92. Bisley Well Dressing – A Cotswolds tradition from 1863 to today…

In the village of Bisley, near Stroud, senior pupils from Bisley Blue Coat School carry out an Ascension Day tradition dating back to 1863 each year.

Adorned in period costumes and bearing floral displays, the pupils process through the streets of Bisley. They are accompanied by a silver band and their destination is the wells. These wells, seven water chutes beneath the slope below All Saints Church, were restored in 1863 at the instance of the Reverend Thomas Keble and paid for by public subscription.

The tradition continues with a short church service, followed by a procession to the wells. This procession is led by the oldest 22 children from the village school, who carry wreaths and garlands. These symbols include Stars of David, the letters A.D. and the year, letters spelling out the word ‘Ascension’, and five hoops.

Year 6 children dress up in replicas of the old blue uniform which would have been worn at the turn of the 20th Century. Some Bisley families have been involved in the well-dressing for generations. Close by the wells are the large troughs once used to water the animals of the village and now the home of several ducks. The custom of well dressing is common in Derbyshire and in other areas of England, including Malvern in Worcestershire.

The act of dressing wells with flowers has pagan origins, with its roots in the worship of the life-giving force of water but it could be that Rev Keble wished to mark the restoration of the wells. The Rev W H Lowder designed the Bisley wells and built by Messrs Wall and Hook of Eastcombe at a cost of £95. Rev Thomas Keble was vicar of Bisley from 1827 to 1873 and instituted the Blessing of the Wells ceremony on Ascension Day, which is still a prominent feature of village life. He was the younger brother of Rev John Keble, one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement in the Church of England, or Tractarians, in the mid-19th Century, and ‘The Bisley School’ became one of the most influential groups in that movement. Thomas Keble was succeeded as vicar of Bisley by his son, the Rev Thomas Keble, Junior, who was vicar from 1873 to 1903.