Picture of the Obelisk and Civic Society Crest Banner: a montage of Ripon architecture
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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 10th June 2011
We seem to have lost the art of using metalwork to improve the skyline.

Earlier generations had no problems. They were content to decorate the upper reaches of their buildings with a variety of metalwork extravaganzas. We have only to look up at the obelisk in the Market Square to see a prime example – the fleur-de-lys surmounted by the Ripon rowel and the gilded horn.

When Hawksmoor designed the obelisk in 1702 he wanted it to be crowned in the same way that Italian Renaissance architects had topped the Egyptian obelisks they had brought to Rome. The obelisk in the Piazza Navona has a bird on its summit, while that in St Peter’s Square is topped, of course, with a cross.

After Hawksmoor there was a lull in soaring metalwork, except for the occasional spire-topping wind vane, until the Victorians came along with their love of cast iron. In the great manufacturing cities of Britain we can see hundreds of examples of cast-iron being used to decorate rooftops, adding variety and sometimes colour to the streetscape.

Ripon, of course, did not have such a 19th-century industrial boom, but the city still attracted some cast-iron work. There is a good example on the terraced houses where North Street turns the corner in to Palace Road – high above the slates, a little turret is crowned with a square of cast-iron frivolity, complete with small iron flowers that hold up their heads proudly to catch the sun.

And talking of things being crowned, very close by is the Clock Tower which has at its summit a gilded crown to celebrate 60 years of Queen Victoria’s reign. It certainly makes its point about the place of the monarchy in society, as effectively as the horn on the obelisk makes it clear that Ripon’s history and traditions should be respected.

Elsewhere in the city you may notice a few other bits of Victorian fun – look, for example, at the top of the tower of St Wilfrid’s Roman Catholic Church on Coltsgate Hill, designed by Joseph Hansom and built 1860-61. There is a simple, fence-like structure of three-lobed curves along the ridge. And on the little gable that sticks out from the tower there is a cast finial that consists of a crown surrounding a cross, with little lobed leaves surrounding it. It’s now painted black, but it may once have been coloured and gilded.

Not to be outdone, Race, the otherwise-obscure architect of the Primitive Methodist Chapel in Allhallowgate also graced his new building of 1880 with a finial, this one of two curls like rams’ horns, two ivy leafs and a spike.

You may also find the occasional reminder of another popular Victorian delight – brattishing. And what’s brattishing? It’s a decorative crest along a ridge – you can find it on the tops of screens in churches, for example, and on Tudor furniture.

The Victorians sometimes used cast iron brattishing, which was supposed to be longer-lasting than the alternatives in terracotta. On the whole, though, it wasn’t. It had the disadvantage of needing to be repainted regularly, and access to a roof ridge was never so easy as to make it a regular job. That’s why most cast iron brattishing, like that on the buildings on the east side of the clock tower, is gap-toothed at best.

And into the 20th and 21st centuries – what do we have as high-level ironwork? Not a great deal. The wind vane hangs on to its perch, and occasionally new ones are added. There is an occasional attempt to make a bit of a show, like the recent addition to the Temple Garden of an archway giving its name over the entrance off Allhallowgate or, less successfully, the steel curves over the entrance to The Arcade from the car park.

Otherwise, we are left with utilitarian ironwork – the television aerials that have been with us for decades, and their rather more recent cousins the satellite dishes. But these are not things of beauty, however useful they may be.

We seem to have them by default – such equipment is permitted on most buildings under the regulations set out in the Department for Communities and Local Government ‘s leaflet ‘A Householder's Planning Guide for the Installation of Antennas, including Satellite Dishes’. Only for listed buildings is permission required. A conservation area, like most of the centre of Ripon, can therefore be dotted with dishes without regulation.

That doesn’t mean it should be, of course. It would be good to think that responsible householders would think twice about sticking an ugly dish on the front of their houses – though it is probably a wish unlikely to be fulfilled. Perhaps instead we should be encouraging designers to find inventive new ways of dealing with them, to make them enhance our buildings instead of marring them. The Victorians might have had a thing or two to suggest, had they still been with us.

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