Today is the moveable feast of the Ascension of the Lord, which is of Book of Days interest mainly for a quirky tradition in one part of the world: The dressing of water wells in England, particularly at Tissington. And by dressing we mean fancy dressing, dressing to the nines, as they say. At various times over the course of the summer, wells throughout England are decked out in flowers, moss, and other plant life in beautiful scenes… but at Tissington, it is always at Ascension Day. Clay is used to set flower petals and other items from nature into beautiful scenes. Traditionally they were biblical scenes, but nowadays the wells are decked out in all manner of interesting imagery.
The Feast of the Ascension is traditionally celebrated on the 40th day of Easter, and so it is always on a Thursday. It marks the day of the bodily ascension of the risen Christ into heaven. No particular connection to that event seems to connect to the Tissington well dressings, which some say go back to a 17th century drought in England, for throughout the fearful drought of 1615, the wells of Tissington flowed, and it is thought that the custom of Ascension Day well-dressing began then in thanksgiving for clean water. Others suggest the practice goes back much further, back to the days of Roman rule in England, suggesting more Pagan origins to the custom. As with most customs that go back a long, long ways, no one really knows how the custom began. Its origins are a watery mystery.
“In consequence of this questionable origin, whether Pagan or Popish,” wrote the Chambers Brothers in their 19th century Book of Days, “we have heard some good but straightlaced people in Derbyshire condemn the well-dressing greatly, and express their astonishment that so many should give it their countenance, by assembling at Tissington.” Straightlaced people, however, are rarely very interesting. Luckily, the dressing of wells at Tissington is, to this day, a spectacular local event that begins on the eve of Ascension Day, lasting for but a week or so. Like so many good lessons, it is a celebration of nature and the ephemeral.
Image: One of the water wells at Tissington dressed for Ascension Day last year.