Custom survived: Bisley Ascension day Well dressing

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The three days before Ascension Day it never stopped raining, so it was with some trepidation that I made my journey to Bisley for their annual water based celebration. Rain was on the forecast, but I noticed oddly enough a gap both geographically and temporally was noted on the weather website and that was good enough for me. Of course, rain would be wholly appropriate on a day when thanks is traditionally given for water, a little odd since the day commemorates the Ascension of Jesus, which of course is the reverse!

Well positioned

Bisley is a delightful village, high above Stroud, it has all the great features of a classic Cotswold village with a historic old pub, The Bear with its association with the Bisley Boy legend ( a story of a switch between a local lookalike and a child Elizabeth I), a lock-up and those traditional delightful Cotswold stone cream buildings..and a picturesque well head situated below the church’s rocky outcrop. This well head, encloses seven springs, the name given to the site, of which five flow with considerable power through Gothic pointed arches and into a trough which lines the walling. Another two at the front gable fill large troughs. The water looks delightfully refreshing.

Well thought of.

The custom is one of the oldest Well dressing customs continually done in England; the only one outside of the Derbyshire-Staffordshire region with any pedigree. There are after all tens of well dressings and I don’t yet intend detailing all, but one so unique geographically and old needs mention. Surprising, it is still little known, cursory mention is made of it in well dressing volumes and even Katherine Brigg’s 1974 work Folklore of the Cotswolds ignores it!

Debate exists over whether in 1863 the custom was revived, transferred from Derbyshire or the pure invention of the noted vicar Thomas Keble. Being the brother of the more famous John of the Oxford movement it is fairly obvious that establishing such a custom fell into the remit of the Anglo-Catholic views they espoused. Certainly, the legend over the well was carved to cause controversy being a Catholic inscription of the version in the Common Book of Prayer.

The Reverend Keble repaired or built the well house, perhaps also giving the Seven springs name and having done so much effort thought it would be an excellent idea to celebrate this annually. Little appears to have recorded from this earliest day and the first mention of it is from Skyring Walters who’s 1928, Ancient Wells, Springs and Holy Wells of Gloucestershiresadly does not delve too deeply into their history and spends more time discussing Tissington.

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Bisley Boys (and Girls)

“The ceremony still has much traditional atmosphere unlike many of the Derbyshire well-dressings which are becoming more like floral art displays for tourists.”

Such states Laurence Hunt (1994) in Some Ancient Wells, Springs and Holy Wells of the Cotswolds in Source and I completely agree. One of the reasons why the Bisley dressings feel unique is the procession. Many Derbyshire well dressings have a brass band, so do Bisley, ably provided by Avening Brass Band, all have their clergy, but few possibly none carry the well dressings or have them carried by costumed children. These children are dressed in traditional Victorian Tudor blue coats and smocks for the girls. Joining them this year where two children from the twin town in Brittany with traditional Breton children’s dress. They carry the dressings because unlike those of Derbyshire they are wrapped in garland frames with moss and inserted flower heads made by a cross generational team of children, parents and grandparents. I was told that they take a day or so to make, which of course is shorter than that of Derbyshire, but they are no less picturesque or effective.

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Head from the spring head

There was short service in the Parish church, I decided as the sun was shining to listen from outside bathing in the bright sunshine. Then at around two the children appeared and collected their well garlands and after some to-ing and fro-ing to get those letters in the right order…ACSENSINO being an interesting word but not right! Then off they went following the brass band downhill to the wells.

At the wells, the two Star of Davids were attached to the front of the well house and the individual flower letters spelling ASCENSION were raised and an attached between each arch and in the middle the traditional flower letters and numbers AD 2014.

The other children and indeed some adults laid small posies in the long trough around the wells base, perhaps the most primitive of responses..ensuring that everyone in the village could commemorate this once valuable water source.

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At the well head, soon a large crowd assembled around and here on a small stage, the vicar, The Reverend Rosie Woodhall, read a watery reading of the Benedicite which ended with the fitting:

“O ye Wells, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him forever.”

The congregation sang and the wells were blessed and then a bit like a rock star, the vicar left the stage climbed back up the hill and disappeared out of view, which I thought a little strange,…perhaps the banter that I often expect from vicars at these events happened in the church above. Nevertheless, 2013 was the 150th anniversary and despite the rain that day, nothing appears to dampen the village’s desire to celebrate the wells and its 2014 celebration was a delightful remembrance of not only a once important source of water but a great vicar in the history of the Church.

Find out when its on

Calendar Customs …no specific site but there is a post on well dressing http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/well-dressing/and of course http://welldressing.com is your first port of call for all things well dressing naturally!

Copyright Pixyledpublications

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