Ripon – a small city with a big personality

Ripon Cathedral

Ripon Cathedral - Credit: Joan Russell

Jo Haywood visits Ripon

Brian Rushworth, Ripon City Bellman.

Brian Rushworth, Ripon City Bellman. - Credit: Joan Russell

Ripon is a city that relies on its rich heritage without living in the past. While other places might rest on their historical laurels, this small but perfectly formed North Yorkshire gem consistently strives to make its future perfect.

Leading the charge is the Civic Society, which keeps a watching brief over the city, maintaining its reputation as a strong visitor destination.

‘We keep an eye on the city to ensure the heritage and fabric of the place is kept in good order,’ said David Winpenny, chairman of Ripon Civic Society. ‘That doesn’t mean however that we’re not in favour of good modern architecture. We don’t want to pickle Ripon in aspic; we want it to progress and thrive.

‘We are, I suppose, something of a ginger group, operating under three levels of government and trying to keep them all facing in the right direction.’

Market day in Ripon

Market day in Ripon - Credit: Joan Russell

Ripon’s main attraction is undoubtedly its cathedral, one of the oldest in the country, with roots stretching back to 672AD when St Wilfrid brought talented stonemasons, plasterers and glaziers from France and Italy to create a decorative church in the north of Yorkshire.

‘The cathedral is key,’ said David. ‘But we have lots more to offer. Our market square was described by Daniel Defoe as the finest and most beautiful to be seen of its kind in England; we have a racecourse and a canal; a 300-year-old obelisk; a 900-year-old tradition of a horn being blown every evening at 9pm; and we have three fascinating law and order museums (The Workhouse Museum, Courthouse Museum; and Prison & Police Museum).

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‘Ripon is very much a visitor destination rather than a shopping destination, but that doesn’t mean that retail doesn’t play an important role. We have a great market and a ready supply of quality independent shops.’

It will also soon have an Aldi if the discount supermarket chain’s plans for the former gasworks site in Stonebridgegate are given the green light.

Market Place Obelisk built in 1703 in place of an earlier market cross

Market Place Obelisk built in 1703 in place of an earlier market cross - Credit: Joan Russell

A company spokesman said a store in the city would ‘compliment Ripon’s existing pattern of trading, helping to keep spending local and driving business to other nearby shops and retailers within the city centre, increasing local viability and vitality.’

It aims to filter retail into neighbouring shops by limiting its stock to 1,300 product lines (as opposed to other supermarkets which tend to stock somewhere in the region of 20,000) and not having an in-store butcher, fishmonger, baker or tobacconist.

Whether Aldi will fill a need in Ripon remains to be seen. Curzon, on the other hand, has definitely bridged a 30-year gap in the city with its new cinema. The Palladium in Kirkgate closed its doors in 1982, leaving the city without a single silver screen. Now, Curzon Cinemas, which has been showcasing the best in film for 75 years with a chain of arthouse cinemas across London, is spreading its wings with a handful of key destinations across the country, including Ripon.

The state-of-the-art two-screen cinema in the former Abbott’s furniture store in North Street boasts a restaurant, coffee shop and cellar bar. It opened in late 2013, offering a varied programme of mainstream, independent and family films from around the world, as well as live events with the National Theatre and New York Metropolitan Opera.

‘Ripon is a beautiful cathedral city and we couldn’t be more pleased to give the local community a new cinema,’ said Philip Knatchbull, chief executive officer of Curzon World. ‘By programming a variety of the best new film releases alongside a vibrant restaurant, cafe and bar, we hope it will become a regular destination for a discerning audience.’

With a new cinema and, potentially, a new supermarket, the face of Ripon is gradually changing, but the Civic Society is determined the pace of change will be controlled and measured, enhancing rather than detracting from the city’s current offering.

‘Ripon is conservative with a small ‘c’,’ said David. ‘There are some people who want everything to remain just as it is and for whom change is never good, but I think most recognise that the city has to move forward if it is to remain a successful visitor destination.

‘There are also some people who believe Ripon is already getting too big, but I think we could do with two, three of even four thousand more residents. Extra people, housing and employment would give us more oomph.

‘But whatever happens, we’re definitely looking at a very bright future. The city has a lot going for it. If we continue attracting visitors and shoppers, we’ll be happy. And why shouldn’t they come? Ripon is, after all, a truly great place.’

Shipping out

The 700 troops of Ripon-based Claro barracks, including the city’s own 21 Engineers regiment, are set to depart by 2017.

During the First World War more than 30,000 troops were stationed at the barracks, including poet Wilfred Owen following his recovery from shell-shock brought on by his first posting to France. And, in 1974, more than 1,000 soldiers escaped injury when as IRA bomb devastated the barracks.

After 2017, the 21 Engineers and 15 Field Squadron will be stationed at nearby Catterick. There are no definite plans for the site yet, although a call centre, training college, a commercial estate and a base for a pharmaceuticals firm are among the initial ideas that have been floated.

‘It’s too early to say what we’d like to happen to the barracks site, but it’s likely to be a mixed development,’ said David Winpenny of Ripon Civic Society. ‘We really want to keep the balance right, not create a big housing estate just outside the city.’