Web Text-ures Logo
Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
Untrodden English Ways
Content Page

 Return to the Previous Chapter
Kellscraft Studio Logo


MANY who cast their thoughts back to the condition of mankind when the world was young must often sigh for a temporary draught of the waters of Lethe. To be able to confront nature after the manner of primitive man would be an intensely interesting experiment; to erase from recollection the rich "spoils of time;" to have a mind blank of all the multifarious knowledge industriously compiled through the long ages of civilization.

What would be the result of such an experience? Perhaps here and there among the readers of these lines there may be an occasional one able to frame a half-answer to the question: one who, early in life, when the brain was not so fully stored as in after years, has had moments of absolute aloneness with nature, and been startled with the realization of an objective presence which oppressed the spirit. Such an event happened in the mental history of Wordsworth. As F. W. H. Myers has pointed out in his illuminating study of that poet, there is a passage in the "Prelude" in which "the boy's mind is represented as passing through precisely the train of emotion which we may imagine to be at the root of the theology of many barbarous people. He is rowing at night alone on Esthwaite Lake, his eyes fixed upon a ridge of crags, above which nothing is visible:

'I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And as I rose upon the stroke my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan; —
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon's bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again;
And growing still in stature, the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own,
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the covert of the willow-tree;
There in her mooring-place I left my bark,
And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood. But after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o'er my thoughts
There hung a darkness — call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea, or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.' "

Perhaps in all modern poetry there is no other passage quite comparable to this for the illustration it affords of the manner in which the objects of nature "can impress the mind with that awe which is the foundation of savage creeds, while yet they are not identified with any human intelligence."

But, inasmuch as primitive man has not yet disappeared from the earth, the process can also be illustrated from the records of travel among untutored races. One observer tells us that on the river Niger, canoemen may often be seen bending over the water in converse with its spirit, and another states that the native boatmen continually bawl through trumpets to the river fetich, and that the echo to the call is interpreted as the spirit's reply. Among all the races who still represent the dawn in the history of civilization the various aspects of nature have their special deities. And conspicuous among these are the gods who preside over ocean, or river, or spring. "What ethnography has to teach," writes E. B. Tylor, "of that great element of the religion of mankind, the worship of well and lake, brook and river, is simply this — that what is poetry to us was philosophy to early man; that to his mind water acted not by laws of force, but by life and will; that the water-spirits of primæval mythology are as souls which cause the water's rush and rest, its kindness and its cruelty; that, lastly, man finds in the beings which, with such power, can work him weal and woe, deities to be feared and loved, to be prayed to and praised, and propitiated with sacrificial gifts."

Such mingled feelings of fear and affection persisted in the high civilization attained by the Greeks and Romans. They, it will be recalled, always entered the bath with uncovered heads, and indulged universally in votive offerings by the side of springs and fountains. Horace declared it was because he was a friend to the springs and fountains that the Muses had protected his life at Philippi and rescued him on many other occasions; and the spirit of worship breaths through every line of his immortal ode to the fountain of Bandusia:

"O babbling Spring, than glass more clear,
     Worthy of wreath and cup sincere,
     To-morrow shall a kid be thine
      With swelled and sprouting brows for sign, —
Sure sign! — of loves and battles near.

"Child of the race that butt and rear!

Not less, alas! bis life blood dear
     Must tinge thy cold wave crystalline,
          O babbling Spring!

"Thee Sirius knows not. Thou dost cheer

With pleasant cool the plough-worn steer, —
     The wandering flock. This verse of mine
     Will rank thee one with founts divine;
Men shall thy rock and tree revere,
          O babbling Spring!"

To the modern mind, as Mr. Tylor remarks, all this is poetry rather than philosophy. The reason is obvious. Reservoirs and water-rates are ruthless destroyers of sentiment. It is difficult to appreciate in the twentieth century that state of mind which created the water-worship of the long-ago. While the modern man is called upon to compound for his supply of water in hard cash, it is improbable that he will be caught again in that attitude of adoration which primitive man assumed in the presence of fountain or well.

Yet the cult is not dead, even among civilized people. There are two or three villages in England where, once a year, the water-spirits are still honoured with something of that worship once so common throughout the world. This is specially the case at Tissington, a village situated in the famous Peak district of Derbyshire. Within the bounds of this parish, and at no great distance from each other, are five distinct natural springs of water, or wells, as they are called; and every year, on Ascension Day, the entire population is earnestly absorbed in doing honour to those sources whence, free of all cost, the water-supply of the hamlet is derived.


Surely no one can gaze upon the simple ceremonies of Well-Dressing day at Tissington without realizing that custom is the most abiding and indestructible thing in this world of change. The Pyramids of Egypt are sometimes exalted as among the most ancient monuments of antiquity, but the simple village folk who pay their devotions to the wells of Tissington every year represent an antiquity beside which that of the Pyramids is a mushroom growth. To the seeing eye, those well-dressers tell of an age and a faith dating back long prior to the dawn of history.

For several days preceding each anniversary, all the villagers are absorbed in preparations for the event. Naturally, the first matter which has to be considered is that of the designs of the various wells, and as there are five to be treated every year it argues considerable resourcefulness of ideas that these designs are varied with each anniversary. When the scheme of decoration for each well has been decided upon, the initial step in working it out consists in making a wooden frame on which to build up the design. As, however, the materials out of which each design is constructed consist of such diverse and miscellaneous articles as moss, evergreen leaves, haricot beans, minute shells, and the delicate petals of flowers, it might puzzle an inexperienced well-dresser to decide how best to prepare the wooden frame for the reception of such unusual pigments. At Tissington the problem has been solved by preparing a mixture of wet clay, into which salt is kneaded for the purpose of keeping it moist and adhesive. When the wooden frame has been coated with this preparation to the thickness of about half an inch, the chosen design is slowly elaborated thereon with the materials noted above. As may be imagined, the process is a tedious one; and when, as at Tissington, there are five pictures to be prepared, the labour is not inconsiderable.

In some cases, as will be seen by reference to the photographs which show the designs of a recent year, the motto chosen provides the artist with the theme for his scheme of decoration. Thus, the design over the Yew-Tree Well is in harmony with its legend of "At thy feet adoring fall;" while the adornment of Hand's Well is in perfect unison with its scriptural quotation. The pair of harts owe their existence to haricot beans, as does also the suggested mountain-origin of the rather formal stream which runs between them. The other designs include creditable representations of a castle and a town-gate.

Sometimes the designs adopted seem somewhat foreign to the purpose of the well-dressers, as when a Chinese figure was chosen for a leading topic; but in the main the designs usually have some distinct or symbolical meaning.

Indeed, so far as the ceremonies of the day are concerned, the entire proceedings are suggestive of that wise expediency with which in the early days of Christianity the Church took over and gave a new interpretation to customs which were wholly pagan in their origin. At Tissington, the well-dressing celebration begins with a service in the parish church, at which a suitable sermon is preached, and thereafter a procession is formed which visits each of the wells in turn. During a brief halt at each well, a portion of scripture is read, and a hymn sung to the accompaniment of the village band. Once these duties are discharged, the villagers give themselves over for the rest of the day to rural sports and holiday pastimes. The farmers, and others whose means permit, keep open house throughout the day, and even strangers are made heartily welcome to the good cheer provided for this yearly festival.

Two explanations have been offered to account for the persistence with which the villagers of Tissington celebrate Well-Dressing day. One theory affirms that the custom had its origin in a feeling of gratitude for the special providence which, in a season of terrible drought, maintained undiminished the water-supply of these five wells; the other explanation would find a cause in the statement that when the Black Death of the fourteenth century swept over England and decimated whole villages, the people of Tissington owed their preservation to the purity of the water supplied by these wells. Such incidents may have accentuated the zeal of the villagers in their water-worship, but for the origin of that reverence we must undoubtedly look back to a time of which history takes no account. It has been shown that the worship of water was common to all the races of mankind in the earliest days of which legend gives us knowledge; and its unique survival in this Derbyshire village is an attractive illustration of the poetic fancy with which men looked upon their environment when all the world was young.



Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.