Britain at its best: The joys of Ripon, one of England’s oldest, smallest and most tranquil cities
- Ripon is tucked between the Yorkshire Dales and the North Yorkshire Moor
- The 17th-century cathedral contains the oldest cathedral crypt in the country
- Studley Royal is a World Heritage Site surrounded by a 300-acre deer park
Daniel Defoe described Ripon’s market square as ‘the finest and most beautiful . . . of its kind in England’. Which sounds ambiguous. It’s the ‘of its kind’ that bothers me.
Certainly it’s one of the oldest and smallest English cities. Its 7th-century cathedral might lack the soaring towers of neighbouring York Minster, but it contains the oldest cathedral crypt in the country, which is all that remains of the church built on the site by St Wilfred in 672.
Ripon is tucked between the Yorkshire Dales and the North Yorkshire Moors and exudes an air of rural tranquillity. But when Alfred the Great granted Ripon its charter in 886 this was bandit country, prey to Viking raids.
God’s own country: Yorkshire’s Ripon Cathedral is one of the oldest in Britain
So the King gave the inhabitants a ram’s horn to sound the alarm if attacked. And to this day the city’s Wakemen still blow a curved horn in the market square at 9pm to mark the setting of the night watch, a 1,100-year-old tradition broken only recently by Covid restrictions.
Turning left down Kirkgate, with the 80 ft, Grade 1 listed obelisk (topped with Wakeman’s Horn weathervane) behind you, you’re soon facing the West front of the cathedral.
The poet Wilfred Owen came here while stationed at the Northern Command Depot in 1918. After treatment for shell-shock at Craiglockhart and convalescence at Scarborough, Owen was sent to Ripon to regain his fighting fitness. But that wasn’t all he was doing.
In rented rooms on Borrage Lane, Owen wrote and polished some of his greatest verse including ‘The Send-Off’, about men he saw leaving for the front:
Secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent . . .
It’s poignant to think of Owen sitting alone, spending his last birthday among the cathedral’s ancient stones. Weeks later, he was posted back to the Western Front for what was to be the final, fatal time. Poignant, too, is the remarkable sight of 10,000 origami angels suspended high in the nave’s vaulted ceiling. Made by volunteers and local school children, each one is dedicated to Covid key workers and to loved ones. You can add your own origami angel for a small donation and the display is intended to grow throughout 2021.
Before leaving, take a look at the carved misericords or ‘choir seats’ in the chancel. One in particular — of a rabbit being chased down a hole — is said to have inspired Lewis Carroll (whose father was a priest here in the 1850s) when writing Alice in Wonderland.
Four miles west of the city lies Studley Royal, a World Heritage Site surrounded by a 300-acre deer park. The spectacular water gardens are sculptured from the wooded valley of the River Skell that first inspired Cistercian monks to build neighbouring Fountains Abbey.
Studley Royal has spectacular water gardens. Pictured is the Moon Pond
Now owned by the National Trust, the estate was once the seat of the 1st Marquess of Ripon, whose sweeping carriage drive leads up the hill from the village of Studley Roger to a Gothic Revival church built as a memorial to the marquess’s brother-in-law Frederick Vyner. Kidnapped by Greek bandits in 1870, Vyner was killed in a bungled rescue mission known as the Dilessi massacre.
Money to pay the ransom was diverted to build this fine church in its commanding position overlooking the deer park. Turn around and you get a magnificent view back to Ripon Cathedral and the Hambleton Hills beyond.
In the late afternoon sun, the peaceful scene seems a million miles away from Viking raids, violent kidnappings, a world war and a worldwide pandemic. But, in its packed 1,100-year history, Ripon has borne witness to it all.
B&B doubles at Mallard Grange from £125 (mallardgrange.co.uk). Tours of Ripon Cathedral are £7pp (riponcathedral.org.uk). More information at yorkshire.com
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