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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 30th April 2010
O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!

The words of Robert Burns (oddly enough from his poem ‘To a Louse’) must sometimes occur to residents of Ripon when they are away from the city. Answering the inevitable question from new acquaintances ‘And where are you from?’ with ‘North Yorkshire – Ripon’ often brings the response ‘What a nice place’ or ‘I do like Ripon’ or even ‘How lucky you are!’

The perspective of other people – can often bring us up short. If we live in Ripon, we too often think of the problems we have rather than the advantages, so it is perhaps a good idea to stop to consider just what Ripon is like. And there is plenty of evidence from the past to show us what other people have thought about the city.
The earliest references, in Eddius’s Life of St Wilfrid, written between 710 and 720, and in Bede’s History of the English Church and People’ tell us a little about Wilfrid’s church but nothing about the settlement surrounding it. Medieval charters tell us about markets, but again give no description and certainly no reaction to the town. In the 1530s Leland notes ‘The very Place wher the Market stede and the Hart of the Towne is was sumtyme caullid Holy-Hille of holy trees ther growing, wherby it apperith that that Part of the Toun is of a small Continuance.’ But we need to wait until 1698, when inveterate traveller and vivid diarist Celia Fiennes arrives in Ripon, before we get anything resembling a modern, ‘tourist’ take.
After visiting ‘St Mongers Well’ at ‘Cockgrave’ (ie St Mungo’s Well at Copgrove – spelling was not her strong point), ‘Burrough Bridge’ and ‘Knarsborough’ she arrives in ‘Rippon a pretty little Market town mostly built of Stone, a large Market place with a high Cross of severall steps; we were there the market day when provisions are very plentifull and cheap . . . notwithstanding this plenty some of the Inns are very dear to Strangers that they can impose on; the town stands on a hill and there is a good large stone built Church well carved they call it a Minster.’

Hot on her heels was Daniel Defoe, making his ‘Tour through the whole Island of Great Britain’. He came in 1726 and reported, ‘Ripon is a very neat, pleasant, well built town, and has not only an agreeable situation on rising ground between two rivers, but the market place is the finest and most beautiful square that is to be seen of its kind in England.’ Between Celia Fiennes’ visit and Defoe’s, Nicholas Hawksmoor had replaced the ‘high Cross of severall steps’ with what Defoe describes as ‘a curious column of stone, imitating the obelisks of the ancients.’
Into the 19th century, and local historian John Walbran tells us ‘Most of the Streets are narrow . . . the chief Market-place is very spacious’ – hardly the most stirring of descriptions. The 20th century treated the city more kindly. Arthur Mee, undertaking mammoth journeys for his series ‘The King’s England’, wrote during World War II, ‘It is one of the smallest of our cities, an old-world place in the shadow of the cathedral towers, yet it has a pump room and baths which bring it up-to-date as a 20th-century health resort. Its attractive gardens, green spaces, and river banks are delightful.’

Mostly, the 20th-century writers were, it seems, content with generalities, though the writer in ‘This Beautiful Britain in 1974 wrote that Ripon is ‘a peaceful little city, one of the smallest in Britain, which still finds the 20th century an uncomfortable experience’! One who thought a little more was Henry Thorold, whose entry on Ripon in ‘Collins Guide to Cathedrals, Abbeys and Priories of England and Wales’, published in 1986, begins with the words, ‘Ripon is among the least-known pleasures of England – a small, remote cathedral town, in remote Yorkshire countryside. Harrogate, Fountains Abbey, Studley Royal, Wensleydale: these are known and visited; Ripon remains little visited and unsung.’

So when our new acquaintances tell us how lucky we are to live in Ripon, or when we read some of the opinions from visitors of the past, how do we feel? Does our bosom swell with pride, or do we think ‘Little do they know?’

A couple of years ago Ripon Civic Society’s survey of residents and visitors showed that people coming for the first time were enchanted by Ripon, praising its historic streets, its charm and its quirkiness. Residents mostly complained about traffic and parking. Perhaps that was inevitable – but it is a shame that we who live in the city are not more positive about it more of the time. The new ‘I Love Ripon’ campaign is making a start in encouraging all of us to do just that. Let’s take the message on board, and work to make Ripon the attractive and welcoming place that outsiders believe it to be – and that, despite our grumbles, it really is – or, as Burns says, ‘see ourselves as others see us.’

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