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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 5th February 2010
David Winpenny asks a pertinent about how Ripon fits in.

Where in the world is Ripon? This is not intended to be a rude question, but one to ponder.

If we discount all the other things named after Ripon around the world – like the cities in Wisconsin and California, falls in Uganda, roads and buildings in India, hills in Western Australia and cottages in South Africa, we return to our own city and repeat the question – where in the world are we?

Look at a satellite map, like those found on Google Earth. At the widest focus Ripon is an infinitesimal dot on the globe. As we zoom nearer, we become a more recognisable part of, progressively, Europe, Britain, England . . . Then we’re in the North, and it’s clear that Ripon is well-placed in the lee of the Pennines, on the edge of the fertile plain that stretches east to the wilder reaches of the North York Moors.

All this is obvious geographical information, and must always have been thus, give or take the forests and marshes that were once present where now there are open hills and fertile agricultural land. But how does Ripon sit socially and politically?

If we go back into history, for much of the history of Ripon it was the Church that gave it importance – from the Celtic monastery, though St Wilfrid’s foundation and into the long era when the Archbishops of York held the power in the area. Give or take a few marauding Danes, religiously-motivated uprisings and battles rolling across the plain, Ripon’s fortunes were for centuries tied to the opinions – sometimes the whims – of the Church, both before and after the Reformation.

By the 18th century that influence had largely passed to the landowners, and especially to the gentry at Studley Royal. For many years Ripon’s political opinions were formed by the Aislabies and their descendents; the city was effectively a pocket borough, whose burgage-holders – the only ones allowed to vote – mostly knew not to bite the hand that fed them with patronage by casting their votes elsewhere. The city had sent members to parliament regularly since 1553; the first Ripon MP attended in 1295.

All this time, Ripon served as the market town for the area, drawing in trade from the Dales and from the vale, offering modest (or sometimes even immodest) entertainments and providing plenty of pubs. The long-established Thursday market was the social centre of the week. Regulation was undertaken by the Mayor and Councillors.

In the 19th century there were changes. Under the Local Government Act of 1888 a new layer of governance was imposed – the County Council. Ripon was part of the West Riding County Council area – right at its extremity, in fact. This lasted until 1974, when the kaleidoscope was shaken again, and Ripon became part of North Yorkshire and the city council was relegated to parish council status, though it kept its title. The Ripon parliamentary constituency became Skipton and Ripon in 1983 and remained so in the recent boundary changes.

And after another quarter of a century, where are we? Still geographically the same, still serving as a centre for the local area, still voting for our councils and our MP, of course. But today we’re also a small cog in the Yorkshire and the Humber Region, which has its own Government Office. We’re also part of the Leeds City Region – one of its far-flung outposts of empire. And we’re also peripheral to another area, one also promulgated by the Yorkshire and the Humber Government Office. This is the sub-area they call Vale and Tees (though Ripon also appears under the ‘Remoter Rural’ sub-grouping, too). This suggests we should be looking north to the Tees rather than south to the Aire.

This is a very simplified look at the question of where Ripon is. The answer seems to be that, these days, no one is quite sure. So should Ripon be the chameleon that changes its colour according to its background? Are we sometimes part of Leeds, or of Teesside, or of the ‘remoter rural’ area (one might ask, ‘Remote from what’?) Do we look over the hills to Skipton, or right across the Broad Acres and beyond as part of Yorkshire and the Humber? How do we relate to national, European and international government? How, indeed, to we make our voice heard?

Perhaps there really is no answer; maybe we have to be all things, changing as the audience we address changes. The danger is that then we cease to have any strong identity. Is that a price we should – or need – pay?

What we should, perhaps, be looking to do is strengthen our standing – a new hotel and a restored railway link would help to attract more visitors, and put Ripon back in the minds of visitors. Then Ripon would be once more on the map, and ‘Where on earth is Ripon?’ a question that is more eagerly asked.

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