Very Reverend John Dobson - Why I love Ripon
- Credit: Joan Russell
The Very Reverend John Dobson, Dean of Ripon, tells us about his cathedral city. Photographs by Joan Russell
Has Ripon always been home to you?
No, though I have known and loved it all my life. I was born and brought up in West Yorkshire in the village of Swillington, just to the east of Leeds. My family have lived in that area for generations, so the roots go deep. Of course, many people can remember Ripon being in the old West Riding.
What makes it special for you?
I have loved both countryside and ancient buildings, not least churches and cathedrals, since I was young. I guess the countryside spoke to me of the wonder and beauty of God’s natural order; and fine ecclesiastical architecture of what humans are capable of when inspired by God and working with him. Ripon was bound to score highly for me, then, since it combines both in a way that is found in few other places. It is certainly special. Ripon lies in the heart of the most beautiful region of the country (that statement needs no justification!); it is a gateway to the Yorkshire Dales. And the cathedral is one of the most remarkable and historically-significant buildings in the north of England.
There are some wonderful museums in Ripon and along with the cathedral they offer a great family day out. The children, who are fascinated by the cathedral’s space, crypt and treasures, and its association with Lewis Caroll and his Alice stories, are equally enthralled by the insight that the old prison and workhouse give them into the grim nature of life for some in former centuries. Typical of children, they love it!
Music is also a special feature of Ripon. Obviously we play our part in that, we have an outstandingly good cathedral choir – it did two BBC broadcasts last year, and we provide the venue for many concerts. The high quality and wide range of music offered by the local choral society, orchestras and festivals is amazing. It’s all life-enhancing. Ripon is very fortunate.
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How big a role does the cathedral play in the life of the city?
The cathedral is obviously a massive part of Ripon, it’s inevitable. One of the finest buildings in the region is bound to grace the whole community with a sense of its history and its worth and I would say with a sense of the sheer steadfastness and faithfulness of God. And yes, it attracts pilgrims and visitors in their thousands; a definite benefit to local cafes, restaurants and hotels and long may it last. But as a living church, the cathedral community also makes a real difference to the life of the city. People who come to our services are encouraged to go out and make a positive difference in the community, and they do. ‘Growing God’s Kingdom’ is a theme that is central to our new vision and strategy – it’s all about the cathedral community following Christ’s example and helping to make the world a better place – more as God would like it to be. So, the cathedral plays an important part in working with charities and civic organisations in Ripon but because we have a regional reach, it is also a means by which Ripon makes a positive contribution to the region.
We are launching the cathedral’s new vision in what will be a great festival – ‘Ripon Cathedral Revealed: a festival of flowers, music, spirituality, food and drink’. It runs from Thursday April 28th until Monday May 2nd and includes the cathedral’s annual beer festival as well as a major food and drink festival, and countless activities and events going on throughout the weekend. People can see behind the scenes and watch our first-rate, inspirational choir preparing for a service; have a go at playing the Cathedral Organ; enjoy a jazz evening; find out what is entailed in being a stone mason; take part in the marathon reading of the Bible, climb the tower, appreciate the flower arrangements… this is hardly the beginning of the list.
What is the city like in February?
Ripon has its charm in every month of the year. February can be a good time for not-too-long walks in and around the city before enjoying the warm hospitality of the pubs, hotels and countless eating establishments. February is as good as any month for enjoying these things. The cathedral begins February in a spectacular way (quite literally). The now-famous Ripon Cathedral Candlemas service on the evening of February 2nd is one of the many examples of how Ripon does things with style and confidence, attracting large crowds from across the region. Several thousand candles are lit at every level of the cathedral; these combined with the darkness of the February evening and the brilliance of the choir’s singing results in a spine-tingling experience for all the worshippers. It also marks the end of the annual celebrations of Christ’s birth.
February is usually the month when the Ripon Pancake Race takes place, starting outside the cathedral’s West Front as the bell strikes 11am on Shrove Tuesday. Last year, my first, I was alarmed to learn that I had to run all the way to the end of Kirkgate! This is an event that typifies the wonderful community spirit that exists in Ripon: all ages take part, its inclusive, everyone enjoys the fun and it is free of unhealthy competition. And the local 21 Engineer Regiment comes and makes pancakes on a large scale in fine military fashion. The Royal Engineers are certainly one of the treasures of Ripon, highly valued by local people.
What is your favourite time of the day in the city and why?
Just before 10.30am on a Sunday is pretty special, with the bells ringing, the choir warming up and people pouring into the cathedral for the Sung Eucharist – a good time for the Dean! And so is any time on a Thursday market day – there is a real buzz in the city and a great opportunity to see people and chat; as well as buy the flowers that my wife has come to appreciate! At New Year I would have to say midnight is my favourite time. Following a short cathedral service, hundreds take part in the candle-lit procession to join the thousands in the Market Square, waiting for the Bishop’s blessing from the town hall balcony and the fireworks. This is one of many great community events that take place in this rural cathedral city through the year.
What is your favourite meeting place and why?
Now, if I’m talking about meeting places, you would, of course, expect me to mention the cathedral! But after that, I would say the many wonderful cafes and restaurants. These are a real strength of Ripon – there is something to suit everyone’s taste and pocket. One of the great things about living next door to the cathedral is that it is only a few short steps to Kirkgate where there is the wonderful Chimes Café and, amongst other types of restaurants, three excellent Italians – I love Italian food. Don’t be confused by one of the Italians having a French name. If we fancy a longer walk - six minutes rather than three – we might walk to Lockwoods, always an excellent meal.
When the diary allows, I very much enjoy meeting my Rotary Club friends at the Ripon Spa Hotel; and my Ripon club friends at The Old Deanery – the grand house on the north side of the cathedral where my predecessors lived until the Second World War.
What do you miss most when you have been away?
Quite genuinely, I would say the people. We have some wonderfully engaging and remarkably kind and generous people within the cathedral community; this includes the congregations, the staff and the several hundred volunteers without whom the cathedral could not function. There are many fantastic people in the city as well, people who give of themselves in the service of others and who want to see this community prosper for the benefit of everyone.
There is no doubt, if I have been outside the county, then it is always good to have returned to Yorkshire, not least the countryside of this part of the county. I would also say that we miss the house when we are away. One of the great privileges that goes with my role as Dean of Ripon is living in a delightful Queen Anne house. It serves as a great family house but also gives us the space to host receptions and events for the cathedral and other community groups – we love doing that, helping to bring people together in fellowship and, often, in celebration.
What are your favourite nature sites or walks and why?
The whole of Ripon sits within an outstanding nature site. There are countless country walks in and near the area – including the sections of the Ripon Rowel Walk – a circular route that takes in local villages and visitor attractions. When we lived in County Durham, we often came down with the children to visit Fountains Abbey and Newby Hall; we now love having these gems on the door step. It was a shame that the exceptional rain prevented Bishop James Bell and me from leading the usual Boxing Day Walk from the Cathedral to Fountains: five hundred people walked with us in 2014. Weather permitting, we’ll be inviting people to join us again this year.