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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 27th February 2009
How will the economic pressures of today affect our view of the past – and how did the past view its responsibility to old buildings? asks David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society.

‘This preoccupation with protecting buildings is a very modern phenomenon,’ wrote a correspondent, ‘and goes with affluence. In the past – before the middle of the 20th century, buildings were looked on as expendable – if it didn’t work, tear it down and build something better.’

Three questions arise. Is the conservation movement a modern idea that sprang up only when we could afford to be history-minded? Is it true that in the past we were less concerned about how our buildings looked and their historical connections than about their usefulness? And – a vital question for today – will the severe financial downturn have an effect on how we view and treat our stock of historic buildings?

In Britain we have always valued our past. We have only to think of the almost-miraculous survival of St Wilfrid’s crypt under the Cathedral for this to be obvious. Yes, of course, it was preserved initially because of its associations with the saint – though that did not stop the complete removal of the rest of his great church. But over the centuries, even when it was forgotten who built in (for centuries it was believed to have been Roman) the crypt was preserved as an important part of our history.

On the national scene, too, there was often a tendency to preserve or continue the best work of the past. When Canterbury Cathedral had a fire in 1174 the masons were told to keep as much as possible of the old work as they could – and it is clear this was because of its value as a link with the past, not as an economy measure.

Even when the monasteries were dissolved – which can hardly be said to be the work of conservationists! – there was concern about the loss of historical links and the plundering of the stone that had already begun. In 1560 came the first piece of historic buildings legislation ‘A Proclamation agaynst breaking or defacing of Monumentes’ which noted that by ‘sundry people, partly ignoraunt, partely malicious or covetous there hath ben of late yeres spoyled and broken certayne auncient Monumentes ’ and set ‘lawes’ in place to stop them.

In the 17th and 18th centuries a much greater interest in the past developed – King James I, who gave Ripon and its Minster their charters, commissioned the great architect Inigo Jones to report on Stonehenge, for example (that, too, Jones thought, was Roman). Even Ripon’s Market Square was a glance to the past as well as to the future – a Roman Forum with an obelisk was much in Hawksmoor’s mind as he designed it.

In 1751 the Society of Antiquaries was founded, in part to help protect the buildings of the past – and they, like William Morris, who founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877, were particularly incensed by over-restoration of cathedrals. They were right; when architect Edward Blore ‘restored’ Ripon Minster in the 1830s he put up papier-mâché mock-Norman vaults.

It is true that most of the legislation protecting our built environment is from the 20th century – the Ancient Monuments Protection Act of 1882 dealt almost exclusively with archaeological sites – but measures like the Town and Country Planning Acts of 1932 and its later versions through the century built on long-held concern for our past.

Certainly, throughout the centuries, there were people of utilitarian views; when the Minster’s tower collapsed in 1450 the decision was not taken to rebuild in a copy of the old, but in the newest style. In the same way, Ripon has lost over the years almost all its timbered buildings (though some are hidden inside later structures). This was not done from malice but from practicality, and we cannot condemn the people who wanted better houses.

Even the way we look at our surviving old buildings has changed. The Wakeman’s House, for example, only came to look as it does in the early part of the 20th century; until the desire for picturesqueness exposed the beams it was, as it should have been, decently clothed in plaster.

So what of today? Although threats to our historic buildings from development may be eased off, it is also more difficult to put funds into the preservation of buildings when money is scarce and businesses look to survive. We need to be vigilant in ensuring that financial expediency does not allow the loss of valuable buildings by demolition for short-term gain, or by irreversible neglect. As Morris wrote in 1879 – 130 years ago – ‘these old buildings do not belong to us only; they have belonged to our forefathers and they will belong to our descendants unless we play them false. They are not in any sense our property, to do as we like with. We are only trustees for those who come after’.

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