Things Ancient & Modern

Hymns Ancient & Modern was the name of the hymn book I sang from in my chorister days, so-called because the 500 plus songs it held included traditional (though hardly ancient) and more contemporary melodies.  It occurred to me while I was in Ripon Cathedral that the descriptor was perhaps more appropriately applied to the contents of this church.

The crypt of St Wilfrid’s church clearly counts as ancient being over 13 centuries old, but let’s start at the other extreme.  The Modern.

The cathedral is clearly a vibrant contributor to the life of the Ripon community.  On the morning that I visited and area was given over to running a coffee shop in one of the transepts, and a number of children were completing a treasure trail around the building accompanied by parents displaying varying degrees of patience and interest.  This is important, because so long as people value the cathedral for what it offers to them, then they will support its upkeep and development.

The great west end doorways for example have changed enormously since I first visited.  After 45 years or so I can’t remember exactly how you entered the church, but I suspect it was through huge heavy wooden doors blackened by centuries.  The stone remains much the same (this is a Grade I listed building after all) but is augmented by a glass porch that allows light to penetrate but not the vicissitudes of Yorkshire weather.  Added only a few years ago it features beautiful engravings from the life of the saint who founded the cathedral.

There’s some pretty modern stained glass too to compete with these engravings.

Step back a few decades to the 1920’s and we have another screen (ambitious to design such a piece in a building already famed for its medieval version.

This one, behind the altar, is a magnificent memorial to townsfolk killed in the Great War and was designed by Ninian Cooper, a gothic revivalist who specialised in such work.  Though installed in 1922 it recalls a much earlier period and depicts contemporaries of Wilfrid.

As does the pulpit, though the style here is very different.  A few years earlier and it would have been Arts & Crafts, or Art Nouveau but those styles were losing momentum in 1913 when this was constructed here.  The coming war would shake things up in the art world but for now there was no clear direction, which is not in anyway to diminish the impact of this fantastic work.  Featuring green marble pillars, bronze sculpture and a polished wooden canopy it depicts more Anglo-Saxon celebrity; St Chad, St Cuthbert, St Hilda and St Etheldreda.

Leave the 20th century and you’ll find all manner of memorials and ephemera from earlier times, including an internal gargoyle, the beast having failed to make its escape when the building acquired an extension.

For me though it’s still hard to beat the medieval original; the soaring arches of the cathedral itself… at least until I reveal a final treasure in my next Ripon posting!


Assumption and Contradiction

I’d been to Ripon Cathedral only once before; part of a whistle-stop school history trip which took in Mount Grace Priory, Fountains Abbey, and Ripon.  (Rievaulx Abbey might also have been on the itinerary but after 45 years my memory of the day is fading).  Naturally with such a tight schedule each location visited was given the edited highlights treatment.  In Ripon Cathedral this meant the medieval reredos, or rood screen.

You’d think that if the screen is the main attraction it would be simple to find details of its history and construction.  The danger of assumption!

I can tell you that the screen was built in the 15th century, but various search results have pointed to dates at either end of the 1400’s.  The solid structure includes a staircase up to the organ loft and down to the crypt and is 8 feet thick.  Except that another source says twelve.

The four statues of important kings from the cathedral’s history were added by the Victorians, though apparently they waited until 1946.

So what can I tell you with any certainty?  Well once again I find myself following in the footsteps of JMW Turner who sketched this part of the cathedral in one of his notebooks.  It’s difficult to discern the detail from an online representation of pencil on yellowed paper, but the niches appear empty, and knowing how the Victorians enjoyed reviving the gothic they seem likely to be responsible.  The bright colouring may be a later addition.

There are of course many unanswered questions.  What was in these niches originally?  When were they removed?  (The Reformation again?)  Are the angelic figures in the tier above original or were they lost too?  Why is Henry II posed so effeminately? (Sculptor influenced by rumours about his relationship Thomas a Becket?)

In the midst of this confusion is a feature that I suspect many visitors overlook.  Just above the point of the arched doorway is a small triangular section that is unpainted and unrestored.  It appears that a figure here held something or someone across their knees with smaller figures  paying homage alongside.  A pieta perhaps?  What Christ deliberately removed as part of a general rejection of artistic representations?

Lesson learned.  Take nothing for granted, but for now just enjoy the hotchpotch for what it is.

Early Eccentric

Just a few weeks after my visit to Hexham and I find another great church with 7th century origins.  From the side elevation Ripon Cathedral even shares a similar look due to the squat tower at the centre, though once you understand the history of the building then you’ll understand that there was no plan that produced this.

The two churches do share origins though – both were projects of St Wilfrid, inspired by the basilicas he had seen in Rome.  Like Hexham he made use of nearby Roman masonry (in this case from Aldborough), and like Hexham the crypt survives beneath the medieval church.  Like Hexham, Wilfrid’s church here was adopted as a site to build a major centre for pilgrimage by the Normans and it is here that the stories converge significantly.

Roger de Pont l’Évêque, who was Archbishop of York in the mid 12th century began the rebuilding, but it’s clear that he was no engineer.  His insistence that the crossing (the point where the transepts, nave and choir meet) be directly above St Wilfrid’s crypt was a poor decision as it meant that the east end, the focal point of the cathedral had to be constructed on sloping ground.  The scaffolding present on the day of my visit amply demonstrated this fact centuries later.

The problem took a dramatic turn in 1280 when the eastern facade and half of the choir collapsed.  Disaster at the time but fortuitous in some ways.  The great west end is one of the best examples of Early English architecture,  but the loss of more of the same means the church also features a new altar window in the style known as Decorated.

Less than 150 years later and the central tower collapsed, ostensibly due to an earthquake, though this isn’t a seismic hotspot.  I’m no expert but surely subsidence is more likely.  Fifty years after that and the nave walls were replaced (Perpendicular was in fashion now).  Consequently there’s no uniting style, but instead you have a collection within (and without) a single structure.

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I noticed something else once I ventured inside.  Attempting to get a shot of the length of the building I was struggling to align key features in my photograph, and for good reason.  For one thing the pillars supporting the great Norman arch at the end of the nave are asymmetrical as you can see below, but more importantly, beyond the rood screen the choir runs slightly to the left.  Another consequence of the site topography?  It would be easy to assume so but I raised the matter with one of the cathedral official to check.

She told me that this was a common feature in church construction.  (Really?  How come I’d never noticed this elsewhere?)  She backed this up by saying that because the cruciform design of a church recalls Christ’s execution, the slight deviation in the line represented the tilt of his head to one side as his life ended.  Was she right? I don’t know but it’s a pretty plausible explanation.

Visitors Welcome

Ripon, like many cathedral cities, was one of the early beneficiaries of tourism. Pilgrims would come to see the relics brought back from Rome and part with cash for food and accommodation. We’ll see in later posts whether the cathedral was worth the visit (hint – would I be here otherwise?) but for now I want to concentrate on another part of the town. Sorry. City.

Just a short walk west of the Market Square is Ripon Spa.

In 1904 the last spa to open in Britain began pumping sulphuric spring waters. It wasn’t great timing. The market was already saturated (excuse the pun) and Ripon wasn’t historically known for its bubbling spring in the same was as Bath for example. There was a very good reason for that – it doesn’t have a spring. The waters were piped from the village of Aldfield, four miles away.

That detail aside, the town gave it their best shot and the following year the facility was officially opened by Princess Henry of Battenberg, youngest of Queen Victoria’s daughters.  Celebrity aside, there were carved mahogany doors, beautiful stained glass windows, and a glazed river god spewing the mineralised water into the pump-room.  Exquisite.  But unsustainable.

Thirty years later the city converted the pump-room into a public swimming pool, a pool that is now beyond normal repair.

Ripon is now administered by Harrogate Borough Council.  Their view?  Time to redevelop the site which is in a prime residential location by the well-tended Spa Gardens, a public park with plenty of Victorian style, and an interesting piece of Alice in Wonderland sculpture.  Who could object to getting rid of an ancient and costly swimming pool?  In my experience the old swimming pool (Newcastle Road) where I learnt and swam 100 lengths every Friday to get the weekend underway has long since been filled in and the building razed.

Of course, that was a featureless brick building, whereas this is an Edwardian masterpiece constructed in that fin de siecle flourishing of arts and crafts.  A masterpiece that is loved by the residents of Ripon who began a series of meetings, protests and online petitions.

Sunderland, High Street Baths Portico

There is no love of Harrogate in the city; a town fully established in the 17th Century, a thousand years after Ripon.  It’s a town that attracts tourists to its grand hotels and conference centre.  And its spa.  Harrogate has 88 mineral springs.

At the time of writing the plan is for a new public baths to be opened elsewhere in town.  The facade of the old building is to be retained but what will grow behind that facade remains unknown.  Again I’ve seen this before.  Another public pool in Sunderland (High Street) was demolished and its porch preserved as a growth on the side of an identikit office building.  The masonry of that porch, on a wall of brick, seems like nothing more than an inconvenience that interrupts the flow of pedestrians outside.

Ripon deserves a better fate.


Gatesville NY*

You know you’re in a town with a bit of history when you see street names ending in “gate”. In Durham there’s Framwellgate, Milburngate, Crossgate and Gilesgate for example. In the location I visited were a few more, including a pretty classy place for a fish and chip shop.

Now you’d be forgiven for thinking that these are indications of a fortified settlement at some point in the town’s history and that is sometimes the case; the few remnants of the castle that gives Newcastle its name include a defensive passage called the Black Gate.  We are in Yorkshire however, and if you visit York, where there are plenty of “gates”, you’ll find the passages through the defensive walls called “bars”.  Confused?

The term actually has Viking origins; their word “gata” meaning a street; so street names make much more sense now – they don’t have to be passing through the walls to earn the suffix.

Was my theory right though?  After all, just because a town can trace its history back to Anglo-Saxon times doesn’t mean it will preserve that history.  Well on this occasion we can relax.

There are half-timbered buildings like The Wakeman’s House (no capes or mini-moogs in sight) that date back to the early 17th Century.  Further out from the centre there are grand Victorian villas.

The Market Square layout is believed to date back to the 12th or 13th Century, and includes a very imposing obelisk designed by Wren’s assistant Nicholas Hawksmoor (he liked a good obelisk did Nick).  Apart from its great height its the oldest ornamental obelisk in England.  Take a look at the symbol at its apex – we’ll return to that later.

The Morris Dancers aren’t a permanent feature, but they did add to the sense of Merry Olde England on the day of my visit, but once I ignored the distraction they provided I spotted more structures of interest.  Peeking over the roofscape a pair of towers hinted at the main objective of my visit, but closer by was something I’ve not seen outside of London; a cabmen’s shelter, and in this case a mobile example.  These were provided to allow cabmen somewhere to eat and relax while waiting for fares.

And then there was the Town Hall.  Classical in design, it’s stuccoed exterior bears an inscription


There’s that word wakeman again, a reference to a historic role that Rick’s ancestors may well have undertaken, though in his case somewhere nearer London.  A wakeman was effectively a nightwatchman, who would stay awake and patrol the streets on the lookout for criminal activity. Here in Ripon the position was similar to that of mayor, but with responsibility for law and order. In what may well be one of the world’s longest ongoing traditions, it is believed that Alfred the Great gave a horn to the townspeople so that they may keep a watch for Viking marauders.  The blowing of a horn at the four corners of the market cross (now the obelisk) at 9.00pm continues to this day, though it is purely ceremonial.  The town’s pubs would doubtless be in uproar if this marked any sort of curfew!

One last and very important point.  I’ve referred to Ripon several times as a town; like Richmond and Hexham it feels like a market town, but it is not.  Those towers belong to a cathedral, which makes Ripon a city, albeit one of our smallest.

Plenty more about that cathedral later, but for now back to that tradition…

*NY – North Yorkshire not New York!

Sea and Land

Back in my younger days my inner nerd was satisfied by hours spent on Sunday afternoons playing Dungeons & Dragons (coincidentally with the same George Mitchell mentioned in my last Merseyside post). One particular session comes back to me, as a combination of elements gave it added resonance.

Architecture & Morality
Architecture & Morality (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Lichway was set at the extremity of a coastal basin and aside from the undead hinted at in the title also featured a number of aquatic related beasts, and a great treasure defended by a threatening creature whose breathing noises pervaded a funerary complex and soothed the restless dead found there.  I remember it because that atmosphere continued after the game as I walked home in falling snow, listening to Architecture and Morality by OMD, and in particular the track Sealand, which seemed appropriate both to the game and to my home town on the coast.    (What a prescient album choice too, given the content of much of this blog!)


I was probably aware that OMD were from the Wirral from some music paper interview of the era, but never having been there it meant nothing to me, so I was ignorant of the fact that here too were people shaped by their life on the coast.  Influenced by the game I’d played that day, and the ethereal synthesisers on the track, I’d always imagined Sealand as some fantasy state on a cold northern shore, when in fact it is a real place on the Wirral peninsula, just across the border in Wales.


I mention all of this because my Merseyside trip brought so much of it back to mind (though thankfully not the snow).  Crossing the Mersey through the Kingsway tunnel (not the Lichway) I headed for the extreme tip of the Wirral peninsula, a part of Wallasey called New Brighton, so-called because it was developed as an attempt to bring some of the sophistication of a seaside resort to this area.  (New Brighton was later to be the subject of photographer Martin Parr’s famous series The Last Resort).  However in the year before that development was begun, a threatening creation was installed upon the rocky coast with the intention of defending a great treasure; the wealth of Liverpool that I referred to in that prior post.



This was a fort whose guns were trained across the Mersey to deal with any naval threat before it could reach the great port or its shipping.  Closed to the public except at weekends and school holidays I was unable to access the interior so couldn’t tell if it was filled with calming noises (perhaps the waves lapping against those thick stone walls?), but back in the 70’s a local group gigged there.  Yes, you’re a step ahead of me, it was an early incarnation of what was to become OMD.


Though still a part of the mainland, the journey under the Mersey and the sand blown environment beyond gave the place a feel like an island, though perhaps that perception was created by the fort, which though now joined to the land was once isolated by high tides, and the lighthouse which is so tantalisingly close but still “at sea”.


Once more pursuing my photographic goal of a decent long exposure shot, I imagined a result that would be as calm as those sleeping undead but the incoming tide came faster than I expected and moved my tripod enough to blur not just the waters but the whole image, despite the “snowshoes” I’d fitted to give me more stability on sand.


Retreating to the rocks I tried again.


Now this is how I imagined Sealand.


Referenced in Song

I’ve some things in common with Tony Corbell, the award-winning photographer. We both shoot with Canon, we’re both heavily involved with training and photography; it’s just that for him the latter is his main wage earner and the former is something he believes in very strongly; sharing knowledge and experience. Those roles are reversed for me of course but this week I found something else in common with him.

He describes himself as the “biggest fan in the world*” of an English group of musicians who achieved some success in the 1960’s, and so one of his personal projects has been to document things and places mentioned in their songs over the years. Coincidentally in the same week that I was watching one of his training videos explaining this, I found myself in the same city where he has shot so much of this project.

It’s a city I’ve worked in before and so I didn’t come expecting to capture any great shots; I won a ViewBug challenge last year for images from this city, so felt I’d been there, done that. I had an entirely different landscape in mind to shoot nearby, but in the short excursion from my hotel in search of food and drink I couldn’t help myself. Like Glasgow the architecture here seems to have so many autobiographical tales to tell of the city’s past.

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One of the world’s major ports, there are tales of slavery and immigration, heroism, death, artistry, poverty and wealth to be discerned from the names and decoration of the buildings and public spaces here.  As I was staying in the commercial district it was predominantly the wealth that I encountered through banks and insurance companies and building names such as West Africa House and New Zealand House.

The Town Hall is 18th Century, and whilst it lacks the braggadocio of Manchester’s structure it is a fine Georgian building with some unusual decoration that again reflects the city’s international role and is topped of course by Britannia, ruler of the waves that brought this affluence.

My intended subject on this trip was a location aimed at protecting the city and its important trade.  Money talks.

Which brings me back to Tony Corbell and his fandom.  In case you haven’t yet recognised the city, here and some images that might just clinch it for you, and a couple of lines from one of the songs his idols recorded:

The best things in life are free
But you can keep them for the birds and bees
Now give me money
That’s what I want

(Further clue – I’m not talking about The Flying Lizards!)

*A claim that would surely be disputed by my old school friend and bass-player, George Mitchell.  We never rivalled these guys: