Picture of the Obelisk and Civic Society Crest Banner: a montage of Ripon architecture
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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 7th December 2008
Three hundred years ago there was pride in the city. David Winpenny, Co-Chairman of Ripon Civic Society, asks if we can still say the same.

The recent appearance of a council employee using a high-pressure hose to clean the city-centre streets was a welcome reminder that we need to take pride in our environment. There have, in particular, been grumblings about the state of the Square, especially around the obelisk, which seems in particular to attract waste food cartons and their contents.

Pride in the city was behind the efforts of the city council, led by the MP John Aislabie, at the beginning of the 17th century, when they transformed the rough medieval Market Square into its concept of a Roman forum – the forum populi. They were led in their vision by one of England’s greatest architects, Nicholas Hawksmoor. Hawksmoor was steeped in the architecture of classical times, so his plan to pave the Square was based on ancient and Renaissance precedents – among them public spaces like Rome’s Piazza Navona. And as they often – like Navona and St Peter’s Square – had obelisks at the centre, Hawksmoor was determined that Ripon should have the same feature.

The result is Britain’s earliest surviving free-standing obelisk, erected in 1702 at a cost of £564 11s 9d – of which £334.3s 9d was paid by Aislabie. He was probably motivated by his political ambition; he later became Chancellor of the Exchequer, but resigned in disgrace. Donations, resignations – how different from our own times . . .

Of course, people in the first years of the 18th century were much the same as we are. Hawksmoor knew what they could get up to, so he designed the obelisk with rough-finished stone: ‘It is wrought thus to keep idle persons from making Letters and writing what stuff they please upon it, and doing other Mischiefs and Brutalities’, he wrote. Repairs and modifications have done away with this anti-vandal finish, and with the railings that protected the obelisk’s plinth. Gone, too, are sculptures of lions and, possibly, other heraldic beasts round the top of the plinth. And an early suggestion Hawksmoor made, for ‘a projecture that in time of rain will shelter ye market people’, was not taken up. It would have looked like a giant star sticking out at right angles about 15 feet up – and would have been very impracticable.

As Daniel Defoe noted in his ‘Tour of the Whole Island of Great Britain’, published in 1724, ‘the market place is the finest and most beautiful square that is to be seen of its kind in England. In the middle of it stands a curious column of stone, imitating the obelisks of the ancients.’ The Roman grandeur conjured up by Hawksmoor, Aislabie and the city fathers was obviously working. They saw the Market Square as the heart and the pride of the city. Would they think so today?

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