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, 12th February 2010
David Winpenny looks at Ripon from on high.

The aerial views of Ripon published over the last few weeks in the Ripon Gazette have been instructive.

Of course it’s always fascinating to a see a place from a different perspective, and to have a bird’s eye view of the area in which we live, work or shop. There are always the tantalising questions – Can I see my house, or is it just off the picture? When was that taken? Or even ‘What’s his car doing there . . .?’

But there are other things that come to mind, too. First, from the air it is easier to see the intricacies of the street patterns in the centre of the city – intricacies that have been with us for perhaps a millennium or more. We can see how the twists and turns of the streets follow what geographers call desire lines – the most convenient route between places, taking into account the lie of the land and any obstacles, natural or man-made, on the route. It quickly becomes obvious that this accidental street pattern is not ideal for modern traffic. That, inevitably, leads to a consideration of whether we should be attempting to adapt the pattern we have inherited to the traffic of today, or whether we should do our best to ensure better traffic flow by keeping the city centre as free from traffic as possible.

There is, of course, a striking exception to the higgledy-piggledy nature of Ripon’s central street plan. Although a Market Square existed in the Middle Ages, it was only at the beginning of the 17th century that it was regularised into the current shape, and the obelisk placed in the centre to mark the Square’s aspirations to emulate the Roman Forum. This regular formality must have seemed alien to many of the citizens, but it was also something of which they were soon proud; an attitude that sometimes seems distant today, when it is abused by misuse and seen only as another car park.

And, talking of car parking, the aerial views show quite startlingly just how many of Ripon’s open areas are used for parking, both formal and informal. We all know that at certain times Ripon has problems with parking, and it could be argued that the parking patterns shown from the air are an example of the ingenuity of human beings to adapt to their environment. Or you might argue that it shows that, in a place that is as relatively small as Ripon, we rely too much on the car. Certainly, there are discussions that we shall have to face if the hitherto relentless rise of the car continues.

On the plus side, the views also show that Ripon has a great deal of greenery – open spaces like the Spa Gardens and Spa Park, Temple Gardens, Allhallows Park, the gardens of the Spa Hotel. It also has spaces that are not built on because of the difficulties of the underlying geology, especially the gypsum deposits. And we also have many fine trees: perhaps more of them need preservation orders so we can keep the city as attractive as it is.

It is curious how Ripon’s rivers do not seem to have as prominent a place in the aerial views as one might imagine. The Skell and the Laver seem almost ignored, except where we need to bridge them. The Ure, a more impressive river, has more presence, but is hardly central to the life of the city. We have plenty of riverside walks that enable citizens and visitors to enjoy the views, but, despite their importance in the settlement of the city, the rivers now seem to have taken second place.

Looking down from above, the roofs of the city are brought into prominence. The overwhelming impression here is of many orange pantiled roofs, interspersed near the centre with slates. In the 19th century, slates were fashionable, but in all the modern developments, with a few exceptions (including the new Booths development, which is slate-roofed) pantiles have become more prominent. And alongside this there is the predominance of brick in the construction of the buildings. Of course, the more ancient structures – pre-eminently the cathedral – are of stone, but despite Ripon’s proximity to stone deposits, brick has been the building material of choice since the 18th century. What is not obvious, either from the air or from the ground, is the large amount of ancient timber-framing that still exists behind some of the later ‘polite’ brick facades – or the modern timber frames that speed up modern construction.

There is one aspect of these aerial views for which we should be profoundly grateful – the fact that we can see them at all. A similar exercise carried out 50 – or even 30 – years ago would have found the city wrapped in the smoke of domestic fires and, in places, of industrial emissions. So even if we are wrestling with a street pattern bequeathed to us from long ago, we can at least see what we have to deal with!

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