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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 30th July 2010
How do you tell a place’s character? asks David Winpenny

At a meeting last weekend, the Director of the North of England Civic Trust posed an interesting question; if you were to be dropped, blindfold into a village, town or city anywhere in the world, without any indication as to where you might be, how would you know where you were?

Take off your blindfold and there will, of course, be obvious indications. If the inhabitants are speaking English, and the shop, street and road signs are in English, that immediately cuts down the possibilities.

Accents, if nothing else, might give the game away. If you think you’re in Britain or Ireland, it’s quite likely you’ll be able to decide if you are Wales or Scotland, in Ulster or the Republic of Ireland. If you ear is attuned to English regional accents, you might pin the place down to East Anglia, to the South West or the North East.

But just suppose (it’s unlikely, but keep with it) that there are no signs, and that there are no people around. What will give you a notion of your location then? You might possibly rely on climate – if it’s boiling hot it might not be the Falklands; it might be parts of Australia. But this is hardly a reliable guide, especially these days when we find temperature fluctuations and extreme weather all over the planet.

So, without any other clues, you’ll need to consider what the place looks like. What gives it its special character? How the buildings appear? Again, it’s easy in some places. Mud huts or shanties would not suggest the English Home Counties, perhaps. Well-insulated chalets with great piles of logs outside might suggest you’re not in the deserts of Australia.

But let’s assume you can pick up the fact that you’re likely to be in Britain. Let’s further suppose that you can work out you’re not in a great metropolis but in a smallish town. Whereabouts in England might you be? What are the indicators here for showing that you’re in a town in East Sussex or in Herefordshire, in Northumberland or in Somerset – or even in North Yorkshire.

Rural places may let you know by their topography. The Fens, pretty obviously, differ from the Lake District, the Norfolk Broads from Dartmoor. But there are remarkable similarities between some English landscapes; most of us might be hard pushed to distinguish a Cheshire landscape from a Lincolnshire one, perhaps.

Towns and villages provide clues in their buildings. What is it about them that is distinctive?

First, it’s the materials from which they are constructed. Anyone who has visited the small Cotswold towns like Chipping Camden or Broadway will recognise the yellowy Cotswold stone that give them their character. Or you may recognise that the traditional timbered buildings of Suffolk, in places like Lavenham, for example, have their own character of close-set upright timbers – a contract to the freer timbering patterns of Herefordshire or Shropshire. You might find houses of cob – clay – with their subtly-rounded outlines, in Devon, or buildings where the walls are hung with tiles in Sussex and Surrey.

In some areas you’ll find buildings of red sandstone – think of Chester – or of silvery limestone, like Stamford. Elsewhere stone was either less easily worked, so walls are rougher (the Lake District, Cornwall) or there was no stone at all, so brick was the building material of choice – or necessity.

If you know the clues about building materials, you can perhaps pinpoint your location even more accurately – especially if you look carefully at commercial premises above their modern frontages. But how about Ripon? The city’s building materials are mixed – stone, brick, some timbering. They help to establish the look of the city, and may to a very well-trained eye give a few clues to location. Most people, though, might still be wondering just where they’ve ended up.

So the distinctive character of a place is not just to be found in its buildings. It is much more subtle than that. Ripon’s character comes through in its layout as well as in its structures, in the spaces between the buildings, in the way that planners respect or ignore its historic pattern or its textures. Does Ripon still have a distinctive character? It probably does, though how many of our imaginary blindfolded visitors would be able to pin it down or say, ‘This could only be Ripon’ is very hard to quantify.

The quirkiness of Ripon is frequently cited as a distinctive Ripon characteristic. This comes through in the streetscape – like our snickets and ginnels – as well as in less easily-quantifiable ways. There are many strands that come together to define the character of a place like Ripon and to make it distinctive. It is very easy to harm such character by carelessness or lack of vigilance.

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