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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 9th April 2010
In 2012 the Queen celebrates 60 years on the throne – how should Ripon mark the event? asks David Winpenny

What do you give to a Queen on her Diamond Jubilee?

In 1897, when Queen Victoria had been on the throne for 60 years, the city of Ripon received its most conspicuous memento of that landmark event – in the from of another, literal, landmark, the Clock Tower at the junction of Palace Road and North Street. Given by Miss FM and Miss C Cross of Coney Garths in Kirkby Road, it was unveiled on 28 June 1898 – and has caused traffic problems almost from the start.

Nevertheless, it is a fine building, designed by George Corson, who also designed the main building, with its own clock tower, of Ripon Grammar School, as well as the Grand Theatre in Leeds. Corson was a Scot, and it may have been his idea to top the Diamond Jubilee clock tower with something that every queen needs – a crown.

Where did Corson, originally from Dumfries, get his idea, not just for the gilded metal crown at the apex of the tower, but for the whole elaborate superstructure that blossoms from the square, and rather staid, bulk of the structure? For this is indeed called a ‘crown’, and a most appropriate way of celebrating Victoria’s longevity.

As a Scot, he would have known several precedents. The most obvious is the crown on top of St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. That was put up in about 1495. He may also have known the similar one at King’s College in Aberdeen, built around 1500. Then there’s the smaller crown on the Tolbooth in Glasgow. That’s a youngster of just 1626. Corson will also have known of an older example, the crown on St Nicholas Church (Cathedral from 1882) in Newcastle upon Tyne, which was built in the 1470s.

All these examples must have fed themselves into Corson’s imagination, so that when the Misses Cross commissioned their gift to Ripon and their tribute to the Queen, the crowned tower was the obvious form for him to suggest.

Something of the same thought process has been at work more recently at Westminster Abbey. A suggestion has been put forward to do something about the incomplete central tower at the Abbey. At present it is finished with an ugly low pyramid, first put up in the 1720s and replaced in concrete in the 19th century. This has always been seen as unsatisfactory, and many architects have tried to do something about it. Sir Christopher Wren suggested a spire. Nicholas Hawksmoor, designer of Ripon’s obelisk, who completed the Abbey’s western towers, came up with a dome and pinnacles. Sir Gilbert Scott designed a tall tower. None of these was ever built.

Now the Abbey’s Dean and Chapter have suggested a crown, akin to that at St Giles in Edinburgh, but constructed from wood, glass and lead rather than stone, to be built by 2013, in time for the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation in the building. It is said, somewhat contentiously perhaps, that it would be the most significant addition to the London skyline since the bullet-shaped office block known as The Gherkin.

Time will tell whether the new crown on the Abbey is ever built – and Ripon is ready to offer hospitality of the designers wish to study our Clock Tower for inspiration.

But there is another thought to be taken from the Abbey’s wish to do something about its architectural profile. Many of our medieval cathedrals have similar problems of central towers that do not really do them justice. There are, of course, some notable exceptions – Lincoln, Durham and Wells spring to mind, as does the great octagonal lantern at Ely, built when the original tower collapsed in the Middle Ages. But others suffer – York is one where more height would have given the building a greater presence when viewed from a distance. Peterborough is another – it is a great pity that the noble spire designed in the 1880s by the great Victorian architect Pearson was never built. At least he managed three spires on his new cathedral in Truro.

Spires were a preoccupation of many Victorian architects. William Burges, architect of the churches at Studley Royal and Skelton-on-Ure, designed a three-spired cathedral in the French style in Cork. And Sir Gilbert Scott’s own three-spired cathedral, St Mary’s in Edinburgh, showed his liking for them.

So it is no surprise that when Scott was in Ripon between 1861 and 1872 to restore the Cathedral, he was particularly interested in the three spires that the building once had, and was critical of the lowness of the central tower. Lightning partially destroyed the central spire in 1615; in 1660 the rest of it fell, causing much damage and much worry to the Dean and Chapter, who in 1664 had the two spires on the west towers removed, too. Writing about this work on the Cathedral, Scott gave a heavy hint of his thinking: ‘ . . . the towers have been rendered as strong as when first built, and made capable of sustaining the timber and leaded spires, of which they have been so long deprived.’

Next year is the bicentenary of Scott’s birth. The following year is the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Maybe we should now be considering how to mark these events. Just think how a new spire (or, better, three spires) on the Cathedral would show our loyalty and our vision!

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