COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny

St Wilfrid Procession on North Street early last century. (S)
St Wilfrid Procession on North Street early last century. (S)
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David explores the jewels of the city and argues Ripon is justified in claiming the title of Capital of Culture.

Last week’s column looked at the justification for calling Ripon a Capital of Culture.

You may think as you read the columns of the Ripon Gazette that all we have in the city and the area around us are problems and complaints.

This seems especially true of the Readers’ Views letter columns – which is, perhaps, inevitable, as correspondents are frequently minded to write to the newspaper to air a grievance or to argue passionately against a view held by another writer. Yet such letters, however passionately argued, are never representative of a complete view of the city.

It’s often said that Ripon isn’t what it used to be. Of course it isn’t – and it can never be. The rose-tinted view that everything was great in the 1930s/1940s/1950s/1960s (choose your own decade) is unprovable, of course, so it’s a convenient stick with which to beat any change.

No doubt in 20 or 30 years’ time there will be people around bemoaning the decline since the 2010s.

So if we are not to complain but to earn the city its title of City of Celebration we need to consider what there is to celebrate. And what, indeed, does it mean to be a city of celebration?

It’s easy to point to the city’s celebratory set-pieces. Two that have their origins with our remote ancestors could be mentioned first.

Both are connected with fire and light, and both take place in the winter. The first is the New Year’s Eve procession of torches in the city that marks the change of the year.

In recent times Ripon’s Watchnight Procession has become a great event, attracting thousands of people to see in the new year. It’s always a moment of optimism, when we say farewell to the problems of the past and look forward to what the coming 12 months will bring. This is definitely one of Ripon’s reasons for calling itself the City of Celebration.

The other fire-related speciality of the city is the Candlemas service in the cathedral.

In religious terms it is the Feast of the Presentation of Christ at the temple, and it is one of the ancient feasts of the Christian church; it was certainly celebrated by the early fourth century.

It has always been marked by light – candles when they came to be in common use, hence its name – and probably has links to earlier, pagan light and fire rituals, like Up Helly Aa, celebrated in Shetland every January. Candlemas is always celebrated on February 2 – 40 days after Christmas Day.

Ripon, exceptionally, managed to hold on to the tradition of lighting hundreds of candles in the church to mark the festival, even when England changed from a Catholic to a Protestant country.

In the late 18th century a visitor to Ripon Minster said the building was “one continued blaze of light all afternoon”. These days hundreds of people throng the cathedral in celebration and to see the candles illuminate the great building.

A celebration that has really come out of its church origins is the summer’s annual St Wilfrid Festival, with its floats, fun and, usually, fair.

It doesn’t matter that it’s not entirely clear what the feast day represents, though Wilfrid’s return from unjust exile in 705 is usually put forward as the reason.

It’s certainly a celebration, as are the other special days and festivals – sporting, community, musical, dramatic, etc – that dot the annual Ripon calendar, as well as special events like the Olympic Torch last year and, next year, the Tour de France passing through the city. These are indeed contributors to the claimed title of City of Celebration.

Yet that’s not the whole picture. Celebration is not just a matter of attracting people to enjoy the city, important as that is. Just as important is that the people of Ripon and the area around celebrate their good fortune, too, so that they can communicate their pleasure to other people.

Some time ago this column urged us to “count our blessings”. The list of things that could be considered as blessings included the city’s relatively mild climate in the lee of the Pennines; its strategic location between two national parks, the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors with easy access to the best countryside in Britain; the cathedral; the racecourse; the award-winning Spa Gardens; the riotous exterior and the gloriously-tiled foyer of the Spa Baths; the museums; and, of course, the Hornblower.

Add to those the relative ease of travel, with the A1 and the East Coast Main line nearby (though the lack of a station of its own is one of Ripon’s downsides) and its location midway between London and Scotland and between the west and east coasts of England make it an ideal place.

These are all causes for celebration, whether you have moved to Ripon last week or you and your family have lived here for generations. If you’re looking for perfection you are doomed to be disappointed – nowhere can ever be perfect, and, human nature being designed to have at least a small curmudgeonly streak, we can find fault with even the best of places.

But Ripon is certainly worth celebrating, and it’s worthwhile also trumpeting the fact.

Whether it’s the formal attractions of events and festivals or the blessings with which the city and its countryside have been showered, we can justifiably claim Ripon as the City of Celebration. Let’s raise a glass to its cheerful future!