David Winpenny discovers the (very) hidden charms of a Ripon street.
Here are some words beloved of estate agents; 18th-century, ornamental, stucco, fanlight, Yorkshire casements, colour-washed, Tuscan door-cases, panelled doors, dormers. Here are two more: original features.
Such words would have many house-buyers reaching for their cheque-books or applying for a mortgage, even in these straitened times. And what if there was not just one house with all these features, but a whole street? And if that street was in a cathedral city with glorious countryside on its doorstep? Surely, not only would we have prospective purchasers queuing to snap up any house that came on to the market, but would also find the writers of guidebooks wheeling out their purplest prose to wax lyrical over its charms.
Well, such a street exists, and in Ripon. Not only does it have all the features that will get an enthusiastic reception from agents and paeans of praise from journalists; it also has plenty of attractive, unaltered 19th-century shop-fronts, and a homely and attractive local pub, too.
So where is this paragon of streets? Is it celebrated in agents’ windows, praised in the county magazines and spoken of almost in the same breath as the cathedral? Not so you’d notice. Yet it is one of the most used streets in Ripon – and that’s its drawback. This street is Low Skellgate.
If you brave the speed bumps on Harrogate Road to enter the city that way, Low Skellgate is really the first part of Ripon’s historic core that you reach. Swing over the bridge and round the old Williamson’s building, and you’re there.
You’re probably there for quite a while, too, given the idiosyncrasies of the traffic lights ahead. What’s your impression? Of a narrow street, of course, and one that is a problem for two-way traffic. Of often rather grubby, somewhat faded buildings on each side, of closed shops and, perhaps, overflowing gutters and leaking fall-pipes. A boarded-up pub next door to a building site. It does not make you think of guidebooks and a fine entrance to a historic city centre.
But if you really look at Low Skellgate, there is a great deal to be said in its favour. Those Victorian shop-fronts, for example. They are a very varied lot, with some handsome features – the listing description of one (they are all listed buildings) calls it a ‘particularly elaborate contemporary shop-front: pilasters, elaborate carved consoles to cornice, glazing bars, clustered pilasters with Tower of the Winds capitals and unusually carved blocks above these.’ A Tower of the Winds capital is the ornate top to a column (in this case an attached column, or ‘pilaster’) and it is based on ones at the building of that name in Athens – so here’s a Ripon link with ancient Greece!
Taken as a group, these shop-fronts in Low Skellgate are a precious reminder of the way Ripon used to be before the shopping area shrank, and before a shop’s façade meant as large a plate-glass window as possible and no architectural design at all. If they were all that Low Skellgate had to offer, that alone would make it worth studying. But there is more.
Look at the houses. You may get a general impression of Victorian dinginess, but keep looking. There are low, two-storey cottages that are probably at least 17th-century in origin, despite their later windows and doors, and most likely are timber-framed. There are 18th-century houses, some with fine door-cases. There are early 19th-century terraced houses, restrained and stately, with round-arched doorways. There are grander, mid-19th-century houses with elaborate stucco window-heads. Low Skellgate is a veritable pattern-book of good provincial housing.
And then there’s the pub – the Turk’s Head. The more you study it, the more interesting it is. The listing says it is ‘C18, altered in mid-C19’ – though its origins could be even earlier. Its curve-headed windows (now boarded up), and the moulded cornice that does a little hop over the door, are early 19th century. The moulded pair of doves on the upper story is mirrored in the cast-iron grill below. The whole place has (or at least had) a festive and welcoming air.
But any festivity is gone, not just from the Turk’s Head but from the whole street. It should be one of Ripon’s most attractive thoroughfares – yet it is vilely treated. Every 20 minutes of daytime it is shaken by the passage of two 36 buses, one in each direction. Cars and lorries are always queuing for most of its length, polluting the atmosphere and blackening the buildings. Pedestrians take their lives in their hands when negotiating the narrow pavements. And the whole city suffers from this first, gloomy, depressing introduction.
Perhaps we have all become so used to it that we think little of it. Yet Low Skellgate really needs sorting out. It should be traffic free – and it is not beyond the wit of the local authorities to find a way of doing so, as part of a bigger, wider-ranging plan to finally sort out Ripon’s traffic. If this means building a short section of new road to link with others and bypassing Low Skellgate, then please get in with it!
Then, perhaps, we may be able to recognise Low Skellgate for the fine street that it really is.
NB This article was due for publication in the Ripon Gazette on 19 Mach, but because of technical problems at the printers, is printed on 26 March 2010 instead.
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