Well dressing used to be a very common practice especially at Ascension tide to mid August, it survived in many areas up until the start of the second world war. Unfortunately many customs were put to one side at this time and were never revived after the war.
It is especially associated with the Derbyshire villages. At Tissington and Buxton the wells were dressed with large framed panels featuring biblical subjects, at Buxton the whole town used to take part in the procession, the well was blessed and a Festival Queen was crowned. In fact Tissington used to boast that the festival had been held without interruption since the drought of 1615, although some say it is from the time of the Black Death, the wells never failed and farmers brought their cattle ten miles to drink at the wells. At Endon the two wells were dressed on the 29th May and the May Queen crowned on the same day, this was a blending of the ancient practice of well worship, may day rites and christian beliefs.
Well worship has been observed for centuries, the origin laying in Pagan traditions. According to some it originated in the pagan custom of making sacrifices to the Gods of wells ans springs to ensure a plentiful supply of clean water. Like many other folk practices it was later adopted by the church.
The practice of well dressing has in the last few years seen a revival.
Whaley Bridge Well Dressing, High Peak, Derbyshire will take place 28th June 8th July 2015 while the well dressing in Tissington and Endon start in early May.
There are many other wells and springs around the country that have myths surrounding them, for example the Holy Well at Roche, Cornwall was used for curing the insane. It had another use on Maunday Thursday ( the thursday before Good Friday) local women would throw pins into the water and from the bubbles that rose up through the water they would read their future.
St Madrons Well; on the first sunday in May parents would take their sick children to the well to cure ricketts. The child would be immersed in the water three times while they face the sun, the parents would then carry the child nine times around the well. A strip of the child's clothing would be left on a nearby tree as an offering.
This dated back to a pre christian belief in the goddess of the wells who was associated with earth motherhood, fertility, love and vegetation.
Menacuddle Well St Austell; people would drop pins into the water to cure stomach problems.
In Somerset however, there is a well that is used for a different purpose. The Devils Whispering Well at Bishops Lydeard, found behind the churchyard, is a cursing well. People would throw offerings into the water along with a curse aimed at a certain person. The recipient of it would have to visit the well and throw ina more valuable offering to remove the curse.
Somerset has quite a few interesting wells, St Agnes Well, Cothelsone is a pixies well and you must leave a pin as a offering if you visit it.
Pins that cross as they settle in the water of a well are unlucky, if they lie together it fortells a happy marriage and if they drift apart then so will you and your partner.
Nether Stowey Blind Well is also a faerie well, these waters have healing powers, Dulverton also has a well with healing powers, specifically for eye problems. When you visit this well remember to leave a red rag tied to a bush as an offering to the guardian of the well.
Skimmington Well, Rockhill, Curry Rivel; these waters cure rheumatism, the sufferer must bathe in the water at sunrise for three consecutive mornings for the cure to work. People have danced around this well on midsummer day for many years to cure their illness's.
In Dorset the waters of the Upwey well ( which is still there) have healing powers for eye problems. Take a few sips of the water and then throw the rest over your shoulder and make a wish.
At St Augustines Well, Cerne Abbas, newborn babies used to dipped into the water and at Easter it is said that the faces of people about to die can be seen in the water.
If you wish to make use of the power of the waters at St Candidas Well Stanton St Gabriel you have to visit it at daybreak. Bent pins are thrown in as offerings while chanting ' Holy well, holy well
take my gift and cast a spell.
At the other end of the country in Scotland, on the slopes of Schiehallion 'The Faerie Hill of the Caledonians' is an old well. It is inhabited by faeries who grant wishes and can cure all sickness.
It used to be visited every May day by the local girls who would offer flowers to the faeries to bring them good luck.
Pixies, Elves, Faeries and Nymphs are common residents of sacred wells and springs, faeries also reside in St Annes Well near Trellech village in Wales. One story tell of a locale farmer who dug up a fairy ring around the well to prove that he did not believe in 'them silly tales.' However the next day when he attempted to draw water from the well for his cattle, it was bone dry. The strange this was that is was only dry when he attempted to get water. A tiny old man was seen on the wall of the well one day and told the farmer that he was very cross that the fairy ring had been destroyed and that he would never be allowed to draw water from the well again until the fairy ring had been restored. As soon as he had repaired the damage the water started to flow again.