Tag: folklore

Story of the week: Well-dressing traditions in Derbyshire

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* With May Bank Holiday approaching, this piece takes a look at one of Britain’s more unusual summer traditions.

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* Image: www.peakdistrictinformation.com/features/wellart.php

The villagers around rural Derbyshire do it every year.

It draws on ancient English folklore relating to the natural environment. It is the ancient art of well dressing and retired joiner, Roger Stubbins, 72, from the Derbyshire farming village of Barlow, is one of its leading exponents.

Well, he does have 48 years of experience. “My parents brought me to see the well dressing as a little boy,” he says.

“I still remember the sense of occasion that day with the fair and the main street full of people.”

Celtic origins 

Well dressers decorate springs and wells with materials provided entirely by nature. The tradition is thought to originate from a Celtic thanksgiving rite for fresh water and has become a cornerstone of Derbyshire’s rural heritage.

The process takes a wooden frame, packed with soft, wet clay, and transforms by it into a colourful but transient artwork.

Each year a new picture, often depicting a biblical scene, is hand drawn and the outline craved out before being filled with freshly gathered flowers, moss and heather. It’s an organic process with a team of seven to ten people working solidly for nearly two weeks.

Of the 80 wells around Derbyshire to be dressed between May and September, the Barlow well is one of the best know.

Records show villagers have been dressing it every year since at least 1800 with the pump added in 1840. Today, it still attracts huge crowds of visitors, including coach parties touring local wells, and raises over £1,000 for local charities in the process with its on-site collection boxes.

Each village has a different technique. Barlow uses whole flowers, not fragments or petals, and late-summer flowers coming into season, such as marigolds, yarrow and chamomile.

The team spends a week foraging for materials and preparing the frame, then a further five days actually dressing the well itself. The final stage comes when the local vicar blesses their handiwork and leads a procession of over 200 people through the village to the fairground.

“I started dressing in my early twenties. I used to take a week off work and we would work 5am to 10pm, eating all out meals in the pub garden opposite,” says Roger.

“Today we take a bit longer over it, but I still enjoy the banter and the companionship. We have a good laugh together.”

Visitors are welcome to watch the work in progress and some even feel moved to join in. For details, collect a booklet from the tourist office in nearby Chesterfield with dates for dressings and blessings around the county.

Handed down

To the well-dressing cognoscenti, however, it’s an intricate and time-consuming affair. The process follows a strict set of guidelines passed down through the generations from father to son and, in recent years, father to daughter.

The secret, explains Roger, is to mark out the outline of the picture with bark before applying the flowers.

“Everyone has their own bark,” he says, his work-worn hands clutching slithers of larch. “I’ve used the same bark for 48 years and I’m the third owner of it. It was passed down to me by the men who taught me how to dress and I vowed to keep it safe.”

This year Barlow is departing from the usual triptych design to produce one large, single image, based on the story of Christ and the fishermen.

Over the years Roger and his co-workers have tackled the likes of The Last Supper, Adam and Eve and Saint Francis of Assisi. The year they marked the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar proved a particularly testing one.

“It’s always hard getting it in proportion,” says Roger. “We use yarrow for the sky but, some years, supplies are scare, so we simply have to make a smaller sky.”

Another problem is training up the next generation of well dressers. Many of the villagers started dressing as children but move away in search of work and never come back.

“I’m the oldest now. We’ve got a couple of young ‘uns in their forties. Some people are very enthusiastic in the first year but, when they realise how much hard work is involved, they’re not so keen to come back,” he says.

Autumn leaves 

Like the changing of the seasons, the well-dressing tradition reaches its crescendo in September. As the last flowers wilt, the frame is taken down and stored for another year at the local pub.

“When we take it down and I go home, I feel a bit lost. I’ve lived with the well every day for a fortnight,” says Roger.

“But we’ll be back next year as it’s a huge part of the local community,” he adds.

“I think it’s essential to keep these village traditions alive.”

Story of the week: Elf hunting in Iceland

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* The last dip into the archives of this year, so let’s end with a suitably festive and seasonal story from the back catalogue. 

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I never realised Icelandic road building was such a tricky business.

Driving through the lava deserts topped with neon-green moss on the Alfholsvegur road outside Reykjavik, I’d been puzzled by the strange contours of a large bend in the tarmac.

The explanation, I later discovered, was that the Icelandic Roads Department, after their equipment had broken in a series of mysterious accidents, had been instructed by local mystics to build the road with a hefty deliberate kink so as to avoid bulldozing a large rock where the elves lived.

That’s right. Elves. Iceland’s 280,000 population has the world’s highest literacy rate at 99.9 per cent. Some 82 per cent of Icelanders are regular Net-savvy computer users.

Yet, despite their propensity to embrace modernity, 70 per cent of Icelanders still believe in the old ways – ways that include the existence of a huldufolk or a ‘hidden world’ of elves, dwarfs and spirits with magical powers.

Elf school

As I started to ask around about this so-called hidden world, it became clear that Iceland with its glaciers, geysers and a landscape somewhere between that of Ireland and the Moon, had a long and proud heritage of being close to nature.

The hard-living inhabitants have told folk tales of ‘little people’ since the time of the Sagas, medieval stories of Nordic life dating from the 12th century.

Today, however, Reykjavik has been transformed from rural fishing community into one of the coolest world cities. 5,000 locals and tourists crowd bars such as the Damon Albarn co-owned Kaffibarinn each weekend to revel in the city’s ebullient nightlife.

Mass tourism has mushroomed with revenues now accounting for 13.6 per cent of Iceland’s foreign earnings, second only to the fishing industry.

Nevertheless, the old ways survive.

For a glimpse into the marriage of old and new ways, I hooked up with one of more enterprising locals who was turning ancient folklore into a nice little earner. As such I found myself outside an ordinary grey building in Reykjavik’s east to meet Magnus Skarphedinsson, historian and headmaster of the Reykjavik Elf School.

From these premises, shared with a psychic school, Magnus has devoted 19 years of his life to documenting eyewitness reports of contact with the hidden world.

He has also helped 2000 students – mainly Germans and Scandinavians – successfully complete their diploma in elf studies, a course comprising a half day in the classroom followed by an afternoon’s elf hunting around town.

As I took to my desk diligently, pen poised, Magnus explained to the class that there are, in fact, two nations living in Iceland: the human world and the hidden world.

The latter, he assured us, gesturing to a large ceramic elf in a jaunty red hat and britches on the shelf above the whiteboard, live in a different dimension to humans and have their own unique culture. Only psychics or the odd lucky student actually gets to spot one.

Fairy dust

His main rival in the elf studies stakes is Erla Stefansdottir, a local mystic women who lives in an unassuming corrugated iron house on the edge of Reykjavik. Erla claims the ability to communicate with the hidden world and espouses the need to respect their culture, not exploit it for material gain.

On a rainy Monday morning, I joined Erla for a guided elf tour of Hafnarfjordur, a fishing village seven kilometres south of Reykjavik built on lava and lay lines.

The village is, reputedly, the elf capital of Iceland. Indeed, according to Erla, the local population of 20,000 people share their home with over 20 types of dwarves and four of gnomes.

The town’s Hamarinn cliff, in particular, is a centre for activity with its elfin inhabitants believed to be of royal elf stock.

Erla agreed to assist with tours, which have proven so popular they are set to go twice daily from next summer, on the proviso that visitors are encouraged to show love for the earth by patting rocks gently.

Having been assured by the Hafnarfjordur tourist board, she went about drawing up a hidden world map of key sites around town. And the tourists promptly flocked in.

The battle for the hidden world tourist market is rapidly escalating into a showdown between Reykjavik’s two leading elf-spotting experts with their drastically different approaches to elf folklore.

However, while ‘non-ethical’ tours continue to carelessly trample over the rocky lava field elf homes, Erla is concerned that if humans continue to violate the hidden world, the elves will soon take their revenge.

And, as the Icelandic Roads Department will tell you, nobody messes with a seriously angry elf and gets away with it.

This story first appeared in the Guardian in 2001. Liked this? Try On the Edge in West Greenland.

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