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Old and new meet to make the city of Ripon a very special place

PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 April 2019

The obelisk on the Market Place in Ripon Photo: Alamy

The obelisk on the Market Place in Ripon Photo: Alamy

Credit: MSP Travel Images / Alamy Stock Photo

In a city as ancient as Ripon it’s no surprise that long established institutions are at its heart. But to survive and thrive, a community must adapt to the times, and it’s clear that Ripon is doing just that.

The Very Rev John Dobson with his wife NicolaThe Very Rev John Dobson with his wife Nicola

Ancient is no exaggeration here, evidenced in particular by the cathedral. ‘The crypt was part of St Wilfrid’s church, dedicated in 672, which makes it the oldest part of any English cathedral, so we’ve been here for over 1,300 years,’ says the Dean of Ripon, the Very Rev John Dobson. ‘There’s a sense of responsibility of course maintaining something so old, but it’s also energising and stimulating as it gives us the opportunity to share so much of what we feel is still very important for the world today.’

The city’s grammar school likewise reaches back into the distant past, without living in it, as headmaster Jonathan Webb explains. ‘Although we’re a modern, forward-thinking school with a 21st century outlook, we are extremely proud of our rich heritage and traditions, having served the community of Ripon since the seventh century, when the monastic foundation of St Wilfrid was established.’ Even its re-foundation date of 1555 is not exactly recent.

And the custom for which Ripon is perhaps most famed, its horn-blower, similarly reaches back centuries. ‘To the best of our knowledge this is the longest running such tradition in the world, with never a day missed since it began,’ says the mayor, Pauline McHardy. Some suggest it dates back to the granting of charter rights to the settlement in 886, but more likely, Hugh Ripley, the first mayor as of 1604, instigated the procedure when at nine in the evening the horn is blown three times at each of the four corners of the obelisk in the market square. ‘Hugh Ripley said he wanted to ensure the watch had been set, so after the market square they went to his home and blew the horn three times. This tradition still continues, every night they go the mayor’s if they’re at home, or if out of the city they blow it on the steps of the town hall,’ Pauline adds.

It’s a tradition that is central to the city’s tourism business, though there’s plenty more to see here too, with fascinating architecture spanning the magnificence of the largely 13th century cathedral to the humble simplicity of the city workhouse, now one of three ‘law and order’ museums, the others being the courthouse and the police and prison museum. The desire to make modern use of what past generations have left to the city is nicely illustrated at the Courthouse Museum. ‘We’ve a contemporary art installation running there until the end of May, called Stolen Things, which is an attempt to give it a different perspective,’ says Leah Mellors, curator of the three museums. ‘It’s a very immersive experience. We’ve been given national portfolio status by Arts Council England, with funding for the next four years, to bring new people through the door, get a more diverse audience. And we do lots of outreach work and a whole range of events – people should look at our website!’

Ripon Union Workhouse on Allhallowgate. This unusual visitor destination offers a gruesome reminder of the harsh realities of 19th century lifeRipon Union Workhouse on Allhallowgate. This unusual visitor destination offers a gruesome reminder of the harsh realities of 19th century life

Ripon’s Civic Society was the original moving force in establishing these museums, and was involved in the campaign to save and make best use of what was once Abbott’s furniture store, which became the Curzon Cinema and some new flats. The civic society is now working in a similar way with the former Girls’ High School and the Spa Baths (the latter an Art Nouveau gem recently seen in a BBC Agatha Christie drama). But the civic society doesn’t want to preserve the city in aspic. ‘We want to leave a legacy from today, as well as the 13th century and 18th century and so on,’ says its chairman Chris Hughes. ‘Ripon sees itself as moving on, and we want to encourage people looking at design in that way. We’re proud of the design awards we give out every two years.’

The cathedral too is about much more than its past and its architecture, however beautiful. As its dean says: ‘The civic life of the city and region, and the different events and celebrations and services associated with that, is an important part of our life here at the cathedral, and we’re connected with lots of the charitable organisations, helping to set up a new partnership so Ripon can be more united as a community, working together, with more synergy.’ It has established Ripon Together, a community interest company, to drive such initiatives forward, and other groups like C3 – Cathedral Community Connections – to focus practical help for people in need.

Established in 1810 the city’s cricket club is one of the county’s oldest. ‘We were the first cricket club in Yorkshire to adopt a written scorebook rather than notching runs into a stick,’ says chairman Adrian Abbott, as proud of that as of the way the club is reaching out to today’s budding sporting types. ‘We have a youth sports evening twice a week from Easter, and that encompasses rounders as well as cricket and five-a side football and there’s a social aspect to it.’ There’s the added benefit, for adults or children alike, of the beauty of the setting. ‘Sun or shade I don’t think there is a more beautiful place to come and play a game of cricket, it is, so to speak, a Yorkshire idyll,’ says Adrian.

The cricket club reflects the interconnections seen so often in Ripon, linked with the local military (and less than local too – they’ve hosted army teams from Nepal and Germany) and schools. It’s a vital part of the city’s approach as the dean says: ‘I’ve seen in my five years in Ripon a growing desire for the different institutions to work together, and a strengthening of links between them, and a real appreciation of what potential there is here for local people and people who live in the wider area, opportunities for the enhancement of life.’

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