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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 22nd May 2009
Bay windows add variety to our buildings – but bring responsibilities, too, says David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society

There is often a scene in detective stories from the last century – more Agatha Christie than Dorothy L Sayers, perhaps – where a vital clue is given to the detective by an old lady (nearly always a lady) who sits all day at her window watching on the comings and going in her street from behind a convenient lace curtain. Much the best view is usually afforded by a strategically-placed bay window – views forward and to each side – very usefully giving a panoramic view of those illicit activities that the detective just happens to need.

Bay windows are not a 20th-century invention, though. The Elizabethans knew them, and sometimes made spectacular use of them – like the huge windows squeezed on to the façade of the timbered Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire in 1559; there’s a faint echo of the style on the Wakeman’s House in Ripon’s Market Square. Even medieval buildings had their version of the bay – the oriel window, which projects from a wall at first-floor level and is usually supported in a bracket. More often, though, when early builders needed such windows they were built as part of either a full-height projection from the wall or even as a new wing. On very grand buildings all three types might be used – as in Fountains Hall.

Apart from affording amateur detectives a suitable vantage point, what are bay windows for? Foremost, of course, is their ability to allow more light into a room by providing a bigger area of window. This must have been in the forefront of the builders of the bays on the front of the Old Deanery (these may well be a later addition to the 1625 structure) and of whoever tacked a Georgian bay on to the ground floor of the west wing of Thorpe Prebend House.

Generally, though, the Georgians preferred their buildings to have facades that were less emphatically articulated, allowing the regularity of the windows to contrast with plain walls. It was only at the start of the 19th century that bay windows really came into their own – and the Victorians loved them, adding them wherever they could.

A walk around Ripon’s streets soon brings many exampled to view. The most humble of the city’s terraces are plain-fronted, but as people rose only slightly in the 19th-century social scale their houses, while of very modest size, often boasted a front bay. The middle classes liked their houses to have bays, and if you were a professional chap with a large detached house, you were likely, by the middle of the 19th century, to have a house that sprouted bay windows at every possible angle, and often of different shapes – some of the houses in South Crescent show the trend.

Commercial premises, too, liked bays. The Black Bull Inn in Old Market Place has a fine selection of bays and of their curved cousin the bow – these, like the bays at South Lodge on Harrogate Road, were added to earlier, plainer structures. Shops sometimes had their bays at first-floor level, like oriels, so that the ground floor was available for commerce – there are good examples on High Skellgate and North Street. By the time we get into the early 20th century, the bay was still a favourite. There are fine Arts and Crafts-style bays on the former Williamson’s works of 1925. Archetypical semi-detached houses have large curved bays, sometimes with half-timbering (as well as tiny oriels for the box room), as if they were a throw-back to Little Moreton Hall. As the century progressed even more-modest semis were given curved bays, often with metal Crittal windows. And bays are still being built today – many of the new terraces in the city have rows of them.

Rows of bays, though, present their own challenges. It’s all too easy for the look of a row to be marred by careless or thoughtless changes to windows – especially with uPVC frames and stick-on stained glass. The whole point about a row is for there to be some uniformity. Individualism can come inside the house; outside, householders should be aware not just of their own premises but of those surrounding them. Glazing bars should be kept in the same places and not replaced by larger, featureless sheets. Frames should be the same width as those of neighbouring houses – something that might need particular care if plastic replacements are being sought. Within the Ripon Conservation Area the rules state that windows should always be replaced with wooden frames, though unfortunately the Council rarely enforces this.

With a little detective work you will soon spot all types of bays in Ripon (do you know the fine wooden oriels on the backs of buildings in Crescent Parade, for example?) and you can imagine, if you will, a legion of Miss Marples watching over you as you pass by.

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