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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 17th April 2009
Wood is, long-lived, adaptable and useful – but it needs looking after, says David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society

It’s likely that our earliest ancestors built in wood. When Britain was densely forested, wood was in plentiful supply and quicker and easier to work than stone. Throughout the millennia, wood has proved one of the most adaptable and useful of all natural products.

It is durable, too. Given the right conditions, it can survive for thousands of years. In December 1999 a wooden circle was discovered at Holme-next-the-Sea on the north Norfolk coast. It has been dated to around 2,500 BC, the time of the early Bronze Age. We know this because wood can be accurately dated. Tree rings are laid down each year, and vary in thickness according to the climate. So if you have old trees to which you can compare the rings of the wood you are trying to date, you can get a very accurate reading – the science of dendrochronology, first used in the early 20th century.

Fortunately, trees live a long time. Britain’s oldest living tree is reckoned to be the Fortingall Yew in the churchyard at Fortingall in Perthshire, southwest of Pitlochry – it is around 3,000 years old. It is a mere sapling, though, compared to the bristlecone pines of California – they are almost 5,000 years old. These ancient trees are valuable reminders of the past as well as being useful for dendrochronology.

There are other techniques that are useful in dating, too. When timbers are used in buildings, the techniques of the carpenters are an indication of the age of buildings. Old churches and barns in particular can shed interesting light on the use of timber; did the carpenters use lap joints or mortise and tenon, for example? How is the roof constructed? How was the wood shaped – with an axe, and adze or a plane? Using a combination of dendrochronology and forensic carpentry investigations, investigators have found that many pieces of ancient woodwork still survive in the structure of buildings. Barns may be older than they seem – the barley barn at Cressing Temple in Essex has been dated back to 1206, for example. And many ancient roofs survive – from the magnificent hammerbeam roof of Westminster Hall, ordered in 1399, to simple lean-to roofs on little country churches.

Wood will rot if not cared for. Roof timbers are usually protected by a protection of tile, slate, thatch or other covering. It still needs to be looked after, of course. The ravages of insects – especially the notorious Death Watch Beetle with it ominous ticking sound – can soon destroy timber. So can damp and fungus. And while stout oak beams can withstand quite severe burning, fire is a constant threat.

Not many of us, of course, own buildings of great age that contain historic woodwork. But, despite the best efforts of the sellers of uPVC windows, doors and bargeboards, many of us still have wood outside our houses. In some cases it can be of the most decorative kind. In some parts of Ripon there are attractive semicircular or rectangular Georgian fanlights with thin glazing bars. On some of the imposing Victorian houses just out of the centre there are curving and decorative bargeboards. And a walk along College Road will bring you to Edwardian houses with a delightful array of porches, each one different and alive with curves and curlicues or with downward-pointing ‘dags’ like a the canopy of a country railway station. Look out, too, for wooden dormer windows finished with wooden spikes; Ripon has lots of those.

All this wood needs careful protection, with regular painting and maintenance. It can be difficult, of course, when the buildings are very tall. In Crescent Parade, for example, some of the houses have bargeboards that end in pierced circles – rather like huge wooden buttons. These vary in their state; some are well looked after; others need attention. And it is obvious that on some of the houses the ‘buttons’ have been lost many years ago from lack of maintenance – which is a pity.

Woodwork is an important part of the city’s look, and it needs regular maintenance to keep it in good condition. Two examples of what happens without such care spring to mind. In Trinity Lane the timber merchants’ premises once had a glazed semicircular window. The frame is still there but it will not last much longer; its loss would be unfortunate. And even more visible is the state of Ripon’s only wooden listed building, the Cabmen’s Shelter; no doubt the council is on to the problem.

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