When I went to accompany my friend to Barnsley, I spent much of my time roaming around Derbyshire and the Peak District while she studied for her exam. Derbyshire proved to be lovely English countryside, with excellent rambles and walks, pleasant little towns and curious history. But two friends and colleagues who came from the region each mentioned a specific attraction that was unique to the Peak District and Derbyshire. So I made sure to check them out.
- The Blue John Cavern
- Intermission: Chesterfield Cathedral
- The Well Dressing tradition of Derbyshire
- What is ‘well dressing’? Is it a thing? Or an activity?
- Well dressing is still very much a live tradition
- The air ambulance service: keeping my promise to my readers
- Well dressings of Cressbrook
- Reflections on sacred gratitude
- Leaving the home that never was
- Carbon offset information to the United Kingdom
The Blue John Cavern
The first one was a mine, located within the Peak District. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t that interested. Mines aren’t usually my kind of thing. However, the mineral that was mined from this particular cavern, was called ‘blue john’. That caught my attention instantly, purely because of the blue themes running through this trip.
I thought it was going to be more of a tickbox exercise. A touristy thing to do in the Peak District, and then move on.
Throughout my Blue Period I found I had to eat my words a lot. Like, a lot. This was one of those times.
Driving to the Blue John Cavern mine
Getting to the cave took slightly more effort than other places during my trip. This was because the signage to the mine’s show cave is a bit… indifferent.
However, it is not difficult. You just have to drive past Castleton and on to the west. But you have to figure things out a little bit at that point. (Note that there are other show caves, aside from the one officially named Blue John Cavern that I went to.)
I parked in the parking lot slightly away from the visitor’s centre.
Tucked in the shadow of the hill, it was the cutest mine I’d ever seen. The countryside around it was peaceful, just warming in the light of the morning. The sunlight poured a sepia tint over everything in the dale.
Up and away in the sky, a paraglider floated past over the hills.
What is blue john?
So what is blue john anyway? What is it mined for? Is it pretty?
Blue john is a stone, a kind of fluorite. The name is actually a commonisation of a French term, bleu-jaune, or blue-yellow. It’s because the stone is banded in blue and yellow. The banding is quite unique, so it was used for decorative purposes.
Personally I think the ‘blue’ bit of blue john is really more like purple. However, given that fluorite generally speaking is not usually blue, and is most commonly yellow, I guess ‘blue’ is fair enough. Especially considering that men named it, and menfolk aren’t known for being overly precise with colour shades. Besides, if it were called ‘purple john’ I probably wouldn’t have visited.
There is a tour that sets off into the mine at regular times where the guides explain the history and geology of blue john in the area. It was fairly short, but pretty good. Don’t expect too much though; it’s not that big of a cave. They don’t actively mine it any more because the deposits are considered nearly depleted.
I bought a specimen of it. Given my metamorphosis mood of the Blue Period, I chose a butterfly brooch. I picked one that had the most ‘blue’ and the least yellowy bits, because I don’t really like the colour yellow. The hue that I chose was among the darker ones; most of the others are a bit lighter.
No one knows why blue john is blue
During the mine tour, I learned that the kind of fluorite that’s banded with these purple-blue veins was, up until recently, only found in this area of Derbyshire. (Apparently they discovered a place in China that has similar deposits, and even then it’s a different kind of colour banding).
But the most interesting thing about the blue colour of blue john is… no one is quite sure why it is blue! No mineral impurities have ever been found that would provide the blue coloration.
My geeky digression about structural colour
The interesting thing suggested on the Wikipedia page, is that the blue may be due to the arrangement of the fluorite molecules itself – which is a structural means to produce colour. Structural arrangement of atoms can make us see a colour, without the need for pigments. You see, if the structure of the molecules re-arranges and reflects light back at a certain frequency, our eyes see it as that colour just the same as if a colour pigment reflected that same light frequency into our eyes. Even if the structure has no pigments whatsoever.
It reminded me of the time I first learned about it. It blew my mind. The example I read in a book once, was a kind of frog that looks green when alive, but blue when dead. It’s because the structural arrangement of molecules in its skin create blue, and the yellow pigments contribute yellow. So most eyes, including human ones, will see the combination as green.
So, despite being a ‘blue frog’, it was perfectly camouflaged in the frog’s forest habitat when it’s alive. But when it’s dead, the pigments degrade, leaving only the structural lattice. So eventually, it turns blue. Isn’t that amazing?
Intermission: Chesterfield Cathedral
Before I go on to the second unique thing about Derbyshire and the Peak District, one particular piece of architecture deserves special mention. In fact, if I had to choose between it and a more conventional landmark building like Notre Dame de Paris, I’d probably commit the architectural heresy of choosing Chesterfield Cathedral. (Yes, I’ve been to both.)
My other friend from Derbyshire grew up more specifically in Chesterfield. There is a cathedral here which I found to be among the most interesting buildings I’ve ever seen. And that’s because it has the coolest church spire ever – it’s twisty!
Yes, I have a soft spot for quirky, whimsical, or just plain daft things. Even though the reason it happened was probably unsound engineering construction, the effect was accidentally quite unique – and so much more attractive (at least to my peculiar tastes) than if they had got it right!
Hey, if the leaning tower of Pisa can be famous because someone botched the foundation, why not Chesterfield spire?
The Well Dressing tradition of Derbyshire
The second unique thing about Derbyshire, is a cultural one. It is the tradition of well dressing. My friend – the one from Chesterfield – had noted that my trip would coincide with when the local people in Derbyshire would be carrying out their tradition of well dressing.
He mentioned it almost in passing, speaking aloud. Like a thing he didn’t even think was that interesting due to being so familiar. However, he met someone who had visited Derbyshire during the well dressing period, and the visitor mentioned it to him as something wonderfully unique and memorable to the area. The interest had surprised him, and so he mentioned it to me.
That’s one thing that Malaysians and English have culturally in common. We typically don’t think our stuff is interesting to other people. (The difference is that the English assume their stuff is interesting to their own people, and Malaysians struggle even with that.)
What is ‘well dressing’? Is it a thing? Or an activity?
I was actually not very clear on what exactly ‘well dressing’ is, when he mentioned it. Is it about clothes? What was special about dressing well? Why would it be unique to Derbyshire?
But no. It has nothing to do with clothes. It has to do with wells. Like the kind you draw water from.
It turns out that well dressing is something the people here do about summertime-ish, when they decorate wells with a plaque made from a clay base. This base is then stuck on with bits of nature (like seeds and flowers and leaves), to make a natural mosaic picture. It’s like a cross between Indian kolam and the craft of pietra dura.
You’d have village scale projects, but also home-scale projects if the house has its own well. Churches especially would organise well dressings, since they would invariably have a well. People open up their private gardens at this time so that neighbours and others can visit and see their well dressing.
Frankly speaking, I think this is a very underrated attraction of the region. I don’t know why it isn’t better known, especially since it is completely unique to Derbyshire. People rave about experiencing nyepi in Bali, and I don’t see how well dressing is any less worthy.
Well dressing is still very much a live tradition
A well dressing doesn’t last very long, because of its natural ingredients. They usually last about a week. When the displays start to crack or wilt, they get taken down.
So there is athroughout Derbyshire that I can only dream of for my own country’s villages, in order that there would be well dressings to be enjoyed across the summer period. The different villages in the area take turns making them. The schedule is publicised beforehand, so that throughout the summer you’d know which village is displaying theirs at what time.
Not only that, there are also archives of well dressings produced by the different towns and villages in the region stretching back years. My friend showed it to me when he was trying to explain what well dressings are.
The air ambulance service: keeping my promise to my readers
In my story about hiking the Monsal Dale trail, I mentioned being airlifted out of the dale, and that I’d circle back to explain that cryptic comment! This is me keeping that promise!
Looking back through the well dressing archives for his hometown, among the sweet or religious or inspirational themes I came across a curious one, depicting the air ambulance service combined with an Alzheimers’ awareness PSA.
Now, my friend is highly distractible and forgetful, despite being only 40. And I am famously inattentive to details in my surroundings (which comes with a propensity for getting lost). When I saw it, and asked him about the odd combination, he said didn’t know why that was the theme for the year. So I joked that maybe it means there might be occasion for the air ambulance to come get him due to the possible onset of Alzheimer’s. He joked back that if I were to lose my way rambling in the hills, I could radio for the air ambulance to rescue me.
Later on in the Peak District, in one of the very first towns I walked through, I came across a charity shop on the high street. It was in support of the air ambulance service. You have to laugh. The universe was totally trolling me this whole trip.
Of course I went in, and made a donation.
Well dressings of Cressbrook
At the time of my trip, my friend’s own hometown would no longer be displaying, otherwise I might have seen the one in his own home!
Instead, I went over to Cressbrook in the Peak District, which would have well dressings still on display. That year, Cressbrook made three.
Driving past Cressbrook Mill, I pushed through the single-car lanes towards the cottages of Cressbrook. I found the first well dressing quite by accident. It was at a junction of road halfway back up the hill to a bunch of houses. I parked nearby by the roadside, and went to examine it.
Indeed, there was a spring at that junction, though it was not made into a proper well. The well dressing laid on it was about the 50th anniversary of the Pennine Way. On the side, they listed the materials that were used to compose the image.
Getting back in the car, I continued all the way up to where the village green was supposed to be.
The well dressing in the Cressbrook village green
I ditched my car at a roadside parking area. The Peak District is a hilly, undulating region of vales and dales and peaks. So Cressbrook, like many villages and hamlets in the district, lay across steep sloping ground.
There was a gravel path flanked by low cobblestone wall, shaded over by living overhang. Signage directed me up the path. I followed it as it wound up the hill, not entirely sure where I was going. Surely the village green is flat ground?
Then the path opened into a sunny garden.
The village green was pleasant enough. It was stepped, because it hugged and flowed up the side of the hill. On one of the terraces, water bubbled up to pool in a little spring caught within a square sump. The second well dressing was displayed over this spring.
The Cressbrook children’s well dressing
I was quite tired by this time. There had been a lot of walking involved, nearly all uphill. The car was far away down the hill.
But there were more signs. They invited me to go even further up, to see the “children’s well dressing”. It was apparently on display at the well within the compound of a church at the top of the hill.
I contemplated giving it a pass. How good could a well dressing made by a bunch of kids be, anyway? And suppose there were people there. I might have to talk to them. I’d have to explain why I was there. Suppose I got invited to church stuff?
At the time I did not yet have the social – let alone diplomatic – skills to feel confident enough to manage these situations. But I decided to risk it. So I mustered my remaining energy, and followed the signs.
And I was glad I did! None of my fears manifested, so I was excused from growing my social skills for the time being. And I found an interesting theme choice for the well dressing at St John’s Church.
The children had chosen a space theme, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Hubble telescope.
Looking closely, I noted they cheated a bit, using some reflective material – aluminium foil and glitter – which were decidedly not natural ingredients. But I guess allowances can be made for the children, and the subject matter. All in all, it was a surprisingly modern well dressing.
Reflections on sacred gratitude
By this time I understood that the well dressing tradition came about with the intention of paying respect and gratitude for the gift of water. It is common to have the well dressings associated with the church, or have religious themes, especially further back in history. Perhaps it was a tradition that even pre-dated churches.
I wondered, then, if the relative obscurity of the well dressing tradition is due in part to its associations with churches.
It is fashionable today to deride Christians, and religious people in general. Easy to believe nothing of value was ever contributed by a religious view of the world.
While that is a state of mind reflective of astonishing historical ignorance, or at least a very selective historical view, it’s no surprise. A lot of religious people today have themselves lost the moorings of their faith while keeping the shell of its appearance, willingly or mistakenly trading the sacred for the profane. They have themselves bought into the strange modern notion that an experimental method of knowing the material world is incompatible with directly seeking its meaning with a living soul.
But here, as in Tagaytay, I enjoyed the pleasure of a human dimension that is absent from having a solely cold rationalist worldview.
Here before me was an homage of gratefulness, an homage drawn from nature itself for the water that is abundant in this region. An homage preserved by a gentle tradition passed down through generations, so light that its bearers seem to bear it easily and do not even notice their own uniqueness.
Perhaps they do not mind being obscure. Humility is like that.
A worldview of humility and restraint
Of course, I understand the nature of aquifers and artesian springs. I am a groundwater science professional. It is literally my day job to understand it.
But knowing how springs happen and knowing how to estimate the longevity of the supply yield against usage rates, is not the same thing as feeling a personal awareness, leading to gratefulness, of being sustained by the water of the spring. That it is therefore as sacred to me as my very life.
Later on in this same year, I went on a volunteer program in Sirsi, India. Within a community forest there, the local village takes a sustainable harvest of wood. But there is a portion of the forest that they mark out as taboo. Nothing may be taken from this sacred part of the forest, and to enter it one must remove one’s shoes as a mark of humility to the One that has provided. It is this humility that guarantees the attitude of sustainability towards the part of the forest that isn’t taboo.
There is a respect that this kind of gratefulness generates. It is present in every religion. But once this attitude of awe is destroyed in a community by adopting purely materialist rationalisations for every thing, nothing is sacred anymore. Not even to those who seem to continue acting out a religious life.
You can in theory design systems to manage resources well. But no amount of efficient management will be able to keep up with the casual greed of a prideful and ungrateful heart.
Leaving the home that never was
When my friend was done with her exams, Cressbrook was one of the places I took her to for some celebratory sightseeing. (The other one was Monsal Head.) Re-visiting them strengthened a strange feeling that I began having since the end of my ramble through the Monsal trail.
I arrived in the Peak District feeling eerily as if I was a changeling who had miraculously found her original home. Even though I had never been here before and so this is not possible. I didn’t actually know specific things, and didn’t have local memory that would justify this feeling. Yet I felt that home confidence of going anywhere, and taking for granted that I’ll manage. You know, that kind of feeling you have for your own land, even if you’ve been away for a long time and you know a lot must have changed.
Bear in mind I never felt this even for parts of the UK that I’m actually more used to. Such as Bangor, which I had just re-visited prior to coming to Derbyshire. And not anywhere in Northumberland either, which I had visited frequently in the short years of my marriage.
The most personal unique thing about the Peak District
And so at the end of my time in Derbyshire, I felt that tug that’s like the feeling that people describe just when they leave their native land, not knowing if or when they would ever return.
I’d never felt that melancholy before. Going somewhere was never a major deal, bar the general anxiety of leaving the comfort of familiar routines. I have never felt the regret of leaving home, never felt homesick (except for the food; all Malaysians have dreams of our food abroad). Nor have I ever felt the need to bring home with me, nor the need to surround myself with people and things that re-surrect home abroad. I had always lived with a latent feeling of homelessness, and I simply became used to not belonging anywhere.
Yet the Peak District was a land that I would miss, as if going into exile. It made no sense. And I guess, that’s the third and final unique thing about the Peak District. A uniqueness that was just for me.
Carbon offset information to the United Kingdom
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Manchester via Amsterdam produces carbon emissions of approximately 8,815 lbs CO2e. It costs about $44 to offset this.
For more on this Odyssey: