Ripon - a city of saints and sinners
- Credit: Joan Russell
Gritty stories of the harsh realities of 19th century life in Ripon are part of the city’s attractions, reports Richard Darn
Ripon has seen lots of history in its time – the place positively oozes with it. Britain’s third smallest city has occupied a big place in the affairs of the nation and it makes a fine impression on visitors with its lovely cathedral, smart Georgian houses and medieval streets. But back in the 10th century it was the scene of carnage. When Anglo Saxon King Eadred took umbrage at the locals accepting Eric Bloodaxe as their ruler, he raced up the Great North Road to ravage 7th century St Wilfrid’s Minster, along with other parts of Yorkshire.
Needless to say northern folk were outraged, whilst southerners tried to conceal their embarrassment by concocting a story that the Danes were the culprits. Scribes in York knew the truth and duly entered the grim episode in their version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
But memories go back even further. Ripon’s market square (market day is Thursday) is the setting for perhaps the oldest continuous custom anywhere in England - the blowing of a horn at 9pm to set the night watch. It’s a tradition going back 1,100 years to a visit by King Alfred, who apparently gave a horn (claimed to be the one kept in the town hall!) to local burgers to denote the granting of a Royal Charter. It’s a great story and the horn blowing draws visitors from across the globe.
There are plenty of other reasons why the city is such a big draw. For centuries it thrived by servicing the monks at nearby Fountains Abbey, once the richest Cistercian House in Britain, and the centre of an international wool trade. When Henry VIII pensioned off the monks in 1539 the textile trade declined, but the place roared back by becoming a manufacturer of premium spurs for knights and horse riders. A designer pair was even presented to King James I during his visit in 1617 and the term ‘as true steel as Ripon Rowels’ entered into common parlance. Today the spectacular monastic ruins just three miles to the west remain a huge factor in the city’s economy, attracting 340,000 people every year.
Many stay and linger in Ripon and an obvious place to start a visit is the magnificent minster. Although the bulk of the stonework is 12th century the wonderful crypt dating to the church’s foundation by St Wilfrid in 672AD survives. Surely this is one of the most hallowed places in England, recalling the golden age of Northumbrian faith and learning. Given that the saint put Ripon on the map, it’s not surprising that he is a modern cause for celebration with an annual fair, feast and procession led by a Wilfrid re-enactor on horseback. Full of colour and history it takes place this year on August 5th.
The last time I visited this pint-sized city it was to see a friend test out his coracle on the Ripon Canal. Dave Purvis – a retired plumber’s merchant – makes these little bowl shaped boats dating to prehistoric times from wood and animal hide and runs courses as the ultimate stress busting activity. They were used as late as the 18th century on Yorkshire’s waterways and if you do spy a man messing about in a boat he’s probably looking for leaks!
The canal itself is overlooked by restored historic buildings in the city centre basin and was rescued from dereliction by volunteers over a 30-year period. It offers a lovely towpath walk past narrowboats and locks, heading out towards Ripon racecourse through wild flowers and a wetland bird sanctuary. Horse racing is a local passion going back many centuries, although the present course opened in 1900. The first meeting was held on Bondgate in 1664 and it’s claimed that the first ever race for lady riders was staged in 1723. Flat racing devotees will find summer meetings a wonderful experience – the course has a tremendous reputation and is often called the ‘Garden Racecourse’.
Ripon is a truly handsome place with a very distinct character, but I can’t help feeling that there’s even more that could be done in the city centre. Places like Skipton, Otley and Hebden Bridge are setting the bar high and this is no time for it to rest on its laurels. More heritage trails and a spruce-up here and there would be a tremendous boost to make the best of its riches.
One organisation with grand ideas is the Ripon Museum Trust, which runs the Ripon Union Workhouse on Allhallowgate. This unusual visitor destination offers a gruesome reminder of the harsh realities of 19th century life. A period rhyme hints at how it was regarded: ‘hush-a-bye baby, on a tree top. When you grow old, your wages will stop. When you have spent the little you made. First to the poorhouse and then to the grave’. In 1832 it housed 33 inmates, including 11 men, 11 boys, nine women and two girls. They included widowers, pensioners, jobless and orphans. Victorians had a strict attitude to poverty and homelessness and it meant that inmates were forced to live in the workhouse until they died if necessary (coffins were ordered in bulk). In 1861 residents included a former master wheelwright, an ex-gentleman’s servant and a butcher.
It’s gritty, fascinating stuff and I’m happy to report that the trust has been given £400,000 by the Heritage Lottery Fund to acquire the lease of the property and add other buildings in the complex to its portfolio so they can also be opened to the public. One expert reckons this is the most complete workhouse site in the country with its main building, casual ward, administrative block, infirmary, gardens and mortuary, so its preservation and extension is great news. Other buildings in the trust’s collection (also open to visitors) include a little altered 1830s’ courthouse and a prison based in a house of correction, established in 1686. For a city that owes is origins to a saint, it’s refreshing to see that it recalls the ‘sins’ of its less fortunate residents with a unique set of attractions.
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