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MAKING AN ENTRANCE

Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 27th November 2009
In Bartok’s opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle seven doors prove a temptation to the Duke’s new wife, Judith. She insists that each is opened, thinking she will let light into the gloomy castle. What she finds behind them – different aspects of Bluebeard’s life, mostly blood-spattered, make her fate, incarcerated with previous wives behind the seventh door, inevitable.

Doors and doorways have always been important – not just because they give access, but for symbolic reasons, too. Bishops taking up a post at a Cathedral symbolically knock with their crozier on the door to gain admittance. The House of Commons symbolically slams the door in the face of the monarch’s representative, Black Rod, at the State Opening of Parliament. In fiction, prison doors always clang ominously behind anyone detained. And where would Alice in Wonderland be without the various doors though which she sometimes can and sometimes cannot pass?

When he was living in Ripon, Charles Dodgson – Lewis Carroll – must have known some of the doors of the city well. Perhaps the most magnificent of the Ripon’s doorways are at the cathedral – the superb early 13th-century triple portico with its many columns really tells visitors and pilgrims that they have arrived at somewhere very important. That must have been an even more overwhelming experience when the rest of Ripon consisted of small, timber-framed houses.

The great doors inside the portico, one with the date 1673 in nails, are equally designed to have an impact on the visitor. When the current plans for the west end of the cathedral are realised, and the doors can be fully opened to allow a full view from outside, the city will have regained one of the views that for hundreds of years would have impressed local people. And there is symbolism here, of course – a reminder of Christ’s words ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock’.

Much simpler, and no doubt also well known by Carroll, is the doorway to St Mary Magdalen’s Chapel. In fact, it is two doorways – the narrow pointed arch is set into an earlier Norman doorway, with its characteristic round arch.

Much of what we see in Ripon today, though, is not medieval. Although earlier structures lurk behind later facades, the centre of the city is essentially Georgian, Victorian and 20th-century. And the doorways of each period provide interesting contrasts.

The Georgians really knew what to do with a doorway. If you were asked which is the most famous doorway in the country, it’s a fair bet that most of you would say ’10 Downing Street’. That is a typical Georgian entrance – panelled door, graceful fanlight, subtle, classically-inspired doorcase. And what the Prime Minister has, Ripon has, too, in a good many of its buildings.

Perhaps pride of place should go to the offices of solicitors Eccles Heddon in Westgate. Miraculously for a building so near the city centre, it has retained everything that a self-respecting middle-class Georgian town house should have – including its pillared doorway and semi-circular fanlight. A little further from the Square, some of the Park Street houses, too, have fine doorways; one has an even more elaborate fanlight, and the door, set beneath a three-part Venetian window, is surrounded by the long and short stonework that is known as a ‘Gibbs Surround’.

A generation or so later, styles were getting simpler, but no less elegant. The terrace of houses on Harrogate Road, in a subdued Greek Revival style, has simple arched surrounds to the doors, but there are still fanlights. Much further down the social scale, but no less elegant, are some of the terraced houses of Ure Bank. Where they have been allowed to retain their original style their doorways are well-proportioned and effective.

Towards the end of the 19th century and into the 20th things get a little more ornate. Some of the houses in The Crescent have elaborate doorframes, while by the time the Edwardians arrive anything goes – from the blockiness of the door to the Masonic Hall in Water Skellgate, for example, to the gloriously over-the-top exuberance of the Spa Baths, perhaps the best of Ripon’s entrances since the Cathedral, and one that must be preserved for public use.

Today’s doorways are, by contrast, mostly timid and uninspired. They either try to hark back to the past (like the column-clad entrance to The Arcade) or, for commercial premises, are just boring modern coated-steel frames. The argument is perhaps that what lies behind them is more important; but it would be good to have a bit more imagination shown as designers tackle that most important of features, the doorway.

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