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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 2nd April 2010
The city’s future is in safe hands, suggests David Winpenny, after a visit to a local school.

‘We go upon the practical mode of teaching, Nickleby; the regular education system. C-l-e-a-n, clean, verb active, to make bright, to scour. W-i-n, win, d-e-r, der, winder, a casement. When the boy knows this out of hook, he goes and does it.’

The lesson in how to teach that Wackford Squeers at Dotheboys Hall gave to Nicholas Nickleby in Dickens’ novel was hardly orthodox – no more than was his spelling. But it does contain a grain of truth. Children remember things better when they do something practical to reinforce the lesson.

Last week Class 4 of St Wilfrid’s Roman Catholic Primary School put on a show. And it wasn’t any old show, but a piece that they had put together themselves with their class teacher, Mrs Lyth. Called ‘God’s Own Country’, it was based on the work undertaken throughout the term in all sorts of subject areas, and it showed what they had learned.

As you might have already guessed from the show’s title, Class 4 spent the term learning about Yorkshire. And they started from the place they’re in – Ripon. In song and dance, drama and mime, verse and prose, they told the story of the city and its surroundings from the earliest times. Each child had lines to learn, as narrators and as characters in the story. The whole evening was a wonderful experience – and the children will not forget the facts they discovered for themselves in their researches, because the show reinforced their learning.

‘God’s Own Country’ was conceived on a grand scale. Its opening words set the scene: ‘Some 230 million years ago Ripon lay at the edge of a tropical sea.’ No many dramas tackle 230 million years in an hour, but Class 4 was certainly up to the job.

In a series of little dramas the audience heard about the hunter-gatherers of the area, about Thornborough Henges and about the area’s earliest farmers. Tribes settled, then the Romans came. To help the narrative along, there were regular visits from the TARDIS and a succession of Doctors – not just Dr Who but also Drs What, Where Why and When, who asked questions and gave out information as the tide of history swept on.

After the Romans, the Celts came and founded churches, then along came St Wilfrid to found what is now the cathedral. Then there are the Vikings to deal with: ‘It is the year 865 and we’ve come from Denmark on a long sea trip, and we’re sorta settling down here with the natives. And we’ve given them some new words to use like 'fell', 'gill', 'moss', and 'heath', and place names like Arkengarthdale, Gunnerside and Yockenthwaite.’

After the Norman Conquest King William laid the North waste, but by the following century monks founded chapels in Ripon – St John’s, Bondgate, and St Mary Magdalene’s. And, as Dr Where points out, ‘Ripon's basic layout dates back well over a 1000 years. That means that when you go down town Ripon today, you will probably be walking where Riponians have walked for over 1000 years.’

And still the story unfolds. Fountains Abbey, with its vast sheep runs, is founded (and one of its monks, Friar Tuck, encounters Robin Hood). There’s rebellion against Henry VIII as he closes the monasteries and changes the religion. Ripon stops making cloth and starts making spurs (presenting a pair to James I and VI on his visit to Ripon in 1617). Up the Dales everyone knits – and Class 4 had knitted madly throughout the term, making some spectacular scarves. They also learned the dialect; ‘In fact,’ says one, ‘when’t light burns itself out, we knit in’t dark or go t’bed and knit under’ blankets!’

Now here’s Hugh Ripley, first mayor (with a painting of his house to prove it), and architect Nicholas Hawksmoor who designed the obelisk (another picture). Highwayman Nevison and local ‘witch’ Nanny Appleby flit past, and the canal comes to Ripon – only to close when the railway arrives. ‘A bit noisy and dirty, but it is great to be able to travel to places from Ripon easily these days,’ says one of the passengers in the show, a shade ironically.

‘God’s Own Country’ ended with what amounted to a hymn of praise to the county: ‘We are so lucky to live in this part of North Yorkshire, a place full of living history’. . . God’s Own Country – what more could we want? As the signs welcoming people to Ripon say, “Stay awhile amid its ancient charms”.’

And the audience was left with a final thought: ‘I wonder what the famous prophetess, Mother Shipton of Knaresborough would have to say about what the future holds for this area.’ And the answer was: ‘Some of it is up to us…’

Indeed it is. And if the next generation is so well-informed about the importance of its local past, there is hope for the future. Thank you for the lesson, Class 4!

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