The big idea

This great little city is all about history and tradition, and it has it by the bucket load: it’s one of only two sites in England surrounded by the beginnings of Christianity; and it’s a place steeped in custom and tradition. There are many cities where you can get a real sense of history, but not many that keep the traditions of that history alive like Ripon does today.

Enduring beauty

With its wealth of history it’s no wonder that Ripon is full of beautiful reminders of the past, such as themonastic ruins, which are stunning by themselves, but truly awe-inspiring when dramatically lit and set to music on evocative summer evenings. The ruins are part of the Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Estate, a fabulous National Trust property and UNESCO World Heritage Site with temples, a mansion, the serpentine tunnels, the Octagon, beautiful gardens, a deer parkand water features.
The cathedral is (surprise, surprise) one of the oldest in England and was the heart of the Christian Mission to Europe for centuries. In it you can find what is arguably the most attractive World War I memorial in England, the Reredos; nationally acclaimed architecture in the form of the nave and pulpit; and some of the best mediaeval woodcarvingsin the north (these are said to have inspired Lewis Carroll,a regular visitor to the city, as he wrote Alice through the Looking Glass).
And last, but by no means least is the most exquisite market square, with the earliest freestanding obelisk in the country at its centre – some 300 years ago Daniel Defoe, on his tour of the land, simply described Ripon as having ‘the finest and most beautiful square of its kind in England’. And who are we to argue?

Enduring customs

Ripon is a city that takes its customs and traditions very seriously – they may now be unnecessary in a practical sense, but as a reminder of our past and where we came from they’re of enormous importance. Take the Ripon Hornblower and the Ripon Bellman: both are still practising customs from at least the 14th century. At 9 o’clock every night the Hornblower sounds his horn at each of the four corners of the obelisk – originally to signal the start of his patrol, but now conserved for posterity – it’s a wonderful little routine that is now unique in England. And the Bellman still rings in the start of the market every Thursday at 11 o’clock (incidentally, additional duties of the original bellringer used to include administering whippings – we’ve checked with the current holder and that responsibility has now gone). So why is Thursday market day? Because that’s the day St Wilfrid died, and the monastery decreed that Thursday was ‘kept as a feast, as though it were a Sunday’.
And the memory of Ripon’s famous Saint informs several other customs in the city. During St Wilfrid’s Festival in August is the Wakeman Mummers Play, an adaptation of earlier mystery plays such as the Ripon Sword Dance; in a similar vein today, the Ripon City Morris Dancers regularly appear in the city, in their distinctive outfits with fresh flowers in their hats. And the Wilfrid’s Procession includes an adaptation of a previous custom, that of ‘housewarmings’, where Wilfra tarts, Ripon spice bread and Ripon apple cake would be left out for newcomers – they’re now given to passers-by in the annual procession.
Two processions with more modern roots are also worth noting: every Boxing Day the Bishop leads a procession from the Cathedral to Fountains Abbey on the route that the founding monks would have taken; and then, on New Year’s Eve, another large procession led by a band marches to the market place to hear the Hornblower sound the final Watch of the year, followed by an address from the Dean and the Mayor.
And talking of the Mayor, ‘Seeking the Mayor’ is Ripon’s equivalent of electing a Speaker to the House of Commons. Given that holding this position in society could be a rather expensive affair, this custom, still practised today, is intended to show the mayor’s reluctance as locals perform a search for them.

The essence

Beautiful enduring traditionssums up this special little city.

Who’s it ideal for/ how it can make you feel:

Yes, it’s an easy place to come for a break, and not just for the ‘bygone era’ brigade, but also for people who appreciate beauty in history, an element of the ‘untouched’ in their surroundings, as well as some of those English customs that thankfully not everybody ‘gets’.

So, it’s a good place to come and reflect. Not only can it can make you aware of your place in the history of the world, but the beauty of the place has inspired several others: the aforementioned Lewis Carroll, the poet Wilfred Owen – one of the greatest voices of the World War I, and more recently, the fashion designer Bruce Oldfield.


Despite the clear evidence of early man in the area, there’s very little evidence of the Roman activity that was present in many other cities. In fact, the earliest recorded reference to Ripon is with the establishment of a monastery in AD 657 (incidentally a young St Cuthbert was a guest master here; some 300 years later he would be the founding saint of another relaxing city up the road, namely Durham).

Some four years later a student called Wilfrid, after studying in Rome and Lyons, took possession of the monastery. His numerous visits to Europe, which did a huge amount to prevent English isolationism, inspired buildings on a grander scale, using techniques and craftsmen from Europe. In AD 681, the monastery became an abbey church, and got its first bishop. In the 10th century it’s believed the liberty of St Wilfrid was created at Ripon, which meant sanctuary being established within one league of the church (see the cross at the nearby village of Sharow for one of these markers).
In the early 12th century the town was given a charter to hold markets – Ripon was perfectly placed for trading given its perfect location of the city between the Pennines and the Vale of York – this in turn led to the building of the large market place in the 13th century.
In the 14th century Ripon was the biggest exporter of cloth in Yorkshire (no mean feat) and likely had trading links in the production of wool with the monks of Fountains Abbey a couple of miles down the road.

In the 15th century, alongside cloth and leather, Ripon had carved itself out a national reputation as the home of spurs (the boot accompaniment not the football team) – a nice story of the time was that if you entered Ripon wearing a pair of spurs you had to take them off and pay money to get them back; bizarre but good old Yorkshire fiscal imagination.

By the 17th century the appearance of the market square would have changed dramatically as health and safety of the day had ordered the thatches be removed and replaced with brick and timber. Even so, at this time Ripon was holding a seriously big and well-attended market. So impressive that they built a sort of Roman-styled paved forum including the aforementioned Obelisk.

In 1775 Ripon was established as England’s First City of Varnish. And some two years later the first races started at Ripon racecourse (for a city based very much on traditions and customs, it proved some are worth over-turning though by sponsoring the country’s first horserace with women jockeys; it caused quite a stir at the time).
In 1836, finally, Ripon Abbey Church became a cathedral, and the next year city status was formalised.

How to experience/‘get under the skin’ of Ripon

Located just north of Harrogate and York in North Yorkshire, and near the A1, Ripon is easy to get to, and a great little city to navigate around. There’s the central marketplace and a series of gates or roads that, once you’re familiar with, make a visit to Ripon ease personified. Start on Borrage Lane by the river and check out the house where Wilfred Owen, the war poet, lived in 1918. Then head into the city via Skellbank and en-route go to St Wilfrid’s Well on Skellbank (this was the place reputed to clear the eyes and to heal ‘bandy-legged’ children).

From here stroll along Water Skellgate and you’ll see Ripon Cathedral’s there right in front of you. Before heading inside to see what helped inspire Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) to write Alice through the Looking Glass, check the West Front – very handsome.
Once inside, look behind the high altar for the Reredos, a memorial to those who died in World War I (their names are recorded in panels on either side), then look up at the nave and you’ll see one of the best examples in the country of 14th- and 15th-century perpendicular architecture. Finally, have a sneaky peek at the famous Ripon Jewel, which was discovered in 1976 but dates back to Saxon times, in the cathedral library. Back outside check out some of the many gargoyles and grotesques: Ripon has a ‘mouth puller’ and a ‘toothache man’ amongst others.
Over the road from the cathedral is one of a trio of museums, all handy to get to, that each sum up an aspect of Ripon over the years. Start with the Court House Museum, then pop round the corner for the Prison and Police Museum (by the way, in Ripon police matters were the responsibility of the Wakeman, an early predecessor of the Hornblower, who was given the rights bestowed upon the city), and finally, check out the Workhouse Museum.

After the museums head down Finkle Street into the Market Square and admire the 80ft Obelisk (the architect, Nicholas Hawksmoor, was one of Britain’s great architects of the day – he also worked on Blenheim Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral). Opposite the Market Square check out the Town Hall, previously built as the Assembly Rooms by the same architect who designed Drury Lane Theatre in London. Next head out Westwards to Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal; this is Yorkshire’s first World Heritage Site, and it’s little surprise the National Trust refer to it as the ‘Wonder of the North’: sweeping landscapes, historic monuments and a full events calendar mean this is a must to visit.

If you’ve got longer there’s further evidence of enduring traditions in all directions. Head south and experience Ripley Castle, where the same family have lived for over 700 years (Jane Ingilby, who held Oliver Cromwell at knifepoint, was part of this family); head south-east for Newby Hall, possibly the finest example of Adam architecture in the country, or head further west to experience the fantastically curious rock formations of Brimham Rocks, all within a few miles of Ripon.

When to visit

City pics