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The Civic Society column with David Winpenny

The cathedral Bone House ' enjoyed by the Companion, emptied in 1865.
The cathedral Bone House ' enjoyed by the Companion, emptied in 1865.

In September a new book about Ripon will be published – ‘Secret Ripon’. So it seems a good opportunity to look back at two earlier guides – ‘The Tourist’s Companion’ of 1822 and Richard Walbran’s ‘A Guide to Ripon’ in the 1875 ‘Memorial Edition’ – to see what they have to say about the city. How have things changed? How much remains the same?

Walbran’s introductory sentence takes a lordly view – almost Olympian. ‘Of all the divisions of our favoured island,’ he says, ‘the County of York has pre-eminent claims on the attention of that numerous class of the community which delights in reviewing the abundant beauties of its own insufficiently appreciated country.’

Ripon from afar ' as seen in Walbran's Guide, 1865 'Memorial Edition'.

Ripon from afar ' as seen in Walbran's Guide, 1865 'Memorial Edition'.

And having flown the flag for Yorkshire, he narrows his focus on to Ripon. He describes the topography of the city as being ‘gently elevated above commingling streams, on the last slope of the great western hills; its landscape scenery comprehends all those features on which a lover of the cultivated aspect of nature delights to dwell – pervaded everywhere by a feeling of order, tranquillity and continuance.’

From such high-flown language its something of a relief to turn to the anonymous author of the ‘Tourist’s Companion’. He (or perhaps she) begins forthrightly; ‘Ripon, in the wapentake of Claro, in the West-Riding of Yorkshire, is 212 miles from London and 23 from York.

This ancient Town and Borough is delightfully situated between the River Ure, over which there is a handsome stone Bridge, 256 yards in length, and the River Skell, and stands on an eminence with declivities on every side.’

Having put the place on the map, as it were, both volumes plunge into Ripon’s history. Walbran’s sweep is again wide; he begins with ‘uncivilised man’ who is ‘migratory and unsettled’ and used the Ripon landscape for temporary pasturage.

North Bridge ' 'handsome' says the 'Tourist's Companion'. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

North Bridge ' 'handsome' says the 'Tourist's Companion'. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

He efficiently deals with prehistoric matters (the ‘temples’ at Thornborough are mentioned) and Celtic remains, including Ailcy Hill – ‘a large conical tumulus’ that is ‘a monument of some dreadful carnage.’

The ‘Companion’, meanwhile, ignores most of the city’s very early history and takes us straight to the Celtic monastery and then St Wilfrid, whose ‘great pomp, grandeur, magnificence, and immense wealth’ caused his exile. There is little on St Wilfrid’s building work at this point in the narrative; Walbran, on the other hand, offers several pages on what he calls ‘The Old Abbay of Ripon’ before beginning his detailed history of the Cathedral and a survey of its structure.

Before he gets there, though, Walbran tells his readers about the joys of local government.

He talks of the Archbishop’s Liberty and then bewails its loss under legal changes made in 1835, when ‘the ancient institutions of the town . . . have been despoiled in silent antagonism with those measures by which legislators have attempted to direct their operation.’ This resulted, he complains, in ‘neither an accession of influence or energy, but an additional element of excitement and contention.’ Plus ça change. . .

Meanwhile in 1822, the ‘Tourist Companion’ skitters through a bit of architectural history, and then spends more than 18 of his 47 pages transcribing the epitaphs on the monuments to be found in the cathedral. He eventually, like Walbran, gets to local government. In his day, the city was operating under the charters granted by James I and James II, with ‘a Mayor, twelve Aldermen, and twenty-four Common Councilmen, assisted by a recorder and Town Clerk’ – a complement of 30 for a population, we are told, of 5,114 people.

He mentions that at ‘the time of King Alfred’ the chief magistrate was ‘the Vigilarius or Wakeman’, whose duty ‘was to cause a horn to be blown every night at nine o’clock.’ The hornblower comes under Walbran’s scrutiny, too; the ceremony, he grumbles, ‘has, of course, now lapsed into a formality. Three blasts, long, dull and dire, are given at nine o’clock at the Mayor’s door. . . and one afterwards at the marker-cross, while the seventh bell of the cathedral is ringing.’

Commerce next claims Walbran’s attention. Spur- and saddletree-making are both dealt with as being decayed or vanished. The ‘Tourists Companion’ has a passing reference to ‘the manufacture of Woollen Cloth’ which ‘has long since ceased to exist. Both writers are keen, though, to mention horse trading and, especially horseracing: the ‘Companion manages to sneak in a mention of the latter as he discusses St Wilfrid, in whose honour a race was held (and still is).

Both, too, comment on one of the other attractions of Ripon – the Bone House under the Cathedral.

The ‘Companion’ gets plenty of mileage from it; he describes it as ‘this curious depository of the relics of the dead . . . which exceeds anything of the kind in this country’ and tells a long and slightly tedious ’amusing’ story of drunkards playing tricks with the skulls.

The 1865 edition of Walbran, though, has a slight note of disappointment; ‘The celebrated “Bone House” no longer exists’. That year it had been emptied as part of Gilbert Scott’s restoration of the cathedral and the bones placed in a pit adjacent to the east wall of the churchyard; the inscription here is noted.

Walbran’s section on ‘Public Buildings and Institutions’, dealing with chapels, the Town Hall and schools, as well as the Temperance Hall, the gas works, the water works and the railway, is worthy, but a trifle dull.

The ‘Tourist’s Companion’, though presumably with a different readership in mind, deals, more briefly with these subjects, too; of the National School he says it is ‘an Institution than which nothing can tend more strongly to increase the stock of public morals, and raise the children to a higher degree in the scale of morality.’

That’s a sentence that would have sat just as comfortably in Walbran’s High Victorian take on Ripon.

Both books open a window on their period – as indeed the new ‘Secret Ripon’ will, for future readers, mirror the preoccupations of the early 21st century.