Well-dressing: Past, Present and Future
The Malvern Hills and surrounding areas have been a hub of human activity since prehistoric times. There are records of finds in the local area dating from the Mesolithic period (or ‘Middle Stone Age’), which began around 11,500 years ago. The Hills’ distinctive profile is highly visible from long distances and thus useful for orientation, and the far-reaching views from the summits allow both surveillance and defence. However, the fact that the Hills were an abundant source of spring water meant they were especially attractive to hunter-gatherers and later settlers.
Today, Malvern’s innumerable springs, wells and spouts (over a hundred have been identified on and around the Hills so far) are highly valuable heritage and cultural / social assets. Some are very ancient, associated with early settlements, sacred practices and healing. Many have changed their form over time, becoming shrines, chapels, statues and works of art.
Most of us recognise how fortunate we are to be able to drink ‘the best water in the world’ (author’s opinion!) for free, and it feels natural to want to celebrate and express gratitude for this wonderful bounty in some way. So it is easy to imagine how those early travellers might have done the same, perhaps sending prayers of thanks to whatever entity they believed was responsible, and leaving offerings beside the springs. The wealthy may have brought precious stones, coins, jewellery and weapons, the poor just pebbles, flowers and fruit.
This is the origin of ‘well-dressing’. Over time, the practice became more ritualised, and was carried out at certain times of year such as the equinoxes. In her book Malvern Hill of Fountains, artist and MSA co-founder Rose Garrard notes that “In the 12th and 13th centuries the Holy Well was dressed annually with offerings, probably on August 5th, in thanks to St Oswald for water cures there”. In 1615 there was a national drought, but as Malvern’s springs kept flowing they “were (well) dressed as a token of gratitude for a plentiful supply of water” (Malvern Advertiser 1870). From 1870, Royal Well was regularly dressed in gratitude for William Ryland’s gift of the public spout ‘for the use of the public forever’. The Wyche Spring was dressed by local residents throughout the 1900s, until 1978.
The start of Malvern’s modern well-dressing
In 1993, local springs and wells expert Cora Weaver organised a Malvern ‘well-decorating’ event (perhaps so called to differentiate it from the then more-famous Derbyshire Well-dressing). After the MSA was formed, between 1998 and 2000 the event was held annually in September. In 2001, with Rose Garrard at the helm, the term ‘well-decorating’ was changed back to ‘well-dressing’, and the date was moved to coincide with Malvern’s growing May Day celebrations (aka ‘The Wet Weekend’!). ‘Water-tasting’ was very popular, participants having to tell the difference between spring and tap.
Every year, the number of springs, wells, fountains and troughs that were dressed grew and grew, as did the popularity of the event. In 2006 there were 28 sites, with about 85 members of the local community involved. In 2008, Lionel Shorestone took over as organiser, and his enthusiasm was infectious: he was particularly keen on recruiting schools to the venture (“get ‘em young!”), which adds a wonderful innocent freshness to the festival.
The themes for the year are chosen an open meeting in January. They have included ‘Purity’ (2001), ‘Darwin’s Earth’ (2009), and ‘Year of the Woman’ (2018). 2019’s theme of ‘Flight’ gave rise to some amazing dressings, including the moving tableau created by People in Motion at Malvern Link station trough, which features on the front cover of the newsletter. We will tell you more about the story behind it in the next edition.
Success in 2019 and, despite everything, in 2020 and 2021
Thanks to Rick and his amazing team, well-dressing has gone from strength to strength. In 2019, a record 60 water features were dressed by some 800 adults and children. It’s a marvellous testament to the Dressers’ love of Malvern: they freely and happily give large amounts of time, flowers and materials, and with considerable skill, create the most glorious creations. In fact, the event has been extended so it now lasts for up to nine days – this better honours the worthy and hard work that goes into it, and allows more time for people to appreciate the displays. And, once again it is a ‘whole town’ celebration, involving many of our partners and supporters such as Malvern Hills District and Town Councils, Malvern Hills Trust, and the Malvern Hills AONB Partnership. This is good for collective health and well-being, community cohesion and the local economy, and fulfils the MSA’s aim of ‘increasing individual and collective knowledge of Malvern’s water’ (in 1996 it wasn’t possible to buy Malvern water anywhere in Malvern!).
Until 2020, well-dressing had taken place every year without fail: this year, undeterred, people adopted a different approach: during the May Day weekend, water-related features in homes, gardens and streets were dressed anyway, to the chosen theme of ‘Yellow’. And not just in Malvern either – we were joined by members and friends in other parts of the country too! The story was featured in the Malvern Gazette (view here), and some of the photos have been put together as a short film on Youtube.
2021 was also successful – wells were dressed but the festivities were curtailed to keep everyone safe.
Despite the current situation and the uncertainties it brings, as we look to the future, well-dressing seems in fine fettle. It strikes a chord with both the artistic creators and the general public, having become not only a much-loved community event, but also one which is widely-publicised – some people travel from overseas to visit. Hopefully, it is a tradition that future generations will continue, and fresh, clean spring water keeps on flowing freely for all of us to enjoy.
We are already planning 2022’s event, and hope to see you there. The dates are as follows: Friday 29th April Dressings Up, Monday 2nd May Day Bank Holiday, Sunday 8th May Dressings Down.
Rick Banbury and Carly Tinkler