With Google’s ‘Street View’ camera car recently seen in Ripon, David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society, considers our fascination with other people’s buildings.
‘Picturesque Views of Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland’ is the not very snappy title of a series of books published in 1880s. It contains coloured lithographs of some of the most famous country houses, and text that describes the buildings and gives a brief history of the families that lived in them.
It was a series that fed a fascination among the general public for information about how other people lived – and it was not the first. In the 18th-century there were guidebooks to country houses, some of which, like Castle Howard and Chatsworth, had always thrown their doors open to people who presented their visiting cards. By the early 19th century there was a ready market for such books, and some were issued as part-works, with sections coming out at regular (or sometimes irregular) intervals. One such was Pyne’s ‘The History of Royal Residences’, which gives the reader an intimate glimpse of houses most of them would never be able to enter.
By the 1900s magazines like ‘Country Life’ offered – as it continues to do – a series that looks at the history of country houses throughout Britain. Many of them gave a picture of what life was like before the great social upheavals brought about by two world wars and economic change in the 20th century.
From the 1950s Nikolaus Pevsner was busily cataloguing ‘The Buildings of England’ with Teutonic thoroughness, while the Shell Guides, edited by John Betjeman and John Piper, did much the same, but with rather more wit.
And, of course, in the television age, the desire to find out about the houses of other people, to see their interiors and perhaps to tut over their style, is the mainspring of programmes from Changing Rooms to Property Snakes and Ladders.
Now we have the internet. It is a wonderful resource for anyone who wants to find out about architecture, or to see what a place is like, or even just to see how their house relates to others in their area. There is, for example, ‘Images of England’ (www.imagesofengland.org.uk), which has all the official descriptions of the listed buildings in England, and photographs of the vast majority, too. Type ‘Ripon’ into the search box and it comes up with 560 entries – though Ripon covers quite a large area around the city, too. In the city centre, there are pictures, as you would expect, of the Cathedral and the Town Hall, the Wakeman’s House and the Spa Baths. But you can also find listed cottages, terraces and even gateposts. There are filters so you can search for building materials from Aberdeen granite to York stone, via bone, mud and even killas (a Cornish metamorphic rock, if you were wondering; Ripon has none). You can choose to see only a particular grade of listed buildings, a period of building or even a particular architect or designer.
If ‘Images of England’ is too specialised, Geograph (www.geograph.org.uk) will also provide pictures of Ripon – or anywhere else in the British Isles. Its aim is to have pictures from every square kilometre of Great Britain and Ireland. The pictures are contributed by the public, so it is by no means as organised as Images of England, and the quality of the images varies. There are around 70 pictures to cover the four kilometre squares that cover the centre of Ripon; they are certainly worth a look.
Then there are the aerial pictures from mapping sites like Multimap (www.multimap.com). For some places Multimap also offers bird’s-eye views, so you can see the area as if you were flying over it; Ripon has not yet achieved that distinction.
And then we come to Google. Google Earth (http://earth.google.co.uk/) is a valuable tool, though its aerial views of Ripon are much the same as Multimap’s. And now we have Street View on Google Earth, which allows viewers to ‘travel’ along the streets. Places like Leeds and York are already on the system, and the Google car, with its distinctive four-directional camera on the roof, has now been in Ripon, so we can expect to see the city on the web in this way, too.
There will always be arguments about the rights and wrongs of taking pictures of people’s houses. But the exteriors are, of their very essence, open to public view; attempting to stop people filming or photographing them for legitimate purposes is taking privacy too far. And in 50 or 100 years, we shall be as glad of them as we are today for our predecessors who pointed their cameras at Ripon and allowed us to see the city as it used to be.
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