The Civic Society Column with David Winpenny

Actor Joseph Marcell unveils the Theatre Royal plaque in 2013. (Copyright - David Winpenny)
Actor Joseph Marcell unveils the Theatre Royal plaque in 2013. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

In this week’s look at some of Ripon Civic Society’s green plaques in and around the city, we consider a group that lie close together, but tell very different stories.

Theatre Royal

The Spa Baths soon after their official opening by Princess Henry in 1905.

The Spa Baths soon after their official opening by Princess Henry in 1905.

Near where Westgate meets Park Street, at the top of Firby Lane, is a white-painted building that is now part of Calvert’s Carpets, but was once Ripon’s Theatre Royal.

Within its walls, 320 seats were ranged in boxes along each side and there were benches on the main floor.

When it opened on 20 August 1792 it was reported that ‘the scenery and decorations are excellent and the manager endeavours to provide a respectable dramatic corps with the novelties of the day, for the gratification of the public during the season.’

The manager so keen to please the public was Samuel Butler – he is commemorated by a memorial in St Mary’s Church in Beverley.

Stained glass in the Pump Room of the Spa Baths. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Stained glass in the Pump Room of the Spa Baths. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

His company had already visited Ripon in 1790, and he decided it was worth building a new theatre here to add to his growing empire.

His northern circuit included Harrogate, Kendal, Northallerton, Ulverston and Whitby as well as Ripon and Beverley. The only theatre still surviving from his day is the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond.

Butler’s company included the famous Shakespearean actor Edmund Keane.

The parents of another celebrated 19th Century actor, George Bennett, was also part of Butler’s company, and they were in Ripon when George was born in 1800, at a house in Park Street.

After Butler’s death in 1812 his son kept the theatre going for while, but it closed in 1829.

The building then became a military riding school and a drill hall, before spending much of the second half of the 20th century as a garage for the United bus company.

After a short time as a game venue, it was incorporated into Calvert’s Carpets, who also took over the adjacent brick building, formerly the Co-op, which opened in 1906 on the site of a former pub, the Black Horse.

The Civic Society’s green plaque was unveiled in 2013 by another actor – Joseph Marcell, best known for his work on television in ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’, ‘Dr Who’ and ‘The Bill’, who was playing King Lear in a production at Newby Hall that year.

Spa Baths

A few yards further up Park Street, there is a plaque on the Spa Baths. Ripon’s spa was the very last of the English spas to open – and its heyday was very short.

It was built to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the charter given to Ripon by James I in 1604 – and also as an attempt to wrest some of the lucrative spa trade from its larger neighbour Harrogate.

The problem was that there was no suitable spa water in Ripon, so it had to be piped four miles along pipes laid from the sulphur well at Aldfield, west of the city.

Nevertheless, the enterprise was considered viable; among its supporters was the Marquess of Ripon, who offered the land for the new Spa area of the city, including not just the baths but the Spa Gardens, Spa Park and what is now the Spa Hotel, originally the Hydro.

Through the influence of the Marquess, Ripon was the only English spa to be granted a royal opening – by Princess Henry of Battenberg, Queen Victoria’s youngest child, Beatrice.

It took place on 24 October 1905; with Princess Henry was daughter Princess Ena, who the following year married King Alphonso XIII of Spain, narrowly escaping death from a bomb on her wedding day.

Princess Henry unlocked the doors with a gold key and then inspected the interior.

The main room of the inside is the former pump room, with stained glass showing the presentation of a horn by King Alfred to Ripon, and James I giving the 1604 charter.

The walls are covered with elaborate tile work from the Burmantofts factory in Leeds, and elsewhere in the original building are art-nouveau tiles, many of them now covered.

When the Spa failed, in the late 1920s, a new brick structure was built at the back to house a swimming pool, and the complex has been used for that purpose since the 1930s, though a new pool should soon to be built beside the Leisure Centre – raising the question of the future of the current building.

Spa Park Maze

Opposite the Spa Gardens, part of the Ripon Spa development, is the Spa Park. On one of the gateposts is a plaque detailing the maze cut into the grass.

When the Rotary Club of Ripon Rowels wanted to mark the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, they chose to recreate the original Ripon Maze that was once located half a mile north-north-west of the park, at the junction between Palace Road and Little Studley Road, on what was then Ripon Common.

The original maze was almost 18.25 metres wide and the winding path from the edge to the centre was more than 372 metres long.

It was ploughed up when the common was enclosed in 1827.

The maze pattern is very ancient – mazes are found in Greek myths like the story of the Minotaur, and in many other legends. Turf-cut mazes seem to have been a Northern Euopean speciality, in the lands where the Vikings were dominant.

Maze names often referred back to Greek legend, though – there is a maze at Dalby in the Howardian Hills called is the City of Troy.

Ripon’s Maze was known as the Maiden’s Bower, and may have been used for fertility rituals in the far past.

Its design is known as the Chartres pattern, because it is similar to the maze in the centre of the nave in Chartres Cathedral in Northern France.

Ripon’s turf maze is a single path, with no branches or dead-ends, unlike a hedge maze.

The idea was to take a spiritual journey from the edge of the centre, contemplating as you went.

More about Ripon’s plaques can be found in the booklet ‘Ripon Revealed’, price £3. It is available by emailing or from the Tourist Information Centre in Ripon Town Hall.