Well-Dressing At Bisley, Gloucestershire

If you’re smart enough to regularly consult the Almanac section of this blog, you’ll know that yesterday was  Fontanalia, the ancient Roman festival of Fontus (or Fons), a god of wells and springs, and celebrated by decorating springs and well-heads will garlands.

This brought back memories of a well-dressing ceremony I  attended in May 1986 at Bisley, in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds.

The following are photos I took at the time (touched up with technology I couldn’t even have dreamed of in 1986) and the description I wrote and which was subsequently published in Source – a small press magazine spoecializing in Holy Wells and allied subjects.

BISLEY WELL DRESSING, 1986

Bisley, Gloucs, is about four miles from Stroud. It holds its well dressing ceremony every year on Ascension Day.

The Seven Wells gush from a hillside into a lane in the village via a system of spouts set in a semi-circular stone enclosure, which has weathered nicely  and looks like it might have been there forever, although in fact, both the current structure of the wells and the ceremony   itself date back little over 120 years, and owe everything to the Revd. Thomas Keble, who became vicar of Bisley in 1827.

He appears to have been one of those Victorian worthies blessed with unlimited energy and ideas – apart from a programme of building and restoration around his church and local school, he channelled the wells into their present form and introduced the well dressing in 1863… it appears to have been his idea entirely, rather than a revival of an earlier local custom.

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The ceremony started with a church service (which I opted out of), after which a procession wound its way down to the wells, led by a brass band, schoolchildren bearing garlands of flowers, the vicar and church officials, followed by the general public.

At the wells the garlands were placed around the enclosure and when all in place they were seen to read Ascension Day 1986.

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A short outdoor service was then held, lessons read, the wells blessed, hymns sung, before the procession retraced its steps, leaving the onlookers, probably around 200 strong, to drift away or stay and admire the dressed wells at close quarters.

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That’s not  a ghost in the bottom right hand corner of the third photo…. at least, I dont think it is…

Another tale from this expedition –  not knowing what time the event was due to start, I got there far too early  (in the days before the internet, such details were often hard to come by. I recall asking at the Tourist Infomation office in Cheltenham, about 20 miles from Bisley. They didn’t know, and didn’t seem inclined to find out for me either). So I took a chance, cycled there and, as I say, got there far too early.

Having ascertained the time it kicked off, and Bisley being a bit of a dead place, I cycled around a bit before heading off down a quiet country lane and stopping to have a cup of tea and some food. I found a nice spot in some trees next to a high stone wall and settled down to the business in hand, when along came a car, which parked on the verge nearby, and it was quite obvious the driver was observing me in his rear-view mirror. It was also quite obvious that he was a plain -clothes cop.

I know… a plain-clothes cop should be indistinguishable from the mass of the population if there’s going to be any point to it, but somehow back in those days they could be dressed in civilian garb and still manage to look like they were wearing a blue pointy helmet. It was a kind of negative talent, I guess.

Anyway, this guy was an obvious cop. He observed me for a few minutes, then drove off again. His departure wasn’t followed by the arrival of the police helicoptor, an armed response unit or anything, so I guessed I hadn’t been classified as a threat.

A threart to whom ?  Later, after I’d returned home, I got out the Ordnance Survey map of the area and retraced my route. It seemed I’d taken my dinner break outside the back wall of some minor member of the royal family. I cant now recall which one, it might have been Prince Michael of somewhere or other – Kent ? This was before the days of widespread CCTV, but obviously I’d triggered some kind of alert and the royal bodyguard had been dispatched to check me out.

And me a republican too. If I’d known, I could have at least thrown my rubbish over their wall…

Bisley and royalty – the village was also the source of the so-called Bisley Boy story. Legend has it that Henry VIII entrusted his young daughter Elizabeth to the care of a family in Bisley. Unfortunately the girl took ill and died. Fearing, no doubt correctly – this was Henry VIII who’d execute a wife as soon as look at them, and he had six to practice on – that Henry would be displeased in a rather fatal manner, a cunning plan was cooked up. Luckily it seems that there was another child in the village who bore a remarkable likeness to the defunct prrincess (rumour has it it might have a bastard of Henry anyway). So they just substituted this kid for the original. There were a few minor differences, not least the fact that the new kid was male…details, details.  Anyway, the switch was made.

No-one would have expected Elizabeth to become queen, and I guess it got to the stage where it was easier to continue with the charade… but, well, Elizabeth I never married, did “she” ?

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