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, 29th January 2010
David Winpenny looks at some of Ripon’s buildings to see what they tell us about the city’s history

The BBC has been busy promoting its latest historical series ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’. On television and radio, experts have been telling us of the significance of some of the artefacts in the British Museum.

Could we do the same exercise for Ripon? – or if 100 objects seems rather ambitious, how about 10? And rather than objects, why not buildings, or even parts of buildings? So here’s ‘A History of Ripon in 10 structures’. The list is not definitive; like all lists, it is subjective and opinionated. Feel free to argue and to make up your own.

1 The Crypt in Ripon Cathedral. As the earliest substantial survivor of Ripon’s past, the crypt is a remarkable link with the age of St Wilfrid, 1300 years ago. Today we can see it carefully-lit and tidily-presented. But imagine it in the days before electric light, when it was lit by flickering candles and was perhaps, filled with the smoke of incense. It must have seemed hardly to have altered since Wilfrid’s time.
2 The Wakeman’s House. It is, perhaps, the most obvious of Ripon’s early houses (part of a much larger former structure) because of its prominent position and its (probably spurious) historic associations. Its interior is more authentic than its Victorianised outside, with the artificially-blackened beams that were never meant to be exposed. It shows how we alter buildings to suit our view of the past.
3 The House of Correction. Although its date, 1686, is later than the Old Deanery, the House of Correction has been less altered, so it tells us more, perhaps, about our forebears’ style, as well as about their way of treating wrong-doers. Its range of mullioned windows shows something else, too – a stylistic time-lag. By the late 17th century they were 100 years out of date. Maybe that is a lesson for us today; should we be embracing a more modern style for our buildings rather than allowing polite timidity to rule?
4 The Obelisk. Built in 1702, this is the earliest free-standing obelisk in Britain. The architect, Nicholas Hawksmoor, said it was designed ‘according to the most exact antient symetry’. It was intended to stand at the centre of an open ‘forum populi’, based on Rome’s Piazza Navona. It was a huge vote of civic confidence in Ripon at the beginning of the 18th century; it is a tragedy that the way we treat the Square today shows that we cannot match that sureness of pride in the city.
5 Minster House. In some ways Minster House, tucked into the ridge just below the Cathedral’s south-west corner, is not typical of Ripon. It is more akin to a small country house. It is certainly the grandest of the city’s houses, significantly of brick rather than of stone. Since the early 18th century, when Minster House was built, Ripon has built as much in brick as in stone. The house is elegant and restrained, with good interiors – an indication of the value of comfortable and stylish living.
6 The Town Hall. In some ways the Town Hall, designed by the fashionable James Wyatt between 1799 and 1801, is a failure – or a missed opportunity. It suffers from its narrow site, and the unavoidable fact that it is part of a terrace of buildings. And it’s a pity that Mrs Allanson of Studley Royal didn’t give a little more money to allow the columns to be fully detached; that would have given it more presence and grandeur.
7 The Workhouse. Institutional building in the mid-19th century is always instructive of social attitudes. Most of the building, where the inmates were housed and treated, is of the plainest functional architecture. Only where the Board of Guardians met do we find anything fancy, in the form of the curly Dutch gables on the gateway.
8 The Grammar School. When the school moved to Bishopton it nearly had buildings by the great Victorian architect William Burges – but he was replaced by a lesser, though still interesting, designer. He was George Corson, a Scott whose practice was in Leeds; he designed the Grand Theatre there. His red-brick, mullion-windowed style is typical of later Victorian scholastic architecture – and a clock tower was a sine qua non of the age. Later additions perhaps show we have yet to find another suitable style for such buildings.
9 The Clock Tower. This is really a frippery – apart from giving the time to travellers hastening towards the station, it was otherwise just a big cheer for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. It is another work by Corson, with something of his Scottish upbringing emerging in its upper section. What will we have to celebrate our own queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2010?
10 The Spa Baths. If you read this column regularly, you will know why the 1904 Spa Baths building is important to Ripon and to a wider area. It celebrated the tercentenary of the giving of the 1604 charter to the city. Can we in all conscience see it being disposed of to private use only a century on?
And what of the 20th and 21st centuries? What can we point to? It’s a matter to ponder, and perhaps one to return to. Any ideas would be welcome!

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