The Civic Society column with David Winpenny

The cottage at 24 Borrage Lane, where Wilfred Owen stayed in 1918 � David Winpenny
The cottage at 24 Borrage Lane, where Wilfred Owen stayed in 1918 � David Winpenny

This week’s look at some of Ripon Civic Society’s green plaques focuses on three just outside the centre of the city – all with fascinating tales to tell, and interesting characters as part of their stories.

Ripon Canal

Clova, Clotherholme Road, home of Piazzi Smyth � David Winpenny

Clova, Clotherholme Road, home of Piazzi Smyth � David Winpenny

The plaque about the Ripon canal, one of the shortest in the country, can be found on the gateposts of the canal basin, by Bondgate Green. The canal connected the city via the River Ure to the River Ouse and then the Humber, allowing goods – particularly coal – to be carried to Ripon and lead and agricultural products from the city’s hinterland to reach distant markets.

John Smeaton was the engineer-in-charge of the new canal, which was authorised, at an estimated cost of £9,000, by Act of Parliament passed on 15 April 1767. Work began on the route under the supervision of Smeaton’s pupil William Jessop. It was finished in 1773, having cost £16,400. Its water comes from the River Skell and the River Laver.

New funds were raised by the Ure Navigation Company from 1820, after which boats with payloads of up to 70 tonnes were able to use the canal. In 1844 the Leeds and Thirsk Railway Company bought the canal, and trade gradually diminished. From 1892 barges ceased to use the canal and it became derelict. It was impassable by 1906, and officially abandoned in 1956. The Ripon Canal Company was formed in 1961 to prevent the canal being filled in.

Over the next 25 years the southern half of the canal was restored for navigation, but the rest, to the Canal Basin, remained derelict. The Canal Company’s successor, the Ripon Canal Society, eventually organised the reopening, which was officially celebrated on 8 September 1996. For a few years, until the opening of the Ribble Link on the Lancaster Canal in 2002, Ripon was the most northerly point on the connected British canal system.

Ripon Canal Basin in the late 19th century.

Ripon Canal Basin in the late 19th century.

Clova

Now Clova House Care Home, this large house on Clotherholme Road was once home to Charles Piazzi Smyth, one of the most eminent scientists of the 19th century. Born in Naples and named after a renowned Sicilian astronomer, Giuseppe Piazzi, he was educated at Bedford Grammar School and then apprenticed at the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope. At the age of just 26 he was appointed Astronomer Royal for Scotland. He stayed for 43 years, undertaking some important scientific work in spectroscopy and meteorology.

He was the first person to use a telescope on a mountain top. He wrote that ‘The atmosphere, being so determined an opponent, every effort should be made to eliminate its effects . . . and this can only be accomplished by rising above its grosser parts.’ So he had a large telescope dragged to the summit of Mount Teide on Tenerife in 1856. All mountain-top telescopes today are the result of this experiment by Piazzi Smyth.

But Piazzi Smyth had a dottier side; he was convinced that Egypt’s Great Pyramid held all the secrets of the universe. Accompanied by his wife Jessie he measured every inch, and studied every angle. He wrote that ‘a high probability was impressed upon my mind that the Great Pyramid, besides its tombic use, might have been originally invented and designed to be appropriate for no less than a primitive Metrological Monument’ – in other words, that it was meant to disclose the secrets of measurement and hence of the universe itself. His theories were ridiculed by the scientific establishment – he was called a ‘pyramidiot’ – and this damaged his reputation.

Piazzi Smyth's photograph of his wife inside the Great Pyramid.

Piazzi Smyth's photograph of his wife inside the Great Pyramid.

Piazzi was a pioneer photographer. In Tenerife he took stereoscopic pictures, and inside the Great Pyramid he took the first interior shots, including one of this wife Jesse in the King’s Chamber, with illumination from burning magnesium wire.

In 1888 Piazzi Smyth resigned from his Edinburgh post and retired to Ripon, probably for Jessie’s health. At Clova he took hundreds of photographs of cloud formations, a work he described as ‘a labour of love and meteorological research, in days of old age and failing faculties’.

Piazzi Smyth and Jessie are now buried beneath their own pyramid-shaped tomb in the churchyard of Sharow. The inscription calls him ‘a Bright Star in the Firmament of Ardent Explorers of the Works of their Creator’.

24 Borrage Lane

The poet Wilfred Owen, who stayed in Borrage Lane in 1918.

The poet Wilfred Owen, who stayed in Borrage Lane in 1918.

During World War One Ripon was surrounded on its western and southern sides by one of the largest army camps in the country. Ripon Camp was one of the main centres for the organisation of troops being sent to and returning from the Front. At its height it accommodated more than 30,000 soldiers, completely dominating the city, whose population at that time was around 7,000.

Among the most notable of those to pass through the camp was the poet Wilfred Owen. After time in hospital in Scotland for shell-shock, he arrived in Ripon at what he called ‘an awful camp’ on 12 March 1918. His accommodation was in a hut that held 14 officers – ‘13 too many’, he said. He quickly found space in the cottage at 24 Borrage Lane. ‘It is a jolly retreat,’ he wrote. ‘There I have tea and contemplate the inwardness of war.’

From the cottage he could walk to the camp. ‘It is an interesting walk,’ he wrote, ‘especially this morning when the buds all made a special spurt between dawn and noon.’ But he was also contemplating his poems; it was while staying in Ripon he wrote ‘The Send-Off,’ ‘Mental Cases’, ‘Futility’ and, probably, ‘Strange Meeting’.

18 March 1918 was Owen’s 25th birthday. He spent much of it in Ripon Cathedral. At around the same time, in his Borrage Lane cottage, he drafted the famous preface to his war poems: ‘My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.’ Owen re-joined his battalion at Amiens in September 1918, where he won the Military Cross. He was killed early in the morning of 4 November 1918 – just seven days before the Armistice ended the Great War.

The pyramid in Sharow Churchyard, commemorating Piazzi Smyth � David Winpenny

The pyramid in Sharow Churchyard, commemorating Piazzi Smyth � David Winpenny