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RIPON IN WONDERLAND

Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 5th March 2010
This week, David Winpenny braves the Ripon rabbit hole in search of Wonderland inspiration.

[Alice] was a little startled by seeing the Cheshire-Cat sitting on a bough of a tree a few yards off.

The Cat only grinned when it saw Alice. It looked good-natured, she thought: still it had very long claws and a great many teeth, so she felt it ought to be treated with respect.

‘Cheshire-Puss,’ she began, rather timidly, as she did not know at all whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. ‘Come, it’s pleased so far,’ thought Alice, and she went on. ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’

‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.

‘I don’t much care where –’ said Alice.

‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.


As Tim Burton’s film of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ opens around the country, it’s time to celebrate Ripon’s links with Lewis Carroll – and perhaps to take a few philosophical lessons from this supreme work of children’s fiction.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s regular visits to Ripon, where his father, Archdeacon Dodgson, was canon-in-residence at the Cathedral for a few months each year, are well-known. The family lived, first, at the Old Hall, which is now for sale and attracting much attention in the media for its Lewis Carroll associations, and then at the now-demolished Residence near the cathedral’s east end. It is believed that some of the carvings in the cathedral influenced Carroll, especially the ones on choir stalls.

It is perhaps significant that during the years Carroll was visiting Ripon the cathedral was undergoing its major restoration by George Gilbert Scott. Among Scott’s changes was the reinstatement of the choir stalls to what he reckoned were their original form. So it is likely that Carroll saw them when they were dismantled. This would have made it easier for him to study of carvings like the griffin (which appears in ‘Through the Looking Glass’ as the Gryphon), the rabbit disappearing down a hole and the ‘blemya’, curious creatures with their faces in their bodies, just as Carroll himself drew Alice when she had shrunk.

Then there other Ripon associations – the original of the little girl drawn by Sir John Tenniell as Alice in the books was little Mary Badcock, daughter of Canon Badcock, principal of the Training College. Carroll saw her portrait in a Ripon photographer’s shop and, with her parents’ permission, sent it to Tenniell. Nearly all subsequent portrayals of Alice show her with the same long blonde hair and ribbons – even the new film. It seems rather rude, then, for Carroll to have depicted Mrs Badcock as the bad-tempered Duchess in ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

There are plenty of other Carroll associations in Ripon – but what can we learn from the books themselves? When the Cheshire Cat tells Alice that if she doesn’t mind where she wants to go, it doesn’t matter which direction she takes, it could, perhaps, be a metaphor for Ripon itself.

In Carroll’s time there was much civic pride in the city; you have only to read the entries in the Ripon Millenary Record to see what was happening. In 1865, for example, the year that ‘Alice in Wonderland’ was published, the city’s waterworks, a great public undertaking, were opened by the Mayor. The ‘City of Ripon Act’ was approved by Parliament to allow the city corporation to buy the Gas Works. A new Horn was presented to the city. A new grandstand was begun at the Racecourse, then at Redbank. And the ‘Ripon Gazette’ was first published. All this shows that Ripon was a thriving and prosperous place, in charge of its own destiny and with a clear sense of where it wanted to go.

Can we say the same of Ripon today? Do we have the same optimistic outlook? Can we, like the White Queen in ‘Through the Looking Glass’, believe ‘as many as six impossible things before breakfast’ – and then have the courage and vision to make them happen for the city? Or is it always going to be ‘jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day’ (the White Queen, again)? Are we doomed for ever to be caught between the Tweedledum of Harrogate politics and the Tweedledee of North Yorkshire, with never a real say in our destiny, with local Tea Party politics in between?

Perhaps we should be seeking direction not from the Cheshire Cats, White Queens and Humpty Dumpties of this world but from our own common sense. Then, perhaps, we could get Ripon nearer to being a real ‘Wonderland’ and not have to say, with the White Rabbit, ‘Oh my fur and whiskers! I shall be too late!’ As with the results of Alice’s eating and drinking, transformation is possible; and even if that transformation is not accompanied by ‘a sort of mixed flavour of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffy, and hot buttered toast’ we should at least make the effort. Lewis Carroll would expect nothing less.

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