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Olympic torch route, day 32: Ripon blows its trumpet, but not very loudly

19th June 2012

Small North Yorkshire city between the moors and the dales has been deserted by the big north-east coach tours

Ripon sounds like it should be a city that’s thriving: at the heart of prosperous North Yorkshire, perfectly located between the moors and the dales, the oldest city in England (although the claim is contested), the fourth smallest city in England. A handsome cathedral. The most beautiful Cistercian abbey in the world, Fountains. A theme park, a racecourse, three museums, a decent weekly market. A slogan that’s hard to resist: “Stay Awhile Amidst Its Ancient Charms.”

And yet it’s somehow never quite made it. In the shadow of Harrogate for cash and wealth – Ripon is part of Harrogate borough council, and locals forever grumble about coming off second best – and surrounded by prosperous farmers and landowners, the city is full of boarded-up buildings, charity shops and factory stores. M&S came, and then went. Rumours of a cinema opening – the last one closed in the early 1980s, to be turned into a nightclub – always remain rumours. The pubs used to be filled (for better or worse) with soldiers from the Royal Engineers, based in the city: now they’re often away, fighting in Afghanistan.

Even the traditional north-east big-booze coach tours don’t come any more. The new mayor, Andrew Williams (who was previously the old mayor, 2007-08: it’s that sort of town), told the newly-tabloid Ripon Gazette that “five years ago there were 100 coach parties visiting Ripon – now there are around 30”. The posh northern supermarket Booths, which opened to much excitement in 2009 and for whom Ripon’s entire road system was rebuilt, is mostly empty. Last month, Ripon failed to get £100k from the government under the Portas Pilots scheme: its proposal for Alice in Wonderland-themed walks (Lewis Carroll’s father was canon here) and al fresco dining on the market square failed to persuade the government.

The new local MP, Julian Smith (Cameroon, class of 2010, looks like Robbie Williams), describes Ripon as a “city not fulfilling its potential”, and points to Ludlow in Shropshire and Holt in Norfolk as market towns that have reinvented themselves while Ripon has not (although to be fair, he was present for last week’s opening of what is billed as “the country’s first museum dedicated to the gritter”).

Smith runs summits to try to work out what’s wrong, and concedes, choosing his words carefully, that the “city council has historically had more infighting than you might expect”. Bigwigs are often found parading in their chains from the town hall to the cathedral; some say it’s the kind of set-up that gives the word “civic” a bad name.

But perhaps Ripon’s static, unchanging nature is not a political problem at all: perhaps this is just what Ripon is, and always has been. In its traditional Yorkshire way, it’s not a place for show-offs; it’s a country city, a market town that would rather not have much attention. It’s not that the locals don’t care. On the contrary, they’re proud that they saved the threatened Victorian spa swimming baths, and of the excellent independent bookshop, and of the city’s history, its reserved beauty and dignity. Many of its problems are national problems, and are much worse if you travel 30 miles up the A1 to Middlesbrough.

Ripon’s greatest tradition is itself deeply rooted in the past, and is surely a clue to the town: for more than 1,100 years, come rain or shine or pestilence, the Ripon hornblower has blown his horn on the market square to reassure the citizens of Ripon that they are safe, that all is well. It promises continuity rather than reinvention, and that may be just the way Riponians like it. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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