frames – were to be in place on the walkways of Hope by Friday evening.

“When it comes around 6 o’clock tonight, it’s suddenly going to be bubbling,” said Alannah Greenan, a 24-year-old library assistant who was born into a devoted well-dressed family.

Quickly, her childhood friend sitting next to her, Heather Coyle, looked at the time. “It’s past 6 o’clock!” Oh my God!” Coyle exclaimed and chuckled.

“Oh! Greenane replied “See, now I’m freaking out!”

“Tomorrow is going to be a crazy house,” Coyle said in anticipation of the rush of villagers rushing to finish the village’s elaborate floral panels.

Heather Coyle, left, and her friend Alannah Greenan work putting petals into clay to create an image of a phoenix for a well dressing in Hope, England, in June 2022. (Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News )

For centuries people have practiced what historians consider a Celtic ritual to offer sacrifices to the water gods by adorning springs and wells with garlands of flowers during the summer, believing that the offerings ensured that their water sources would not run out.

“In the summer, all the water goes away because it’s mostly limestone here,” said Peter Mummery, a longtime well trainer in Hope. “So they used to put flowers and things. And then in the winter, all the water comes back: So they think, ‘Oh, that must be the right thing to do!’

“I think that’s where his origins come from,” he mused, his eyes smiling. “Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know!” But that’s quite a good thing, actually.

The tradition survived despite the advent of modern water systems which made wells and springs obsolete. Over the past century, well dressings have become increasingly intricate and now serve as the catalyst for a week of summer festivities that include marching bands, fairs, parades, scarecrow contests, carnival days, races and parties.

These creations are first engraved in clay beds and then filled with natural objects. Chrysanthemums, gerberas, hydrangeas, lavender and shrub leaves are among the favorites.

Over the decades the people of Derbyshire have produced fabulously intricate and beautiful well dressings featuring scenes from Jesus, episodes from the Bible, figures from Chinese astrology, local landscapes and much more.

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