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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 5th December 2008
Look up at our roofs, urges David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society.

Last month’s thoughts about maintaining your house lead naturally to this week’s theme – roofs. Ripon has a wide variety of roofs, both in texture and in style. This variety helps to enrich the city and needs to be maintained and enhanced.

A roof is a roof – a practical means of keeping you dry. What is there to consider about them other than that? Quite a lot. Look around Ripon and discover the differences in them and the value they bring to the cityscape.

The city’s grandest building, the cathedral, has a roofline that is long and straight, broken only by the central tower. Perhaps overlooked when considering the rest of the architecture, the roof is as vital a part as the walls and columns. Yet even here everything is not quite as it seems. Look at the places where the roof abuts the central tower, and you will see that the pitch of the roof has been altered several times over the centuries.

One of the city’s most imposing roofs in the city is the one on the apsidal tower of St Wilfrid’s church on Coltsgate Hill. Banded in different coloured slates and topped with an iron decoration, the triangular slopes of the roof, raised high above the little cottages beside it and in geometrical contrast to the square solidity of the nearby Coltsgate Hill Chapel, dominate this part of the city, as well as the views from the north.

Very close by is one of Ripon’s most unusual roofs, covering the former workshops of Abbotts’ furniture shop. This is what’s known as a mansard roof – a double slope, with the lower slope steeper than the upper. The idea, of course, is to create more roof space; it’s a trick that has been used since at least the 17th century; the name comes from the French architect Francois Mansart, who was the first to use it on any scale. It’s now a popular method of adding extra rooms to office blocks without increasing their height.

Sometimes the roofs are subsidiary to other elements of the design – the tall glazed lanterns on the 1904 frontage of the Spa Baths are an example. The roofs are varied by using both slates and pantiles, but are kept simple so they do not detract from the carefully-detailed lanterns.

If a building wants to show its pretentions to grandeur, the roof may be hidden entirely behind a parapet or a balustrade. Sir Christopher Wren was a master at this sort of visual trickery. Look at the sides of St Paul’s Cathedral and they seem to be straight-topped, solid walls; but all the upper parts are just blank facades; behind them are conventional sloping roofs over the aisles. Ripon has nothing so grand, but the same urge to swagger is present in the city. Look at Motor World on Westgate, Burton’s on the Market Square and the former Palladium Cinema (now Matrix nightclub) in Kirkgate, for example.

Straight rooflines are not always desirable; look at how the rectangular block of flats at the end of Crescent Parade sits so dumpily in contrast to the soaring roofs of the adjacent Victorian houses.

Yet it is the variety and style of the roofs on the lesser buildings in the city that give it a particular character. Look carefully at any of the older streets in the city centre and you will see how the rooflines are never uniform but change in their pitch and in their materials to provide a rich texture. Westgate is a good example, where the northern side of the street, looking east from Valentino’s restaurant, displays roofs of different heights, slopes and materials – as well as a fine array of chimneys and dormers – that are characteristic of Ripon.

Low winter sunshine helps to bring out the particular qualities of these roofs, creating shadows and enhancing the colour contrasts, like Hamlet’s ‘majestical roof fretted with golden fire’. They are one of the treasures of Ripon, and they deserve our care and respect.

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