Review of ‘The Tap Dressers, A Celebration’, by Norman Wilson

This review is by Julie Bunting, and was published originally in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 20th November 2000, and is reproduced with Julie's kind permission.

by Norman Wilson
Published by Country Books of Little Longstone
ISBN 1-898941-47-5 (2000)

There must be hundreds of us in the Peak who know a bit about well dressing, or think we do, perhaps its supposed history or a snippet about the artistry involved, or some knowledge of how different villages celebrate this beautiful ceremony.

Writers have usually looked at well dressing through an outsider's eye, hinting at some sort of mysterious communion with the distant past and probable links with both earth worship and early Christianity.The Tap Dressers, A Celebration, is actually the first book on the subject to be written by a native author, and Norman Wilson gives an all-encompassing account based on personal observations and broad local knowledge.

Front Cover

In the manner of a true and most observant storyteller, he gives an understanding of the importance of a custom which was first documented in his native Youlgrave in 1829 when the newly-erected Fountain was decorated. Youlgrave designers have been leading exponents in innovation and experiment, so that welldressing artistry has not been overly encumbered by ritual.

In his dedication to dressers past and present, the author unveils his conviction that 'Welldressers are not merely rehearsing an ancient custom: it is a part of them'. It is this empathy with the dressers' spirit which reaches into the heart of the subject. A description of their methods is only part of the story, almost the end in fact, the culmination of months of planning for one short week of glory. And welldressing is all about timing, from a designer's search for inspiration to the time-honoured routine which culminates on a Friday night with 'welldressing to the death'.

Nowadays villagers without ancestral roots in Youlgrave - those who lack the 'three generations in the churchyard' yardstick - also join in welldressing teamwork, notwithstanding the fact that in one recent reckoning four designers shared almost 150 years of service. Indeed, two of these have now exceeded their half-century.

For his final appendix the author adds a lengthy extract from A History of Youlgrave Welldressing by J.W. and D.W. Shimwell (1974). The new publication will meet a far wider interest than just Youlgrave, or even the Peak District.

With early photographs and full-page colour illustrations,The Tap Dressers by Norman Wilson.

Review by Julie Bunting

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