Pocket Britain

An ancient Yorkshire settlement with more old buildings than you can count

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Every evening, at 9pm precisely, a man wearing unusual clothes stands in Ripon's market square. He walks to each of its 4 corners, and blows loudly on a horn. This man is known as the wakeman, and he performs a ceremony that has been handed down over many centuries. It was created as protection for the town. The horn was to let the residents know that they were being watched over, so they could sleep safely in their beds. Ripon's wakeman has blown his horn for over 1100 years and throughout that entire time, not a single night has ever been missed. It's easily one of the longest-standing traditions in England.

The Ripon Wakeman
Photo Phil Catterall
The market currently happens every Thursday, when over 100 stallholders come to sell their wares. This weekly shopping spree is still at the centre of Ripon life. Various other events are held throughout the year, including craft, farmer's and French markets. At the centre of the square is Ripon's huge stone obelisk. This 27-metre-tall monument was set up over 300 years ago, which actually makes it quite young compared to its surroundings!

The Obelisk in the centre of Ripon
Photo Chris Wilson
One of the oldest buildings in town is the cathedral. It has its roots in the 7th century, when St. Wilfrid built one of England's first stone churches here. In fact, it's rumoured to have been only the second stone building in the entire northern half of the country. Throughout its long history, the structure has been rebuilt and updated many times. It only became an official cathedral in 1836.The church's original founder, St. Wilfrid, is treated with some reverence. He is depicted in a huge stained glass window, and his body was buried next to the high altar. Every year the town holds a parade in his honour, with floats, music and costumes.

Ripon Cathedral
Photo wfmillar
Just a few kilometres south-west of Ripon is another religious structure that nearly matches the cathedral for age. This is Fountains Abbey, a 900-year-old monastery that lies mostly in ruins. It was set up for a group of 13 disgraced monks, who had been exiled from St. Mary's Abbey in York. Like most of England's religious houses, it was destroyed by Henry VIII in the 16th century. Nevertheless, many of the huge arches and tall towers are still standing. They're the largest abbey ruins in the country, and in 1986 they became Yorkshire's first World Heritage site.

Fountains Abbey
Photo Klaus with K
Fountains Abbey is situated within Studley Royal Park, a beautiful area of plants, water and woodland. The highlight is the water garden, a delicately crafted Georgian display of ponds, statues and temples. Beautiful views appear in all directions, but they save the best until last. This final vista is called the "surprise view", as it was expressly designed to cause a sharp intake of breath. Of course, it would be a shame to ruin the surprise by describing it!

Studley Royal Park
Photo Iain Gilmour
With all these historic places to visit, it can almost seem like Ripon doesn't exist in the 21st century at all. Actually though, there are one or two more modern attractions as well. The most notable example is Lightwater Valley, a theme park just to the north. It started as a fruit farm, but has since evolved beyond all recognition. It boasts some bowel-shaking rides, including The Ultimate, England's longest rollercoaster. The valley is also home to the Birds of Prey Centre, where you can meet the sky's deadliest creatures, and a huge shopping centre, with several dozen outlets.

About to ride at Lightwater Valley
Photo StuSimms
Despite these concessions to modern life, Ripon's historical sights remain the biggest reason to visit. As the town's welcome signs themselves say: Stay awhile amid its ancient charms".
Visitor Information
Ripon Cathedral is open from 8am (weekdays, 7:30am Sundays) to 6:15pm. Entry is FREE. Liberty Courthouse, Minster Road, Ripon, HG4 1QS. Tel: 01765 603 462
Fountains Abbey is open daily from 10am to 5pm April to September,10am to 4pm, October to March (closed Fridays during winter). Entry costs around £8.50 for adults, £5 for children. Ripon, Harrogate, HG4 3DY. Tel: 01765 608 888
Lightwater Valley is open weekends from April to October and daily during most school holidays from 10am to 4:30pm (close in winter). Entry costs around £20 for adults, £17 for children. North Stainley, Ripon, North Yorkshire HG4 3HT. Tel: 08717 200 011

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