The Civic Society column with David Winpenny

This column first appeared in the Ripon Gazette in October 2007, so this is the 500th of them. Such landmarks are often the opportunity to look back with nostalgia and, perhaps regret.

Sunday, 18th June 2017, 4:00 pm
Actor Joseph Marcell unveiled the Societys plaque on the former Theatre Royal. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

But the column has never been a slave to the past – and neither has Ripon Civic Society, under the banner of which it appears. Many of the weekly musings have, it is true, been on architectural history rather than on the future, but knowing about the past helps to inform the present and the future.

Unless we know about the past we cannot assess the present and, perhaps, influence the what happens in the future to the buildings and environment of Ripon and the surrounding area.

Ripon Civic Society has sometimes been accused, by people who often should know better, and by others with a vested interest in taking actions that the Society might think of as damaging the built environment of the city, of opposing all development and of attempting preserve every last brick of every building.

The former Girls High School building needs urgent attention. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Readers of this column will know how far from the truth that accusation is; the Society has always supported good new building. Its Awards, held every two years, bear witness to the stress the Society puts on good design and adventurous new building.

Of course, it is also important to protect the best of what we have, so the Awards have also always recognised good restoration practice – taking note of how older buildings can be sensitively adapted to modern usage, often to the highest environmental and energy conservation standards. In last year’s Awards, for example, the former coach house at Highfield, off Palace Road, was awarded the Society’s Helen Whitehead Salver for the Best Project, as well as the Price Flagon for Best Restoration, and Society’s Sustainability Award. It was an excellent example of how a former semi-derelict structure can be tuned back to use.

It is, perhaps, worth quoting some of the Society’s objects, paraphrased from its constitution. They are:

l promoting heritage protection and conservation projects in the city and are

The award-winning former coach house at Highfield. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

l promoting the highest levels of architecture, planning and design

l stimulating public awareness of the best qualities of Ripon and the surrounding area

l acting as a leading voice in the development and prosperity of the city and the surrounding area

l educating the public in the geography, history, natural history and architecture of the city and area

The former Girls High School building needs urgent attention. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

It is, of course, for others to judge how far the Ripon Civic Society has met its aims since its foundation 49 years ago this month.

It may be argued that as the Society approaches its half-century next year it has done some good over five decades – groups with no purpose or use will often atrophise and die long before reaching such a landmark.

How has the Society maintained its place in the city?

Most important, perhaps, is its role as a planning watchdog – or perhaps, changing metaphors, as a gateway.

The award-winning former coach house at Highfield. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Watchdogs will bark at anything, whereas the Society believes that its role is to assess planning applications on their merits and make considered comments on them.

Yes, some are criticised and recommended for rejection by the planning authorities, when the Society believes that they are either detrimental to the city or the local villages, or are in need of improvement.

Others, though, can be welcomed – let through the gate, as it were – as making a positive contribution to the area’s development; the Society is not against development, in the right place and in the right form.

The Ripon City Plan, into which the Society has had a significant input over the last few years, takes the same approach. And the Society will always draw attention to problems – current concerns include the state of the former Girls’ High School and the former Maltings on Ure Bank.

The Society’s role in stimulating ‘public awareness’ and in education is accomplished not just by this weekly column but also by other initiatives.

The long-running monthly lectures, to which Society members gain free admission, cover a very wide range of subjects; over the last few years members and guests have heard talks on, for example, World Heritage Sites, brickmaking, stained glass and gypsum, as well as many Ripon-centred lectures – on maps showing the city, on public lettering in the city, on Ripon clockmakers, on Ripon’s bridges and on Ripon on film.

There have also been many publications by the Society over the years; among recent ones have been two books by Vice-President Maurice Taylor – ‘The Historic Streets of Ripon’ and ‘Ghost Stories from around Ripon’; a set of six walking trail leaflets, produced in association with Ripon Ramblers, that have proved a best-seller at Ripon Tourist Information Centre; and the booklet ‘Ripon Revealed’, which takes locals and visitors on a two routes around the Society’s green information plaques.

Anyone who has been in Allhallowgate recently may have noticed that there is a series of large black-and-white historic photographs of the street, as well as one of the Market Square on display.

They have attracted a great deal of interest, and are part of one of the Civic Society’s latest initiatives, the ‘Ripon Re-Viewed’ project.

With the help of Heritage Lottery Fund and North Yorkshire County Council, the Society is preserving and making available on line around 7,000 photographic images of Ripon taken in the 19th and 20th centuries.

And if you think this is looking backwards, there’s something very up-to-date that is in progress, too – again linked to the green plaques.

The Society is preparing to launch an interactive way for visitors to find out more information on the stories that are told on the plaques.

This is not yet available, but will use the latest gaming technology on mobile phones – think ‘Pokémon Go’, but without the monsters.

So, 500 columns and (almost) 50 years for Ripon Civic Society. No celebrations for the column, but there are plans for the Society’s Golden Jubilee in 2018.

Watch this space!