The Peculiarities of Derbyshire: Blue John and Well Dressing
All right. So Derbyshire is lovely English countryside, with excellent rambles and curious things. But is there anything special about this region?
If you’ve been following my Blue Period series, you will note that when I first decided to go to Barnsley, I worried that it would be a waste of travelling time.
I could of course find things to do to occupy my time, as there are always things to see if you are open enough to observe. Just south of Barnsley, Derbyshire seemed acceptable. The Peak District should be quite pleasant.
Nonetheless, I did not expect there to be anything particularly unique about the area. Even the blue john caves that my English colleague suggested, appealed only because it had blue in the name.
Throughout my Blue Period I found I had to eat my words a lot. Like, a lot. This was one of the times.
The Blue John Cavern
Getting to the cave took slightly more effort than other places during my trip. This is because the signage to the show cave is a bit indifferent. However, it is not difficult. You just have to drive past Castleton and on to the west. Note that there are other show caves aside from this 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.
So what is blue john anyway? Is it pretty?
I bought a specimen of it (I like to buy curious trinkets like this sometimes). 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. This hue is among the darker ones; most of the others are a bit lighter.
Personally I think the ‘blue’ bit of blue john is really more like purple. However, given that fluorite generally speaking as a mineral is not usually blue, and is most commonly yellow, I guess that’s fair. 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.
My geeky digression about structural colour
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. (They discovered a place in China that has similar deposits). No one is quite sure how the blue is created. No mineral impurities have been found that would provide the coloration.
The interesting thing suggested on the Wikipedia page, is that it may be due to the arrangement of the fluorite molecules itself – which is a structural means to produce colour. This is such a fascinating colour-related area to me, since I first learned about it. Structural arrangement of atoms can make us see a colour, without the need for pigments. If the structure re-arranges and reflects light back at the right frequency, our eyes see it as that colour just the same as if that frequency were produced by a pigment.
An example I read in a book once, is a kind of frog that looks green when alive, but blue when dead. It’s because the structural arrangement of molecules in its skin yield blue, and the yellow pigments contribute yellow, and so most eyes including human ones will see the combination: a perfect green camouflage. But when it’s dead, the pigments degrade, leaving only the structural lattice, so it turns blue. Fun, huh?
The Derbyshire well dressings tradition
The second unique thing about this area is cultural.
But before that I have to show you the coolest church spire ever, found atop Chesterfield Cathedral.
Even though the reason 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!
What is well dressing? Is it a thing? Or an activity?
I was not quite clear what exactly well dressing is, when my colleague-friend (not the one who suggested the blue john cavern, but the one who is originally from this area) mentioned it as something unique to the area.
He didn’t even think it was interesting. However, he met someone who had visited, and this visitor mentioned well dressing to him as something wonderfully unique to the area, and the interest had surprised him. 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).
Anyway, it turns out that well dressing is something the people here do about summertime-ish, where they basically decorate wells with a plaque made from a clay base, and stuck on with bits of nature. Like seeds and flowers and leaves. It’s like a cross between Indian kolam and pietra dura.
You’d have village scale projects, but also home-scale projects if the house has a well. People commonly open up their private gardens so that others can visit and see their well dressing.
It’s very much a live tradition
A well dressing doesn’t last very long, so there is a level of organised collaboration I can only dream of for my country’s villages. They take turns making them, you see, so that throughout the summer you’d know which village is displaying theirs. When the displays start to crack or wilt, they get taken down. It usually lasts about a week.
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 as a means to explain what they are.
My promise to my readers
In my story Hiking Monsal Dale: The Time When I Got Mugged by Deadly Cows, I mentioned being airlifted out of the dale and that I’d circle back to that. This is me keeping that promise.
Looking back through the archives for his hometown, among the sweet or religious or inspirational themes, I came across a curious one depicting the air ambulance service as well as Alzheimers.
Now, my friend is highly distractible. And I am famously inattentive to details in my surroundings. When I saw it, and asked him, he didn’t know why that was the theme for the year. I joked that sometimes 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 when I was actually there, in one of the very first towns I walked through, I came across a charity shop on the high street, 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.
The Cressbrook well dressings
At the time I was there, my friend’s own hometown would no longer be displaying, otherwise I might have seen the one in his own home. So I went over to Cressbrook in the Peak District as per the schedule. They were displaying three there that year.
Driving past Cressbrook Mill, I pushed through the single-car lanes towards the cottages of Cressbrook. The first well dressing I found by accident. It was at a junction of road halfway back up the hill to the houses. It was about the Pennine Way.
Perhaps someday if I might acquire more friends of the hiking sort, I might like to do the Pennine Way.
The well dressing in the village green
I ditched my car at some roadside parking and followed some signage directing me to the well dressing. There was a gravel path flanked by low cobblestone wall, shaded over by living overhang. I followed it as it wound up the hill, not entirely sure where I was going.
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.
By this time I knew that the 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.
Reflections on the sacredness of cultural gratitude
It is fashionable today to deride Christians, and religious people in general – of whichever stripe. Easy to believe there is nothing of value ever contributed by a religious view of the world.
While that is a state of mind of astonishing historical ignorance, it’s no surprise. A lot of religious people themselves have today lost the moorings of their faith while keeping the shell of its appearance, willingly or mistakenly trading the sacred for the profane. 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.
Here, as in Tagaytay, I enjoyed the pleasure of a dimension that is absent from 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.
Of course of all people I understand the nature of aquifers and artesian springs.
I am a groundwater science professional. Knowing how springs happen and being able to estimate the longevity of the supply yield against usage rates, however, is not the same thing as feeling a personal awareness, leading to gratefulness, of being personally sustained by it. That it is therefore as sacred to me as my very life.
Later on in this same year I went on a volunteer program to Sirsi, India. There in a community forest, they have a sustainable harvest of wood. But there is a portion of the wood that they mark out as taboo. Nothing may be taken from this 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.
There is a respect in gratefulness that this kind of nature awareness generates. It is present in every religion. But once it is destroyed in a community with materialist rationalisation, nothing is sacred anymore. 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.
The 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 well made could a well dressing done 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? I did not at the time yet have the social – let alone diplomatic – skills to manage these situations.
But I will look for myself. So I followed the signs.
I was glad I did. None of my fears manifested, so I was excused from growing my social skills for the time being.
The children had chosen a space theme for their well dressing – 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 all in all, it was an interesting well dressing.
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 I remember 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 into this area 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, didn’t have local memory that would justify this feeling.
Yet I felt that 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 so at the end of my time there, I felt that tug that’s like what 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 never felt the regret of leaving home, never felt homesick (except for the food; all Malaysians have dreams of our food abroad), never felt the need to bring home with me nor the need to surround myself with people and things that re-surrect home.
It made no sense. And I guess, that’s the third and final peculiarity of Derbyshire. Just for me.