For all its storied history, as cathedrals go, Ripon Cathedral is surprisingly modest and unassuming.

The current building is the fourth incarnation.The first was begun in 660 by St. Wilfred, abbot of the monastery at Ripon. It consisted of a stone bascilica in the most modern style of the time, straight from La Belle France (or La Belle Normandie, as it would have been then). The crypt survives intact; unfortunately, St. Wilfred’s building was demolished in 948 by King Aedred, who was taking issue with the then-current Archbishop of York (a politically sensitive position, one would infer).

The second building met its demise in 1069 during William the Conqueror’s “Harrying of the North” (the British have such wonderful euphemisms for annihilation). A third structure was begun in 1080 by the monarch-approved Norman Archbishop of York, Thomas of Bayeux. Alas, that attempt went south, also. The present, and hopefully, final church was built by Roger de Pont l’Évêque, Archbishop of York (1154-81). With an eye to the coffers, it was built on top of Wilfrid’s crypt in order to promote pilgrimages (and attendant donations) to his tomb.

Formally known as The Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Wilfred, Ripon Cathedral sits right in the middle of the city of Ripon, North Yorkshire, which on the day we visited, was festooned with colourful flags and bright sunshine.

Ripon had been on my list to see, and though we were staying some ways away in Park Cottage in Derbyshire, I had connected via email with Mike Biles from A Bit About Britain, and we’d determined that it was a good halfway spot to meet up in person for the first time. Glenn is always up for a drive, a cathedral crawl and a pint, so off we went one fairly sunny morning to tour Ripon.

Mike arrived right on time. We introduced ourselves and spent a happy few hours chatting and snapping photos.  Coincidentally, Mike has just this minute published his own blog about our trip to Ripon, so please visit it. Mike, with his depth of knowledge of British history, has done an excellent job of putting the importance of Ripon Cathedral into context. I had no idea he was writing his as I was writing this one. Great minds think alike (and let’s not think about the corollary to that).

Incidentally, Mike has just published A Bit About Britain’s History: From a long time ago until quite recently a wonderful, succinct and humorous book that I thoroughly enjoyed and think you might, too,

From the Amazon description;

‘…for anyone who wants a light introduction to Britain’s amazing story. If you don’t know the basics or would like a reminder, this book is for you. It is also perfect for those that didn’t enjoy history at school but who have suddenly realised they’d like to understand it a bit better now. Organised clearly and chronologically, A Bit About Britain’s History covers every period from a long time ago until quite recently.”

On to Ripon Cathedral, considered to be one of the best examples of the Early English style (1180 – 1225), which bridged the transition from the squat, square Norman churches to the pointy, highly decorated Gothic style which reached its peak (pun intended) in 1520, just in time for the Reformation, when all good things Cathedral came to a screaming halt.

This is the west front – you’ll note its height and the pointy central windows and doors that favour the Gothic style; they’re flanked by typically square Normanesque towers.

The stone is a lovely, warm honey colour, with restrained decoration over the doors and around the windows.

In what condition and by what means each major church (later cathedral) made its way through the Reformation is a matter of endless fascination to me. We think the need to be nimble and audacious is a product of the internet era. Ha! It took guts, ingenuity and a knack for flexibility to survive the politically fraught, tumultuous environment of the Reformation. Probably a hearty dose of luck and good connections, too. The stakes were higher, also; life and death, in many cases.

Ripon was one of only three major collegiate churches – Manchester and Southwell (not to be confused with Southwark) were the other two – that refounded with a collegiate (self-governing corporate body) after the Reformation. The colleges of Oxford and Cambridge universities and the schools of Eton and Winchester fared better still: they successfully resisted dissolution at all, employing the argument that their connections to Rome and the obligation to maintain Catholic masses had been heavily diluted by their academic and other religious functions (heavy emphasis on the academic). Genius. What, destroy us? No need. We’re not saying mass. Move along; nothing to see here…

I felt like the Friendly Giant taking this shot. “Look up, waaaay up”. 

Shall we enter? Spoiler: No Gerome the Giraffe inside, unfortunately.

Here’s the view from inside the west doors and down the nave. The slightly pointed arches down the sides and the rounded one in the middle are other examples of the blend of Gothic and Norman architectural styles.

The barrel-vaulted ceiling is beautiful.

Speaking of “look waaay up”,…

My trusty zoom lens in action. Yup – those guys are the round gold things you see right at the top.

The pulpit is from 1913 and is of the Arts & Crafts movement. It depicts four Anglo-Saxon saints: St Chad, St Cuthbert, St Hilda and St Ethelreda.

Lovely carved detail around the centre.

I always wondered why pulpits had these suspended roofs over them. Apparently, they’re to deflect the speaker’s voice downward – an early attempt at amplification. If they’d stopped there, we might have been spared Twitter!

I often find the pamphlet the Cathedral staff lends you (sensibly laminated) to be of great help in figuring out what to see and where to find it.

We’re at location #10 on the diagram, right in front of the altar. Before we go behind the altar and look at the Quire, its misericords (perchy seats) and stained glass windows, let’s go down to the crypt.

It’s from the days of St. Wilfred and, being from the 7th century, is the oldest structure of any English cathedral. Down we go on the fairly creepy staircase.

Along a narrow hall…

And into the inner sanctum. Set up rather invitingly for a crypt. Nonetheless, I did not linger. Amelia Peabody, I am not. Besides, there was so much more to see!

Back upstairs, we emerge at the crossing. Part of the tower fell down in 1450 and was not rebuilt until much later, so there is a combination of styles in here – round arches, pointed arches and different columns. It sounds a lot more disjointed than it looks. Judge for yourself.

And the decorated ceiling over the crossing.

This is the Medieval screen. through which we will pass to go into the Quire. It’s much more in the highly decorated Gothic style, some of which is quite deceiving. While the stone carving is Medieval, the coloured figures are from 1946 and represent important people in the history of Ripon and the Cathedral.

The organ (directly above the screen) is from 1878. No doubt part of George Gilbert Scott’s Victorian renovations of Cathedrals across England, which were largely in the Gothic style, felt to promote “family values” of purity and rectitude.

Now my very favourite bit: the choir stalls and the carved misericords from 1486 to 1494.

In case you’re tempted to take a seat, however…

Just looking!

Pig with bagpipes. Hedgehog? with lyre?

This one is very famous. It’s a griffin chasing a rabbit while another rabbit escapes down a hole, and is believed to have inspired Lewis Carroll in his writing of Alice in Wonderland. His father was canon at Ripon Cathedral from 1852-1868.

Misericord derives from the Latin word for “mercy” or “pity”, denoting some relief given to monks who would have otherwise had to stand throughout the very lengthy services. They were often carved by apprentices of the master carvers and involved fantastical creatures, flora or fauna. And given the apprentices were adolescent males, they often display questionable humour or outright cheekiness.

I love the head walking separately from the body in this one. A gruesome reminder of Medieval times.

The angels soaring above the choir stalls have received a great deal of restoration of late after one fell down onto the head of a parishioner below. A painstaking process and £100,000 later, they’re looking good!

At the back of the Quire are the high altar and the famous medieval Geometric East Window.

The gold screen below (from the Cathedral website):

“the high altar is surrounded by the glittering, golden screen created by Sir Ninian Comper and were given in tribute to those to who lost their lives in World War 1. The many gold figures recall the story of the Christian faith and hope coming to the North of England from both Celtic and Roman Christian traditions. The figures above celebrate the triumph of life over death and of good over evil, with the youthful, beardless, risen Christ perhaps being a reference to the young men who lost their lives in World War 1.”

The Chapel of Justice and Peace is a recent addition to the Cathedral.

Members of the armed forces are remembered in prayer here.

Before we head outside again, let’s take a look at some of the stained glass. I didn’t do a good enough job of attending to what was where regrettably. Judging from the barrel ceiling and the shape of the windows, this is the glass above the Great West doors.

On balance, I found the stained glass in Ripon to be fairly restrained.

The stone carving is less restrained.


Interior photography completed, we walked outside and worked our way round to the back of the Cathedral, with its marvellous graveyard.

All very Vincent Price, don’t you think?

Maybe it was only the lighting!

Can’t resist the gargoyles. They look like Dundee begging for treats.

Note the coffins (bottoms only, no tops or bodies) placed alongside the church wall. No explanation given. Hmmm…

Along the side of the building.

Past the modern-looking clock-cum-sundial.

Back to the front.

And we were on our way again. Mike, Glenn and I went for a lovely pub lunch before heading back to our temporary home in Derbyshire.  Good-bye Ripon. See you again sometime.