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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 6th March 2009
We should reinstate a proper precinct around the Cathedral, Argues David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society

In 1851 the art critic John Ruskin took a little diversion in his great work of architectural criticism ‘The Stones of Venice’ to describe the typical English cathedral close, as a contrast to the bustle of St Mark’s Square.

‘And now I wish that the reader, before I bring him into St. Mark's Place, would imagine himself for a little time in a quiet English cathedral town, and walk with me to the west front of its cathedral. Let
us go together up the more retired street, at the end of which we can see the pinnacles of one of the towers, and then through the low gray gateway, with its battlemented top and small latticed window in the centre, into the inner private-looking road or close, where nothing goes in but the carts of the tradesmen who supply the bishop and the chapter . . . And so, taking care not to tread on the grass, we will go along the straight walk to the west front, and there stand for a time, looking up at its deep-pointed porches . . . and so, higher still, to the bleak towers, so far above that the eye loses itself among the bosses of their traceries.’

Ruskin’s vision of the old cathedral surrounded by its close and kept away from the bustle of everyday life might seem an idyll, yet you can still find it in some places – Salisbury, for example, or Exeter, Canterbury or Wells. In other places it has vanished – think of the traffic that roars past Worcester Cathedral, for example.

What do we have in Ripon? A fine approach down Kirkgate (finer still if the traffic was properly controlled and vehicles were actively prevented from using it in defiance of the regulations). This is Ruskin’s ‘retired street’ and we can, as he says, see the towers at the end of it. And then what? A placid green? A handsome courtyard? No; a wide road.

When Minster Road was constructed past the cathedral’s west front and down its north side, the traffic it conveyed was not the cars and vans of today, but the ‘carts of the tradesmen’ and the horses of the gentry. What may have been acceptable then, today looks like folly – it is doing the fabric and structures of the building no good, and it is off-putting to members of the cathedral congregation and to the visitors who are a vital part of Ripon’s economy.

So moves to have Minster Road closed to through traffic must come to fruition at some point soon. Of course, there will be the usual hands thrown up in horror, the claims that Minster Road is a vital link in Ripon’s traffic scheme, the dire predictions that a closure would lead to chaos on a scale even worse than that seen when Coltsgate Hill was first shut. Do not listen – start with the idea that it can be done, then work out how it is to be achieved, not with the attitude that it is impossible before you consider it.
In 1989 York grasped the nettle and closed their equivalent to Minster Road – Deangate.

The road ran right alongside the south front of York Minster and was a main through route from west to east. It was shut – and to celebrate the Dean and the Chairman of York Civic Trust were photographed for the press eating a celebratory dinner, complete with tablecloth, silverware and glasses of champagne, outside the south transept, where the previous day the HGVs had thundered. There were still doubters, of course; one said that there would be so much chaos that the road would soon have to be reopened, and that when it was he would hire a flatbed lorry, invite his friends for lunch on the back and drive it up and down Deangate. It never happened, and 20 years on there are very few who would welcome the traffic back.

Ripon could achieve something similar. Take the decision, reinstate a precinct around the cathedral, and see how much better it will be. You will never want to go back – that is a guarantee. And when it happens, you may see the Chairman of the Civic Society having lunch where now the traffic rushes past; he might even invite the Dean . . .

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