Review of ‘Well Dressing’, by Peter Naylor & Lindsey Porter

This review is by Julie Bunting, and was published originally in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 17th June 2002, and is reproduced with Julie's kind permission.

by Peter Naylor & Lindsey Porter
Published by Landmark Publishing
ISBN 1-84306-023-X (2002)

A simple title for a superb book, published to coincide with the new season's well dressings. From the external appearance of the book, with its large format and glossy full-colour cover, it might be mistaken for a 'coffee table' publication but nothing could be further from the truth. It is a true work of record by two authors who between them share deep interests in local history, photography and local traditions.

Well Dressing is the first hardback book to be published on this popular custom which is often said to be unique to the Peak District and Derbyshire in general - a claim which the authors firmly lay to rest. No matter; 200 actual wells were dressed in 89 Derbyshire villages last year (2001), the closest competitor being 13 displayed amongst 5 Staffordshire villages. Wirksworth alone can have as many as 14 dressings on display. And as the authors calculate: 'If 200 person hours is ascribed as an average for each dressing, a grand total of 45,800 person hours which at 40 hours per week would equate to 22 years!'

On the subject of figures, Sir Richard FitzHerbert reveals in his introduction to Well Dressing, that around 50,000 people visit Tissington well dressings each year.

Though we should not forget that this beautiful custom is a form of thanksgiving, it is all about vibrant colour, as we can see from almost 200 stunning photographs in the book. The older black and white pictures have a nostalgic charm too, beginning with the earliest known illustration of 1837, the year Queen Victoria came to the throne. The custom of course goes back much further but the dearth of written records has meant that Naylor and Porter have had to work hard to unearth much of the detail brought together for the first time, especially those which have lapsed.

The Bible continues to provide strong inspiration for designs but visitors can never be quite sure to expect. The tradition may be old but there is no need to be a stick in the mud (perhaps that should be clay) - what price the children's well at Foolow which featured Pokèmon and gave the year as 2K?

We can see all age groups at work in this book, reminding us that well dressing holds an important place in community and often in family life. Says Peter Naylor of fellow dressers, 'They will suffer backache, headache, clay on their clothes ... and enjoy euphoria experienced when the well is erected in its temporary resting place. There is no experience quite like it and the writer has seen many a grown man cry at this point.'

Most importantly the authors answer the question as to whether well dressings always decorate wells - or should that be springs? - and even whether all the sites have anything to do with water at all. The nine stages of the method are given in detail, a sort of 'teach yourself well dressing' course which alone is worth the price of the book!

Review by Julie Bunting

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