There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 22 May 2017

Ripon and Fountains Abbey

First a little background

In 1983 I had been teaching for 11 years, our daughter Siân was two, Lynne was a full time mother and we felt up for an adventure. So, with an unjustified confidence in my abilities, I applied for a year's teacher exchange and was duly paired with Joel Wingard, a high school teacher from Gig Harbor, Washington, a small, pretty town nestled beside the Puget Sound, 45 minutes’ drive from Seattle.

Before taking over each other’s lives - jobs, houses, cars and even in-laws (Siân acquired a much-loved third granny) – the British and American exchangers met for a few days orientation at San Francisco State University. And there we met Joel and Lucinda Wingard and their three children, all eight of us about to embark on what had been a dream and was now becoming a pretty scary reality…

San Francisco State University, August 1983
l to r Gabe, Lynne, Siân, Me, Dija, Joel, Lucinda, Tyler 
…and here are the adults thirty four years later. The children, now with jobs, families and lives of their own are far too busy to take time off in mid-May.

Kettlewell, North Yorkshire, May 2017
Siân is now older than I was in the top picture
We had met Joel and Lucinda at Manchester Airport two weeks earlier and once their heads and bodies had settled in the same time zone they set off north to walk a lot and drive a little of the Coast-to-Coast route with the Sierra Club.

21/05/2017 (or 05/21/2017 for J & L)

A Whizz Round York

Their walk heroically completed, though with Lucinda now hobbling with the same tendon damage that had ruined my SW Odyssey last month, we met again in York.

After a look at the train museum,…

Stephenson's Rocket (replica), National Railway Museum, York
 …. a visit to Betty’s for the obligatory fat rascal…

Lucinda and a fat rascal, Bettys tea Room, York
…and a walk round the Minster,…

Inside York Minster
we set off for Ripon.

Ripon and the Wakeman (and some Tapas)

20 miles from York, Ripon (pop 17,000) is England's third smallest city. Founded, according to tradition, by St Wilfred in the 7th century it was first an important ecclesiastical centre and then prominent in the medieval wool trade. The city was noted for manufacturing spurs in the 16th and 17th century, but lost its importance when it was by-passed by the industrial revolution.

City of Ripon
Passing the racecourse we discovered it was race day and our B&B, a pub just south of Ripon’s little River Skell, was catering for those preferring to watch the horses on television. We were warmly welcomed by the landlady, but the bar was loud and we wondered how long the noise might continue.

Joel and Lucinda had spoken of their difficulties in finding places to eat in 1983, particularly with three children in tow. It is much easier now, but not necessarily on a Sunday evening - my internet search had shown only two local restaurants whose day did not finish with Sunday lunch.

A quick exploration suggested there was more choice than expected. I do not know how many tapas bars there were in Britain in 1983, but I doubt there were any in places like Ripon. Manchega is there now and although quiet on a Sunday evening (so that is why so many places close) it served us well. We enjoyed nine tapas plus desserts and every one - old favourites like patatas bravas and pescaditos or new discoveries like Morcilla de Burgos (Castilian black pudding) and padron peppers - showed authentic Spanish flavours. One criticism, the wine list was dominated by South America with hardly a Spanish wine in sight; that said I enjoyed our Chilean sauvignon.

Outside Manchega, Ripon (photo: Lucinda)
Well fed, we made our way to the market square, an expanse of cobbles and tarmac half given over to car parking. In the centre is an obelisk.

Obelisk, Ripon Market Square
At 9 o’clock precisely the Wakeman arrived to set the watch as he has done (allegedly) every single evening since 886. He blows his horn at each corner of the obelisk before announcing ‘The Watch is Set’.

The Wakeman sets the watch, Ripon Market Square
 This done, the small multi-national crowd gathered round and Wayne the Wakeman explained something of the history.

Wayne the Wakeman explains, Ripon Market Square
According to the Ripon Hornblower website Alfred the Great visited Ripon in 886. Impressed by the city and its stand against the marauding Vikings he wished to give the city a charter but lacking parchment he gave it a horn instead, advising them to appoint Wakemen to be ever vigilant against attack. Wayne did not claim the charter came from Alfred in person – he probably never ventured this far north – but he told us of the charter and how the original Charter Horn is still kept in the Town Hall.

In time the Wakeman (elected for a year) and the 12 self-appointed constables who elected him came to control the city, not always to the benefit of the ordinary citizens. It was time for a reboot, and in 1604 James I granted a new charter with a more democratically elected mayor tasked with employing a Wakeman. And so, more or less, it has continued. Today’s Wakemen (two them job share) may serve the town’s tourist industry rather than ensure its security, but they maintain a tradition which is, they claim, unbroken for over 1100 years.

Psalm 127, verse 1 says (in the Authorised Version)

Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh in vain.

To give their Wakeman some divine back-up the city chose as its motto a modified version of the second part of the verse and emblazoned it across the Town Hall at the end of the Market Place. St Wilfred, the city’s founder can be seen keeping vigil from a niche (some locals call it his bath) on the wall of the NatWest Bank, the regrettable 1960s building to the left of the Georgian Town Hall.

Ripon Town Hall with St Wilfrid half way up wall of the bank next door
Ambling back to our B&B we found the pub, like everywhere else, had closed early and a restful night was had by all.


Ripon Cathedral

Ripon’s former importance has left it with a huge Gothic cathedral and to visit we again had to cross the River Skell. The bridge has a 7.5t weight restriction, and a warning sign telling you so. Lucinda found the sign amusing, if not downright funny and insisted on photographing it. I do not understand the joke, but here it is anyway.

Hilarious sign (Photo: Lucinda)
note to self: try not to turn sideways when you know there are people with cameras nearby
Perhaps American readers are now breaking out in loud guffaws while Brits are saying ‘yes…and…?’ with furrowed brows. Or maybe not. ‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us. To see oursels as ithers see us!’ to quote the wise, if occasionally incomprehensible Robert Burns.

The huge Early English west front was added in 1220 to what was the fourth stone church on this site. The first, constructed by St Wilfrid in 672 was one of the earliest stone buildings in the Kingdom of Northumbria while the fourth, started in 1160 by Roger de Pont L’Évêque, Archbishop of York, incorporating parts of earlier churches and took 400 years to complete. The cathedral is now one of the three co-equal cathedrals of the Diocese of Leeds (none of them actually in upstart Leeds).

The west Front of Ripon Cathedral

 Though not as elegant as York Minster, it is an impressive cavern surrounded by soaring stonework.

The interior, Ripon Cathedral
I have read that the cathedral has a fine organ, but it was being tuned during our visit and hearing its complete range at full volume was sometimes excruciating.

Organ, Ripon Cathedral
Beneath the quire, is a stone corridor...

Towards St Wilfred's Chapel, Ripon Cathedral 
…leading to a small chapel – all that remains of St Wilfred’s original church.

St Wilfred's Chapel, Ripon Cathedral

The quire has some fine carving….

Choir, Ripon Cathedral
…the 35 misericords were carved between 1489 and 1494 by the Ripon School of carvers who were active - and not just in Ripon - as stability returned after the Wars of the Roses. A member of the cathedral staff kindly pointed us towards one depicting a gryphon hunting rabbits. The rabbit’s backside disappearing down the hole, top right, and the corridor to St Wilfred’s chapel were, she suggested, the inspiration for the opening of Alice in Wonderland. Charles Dodgson was appointed a Canon of Ripon Cathedral in 1854 when his son, also Charles but better known as Lewis Carroll, was 20, so it is possible, though our informant fair-mindedly admitted that there are other claimants.

Gryphon hunting rabbits, misericord, Ripon Cathedral
She also told us that later that morning Ripon would be standing in for Westminster Abbey for the filming of the new series of Victoria and that was why the modern candle holders were being removed.

Removing the modern candlesticks for the filming Victoria, Ripon Cathedral
Before leaving the cathedral we visited the exhibition in the transept. There was church plate, some interesting jewels and a small library, but my eye was caught by a series of models of the cathedral. From 672 to the 16th century each successive version showed enlargements and improvements. The last showed the cathedral with pepper pot spires, like those at Southwell, topping the towers. The only alteration since has been to remove those spires. The building has been lovingly maintained but not enlarged or expanded in any way - I am uncertain what conclusion to draw from this observation.

We made the short drive to Fountains Abbey where we were redirected from the main to the west entrance to avoid a steep descent – particularly irksome to those with heel tendon problems.

Fountain's Abbey

By the gate, as a sort of hors d’oeuvre, is Fountain’s Hall.

Fountains Hall, near Ripon
Built as a country home in 1597, the sandstone (including a complete staircase) was quarried from the abbey. Now also owned by the National Trust, the ground floor is open while parts can be rented as holiday accommodation.

Inside Fountains Hall
In 1132 Thurston, Archbishop of York, granted land to 13 monks who had left the Benedictine abbey of St Mary’s in York after a dispute. The site for their new abbey was a sheltered valley beside the River Skell where water, wood and building stone where readily available.

The buildings were initially wooden and it was not until after the monks had joined the Cistercian order that the first stone church was built in 1143. In 1146 a dispute over who should be the next Archbishop of York led to the abbey being torched by a mob. The next 25 years saw a great reconstruction and some of the stonework we could see as we walked across the sward dates from this period, though the quire is 13th century and the Huby Tower was built when Marmaduke Huby was abbot, not long before the dissolution in 1539.

Fountains Abbey
We detoured right to walk along the wildflowers bedecked bank of the Skell; though it becomes less attractive when you realise that the river’s main function was to carry away the monks’ waste!

The River Skell above Fountains Abbey

 We walked through the hospitium where hospitality was offered to travellers….

The hospitium, Fountains Abbey
 …and the cellerium, or store rooms, with their fine medieval vaulting.

Cellerium, Fountains Abbey
 A walk through the cloister…

The cloister, Fountains Abbey
 …took us into the main church….

The nave, Fountains Abbey
….with the Huby Tower in its unusual position to the side of the nave.

The Huby Tower, Fountains Abbey
Leaving the abbey we followed the River Skell towards Studley Royal Water Gardens, which together with the Abbey make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1984 the Wingard family had pitched their tent (actually, come to think of it, our tent) in a nearby camp site and gone for a walk. They knew nothing of Fountains Abbey, but following the water meadows of the Skell they had rounded a bend and been confronted with this totally unexpected sight. Our 2017 trip could not hope to recapture the excitement of that discovery, nor could we recreate the reading of a Shakespeare play (and I have forgotten which one) which they attended that evening in the abbey grounds, but I hope it stirred some pleasant memories.

Fountains Abbey from the West
Continuing to Studley Royal Water Garden we found a garden where form and reflection outrank plants and flowers.

Studley Royal Water Gardens
At the café we paused for a National Trust snack lunch. With two aching tendons between us it seemed wise to whistle up the site minibus which took us across the deer park and back to the west entrance.

St Mary's Church, Studley
Photograph by Alison Stamp (borrowed from Wikipedia)
In an ideal world we would have stopped at St Mary’s Church. Consecrated in 1878 it was designed by William Burges, gothic revivalist and drinking buddy of the Pre-Raphaelites. Lynne discovered his over-the-top fantasies in Castell Coch as a child and they have long been a source of delight and amusement.

We returned to Ripon before heading on to Masham, Wensleydale and Wharfedale.

I should not finish a post on Ripon without mentioning its trio of Museums, the Courthouse, the Prison and Police, and the Workhouse, collectively known as the Yorkshire Law and Order Museums. After listening to the Wakeman I am sure they are worth a visit, but you cannot see everything in one trip, so we didn’t.


  1. Yes, so much more to see!
    Now about that bridge moment: What I found so amusing is that in the US we wouldn’t dare characterize a bridge thus. Asking folks to use their better judgement isn’t our way. We in America would plaster such a bridge with CAUTION signs and NOTICES left and right prohibiting heavy vehicles from crossing, under PENALTY OF LAW. For us Yanks, landing in the drink wouldn’t be sufficient punishment. Funny, huh?
    Isn’t it marvelous that travel offers us a mirror ‘To see oursels as ithers see us!’

  2. And I thought it was us 'seeing oursels as ithers see us.'
    The red circle round the 7.5t is a legal prohibition - red triangles (like the bend signs you didn't understand) are warnings, red circles are prohibitions. We prefer it this way, crossings don't have 'walk' and 'don't walk', if you try to get on the motorway the wrong way there is no sign saying 'Wrong way. Go Back.'
    The British like hints and nudges, ask us nicely we'll do anything you want, meek as lambs; tell us to do something and we'll do the exact opposite.
    One reason, perhaps, why Joel and I found teaching difficult.