Ripon Cathedral 1350th

You often hear about ‘passion projects’ – when a person disappears down an all-consuming rabbit hole, in hot pursuit of a dream that can often seem mad to onlookers, until, that is, they are given the space to explain how and why it matters.

Ripon Cathedral’s 1350th is my passion project.

I grew up looking at the east end of Ripon Cathedral from my bedroom window. When I was about 11, we started attending Sunday services there (around the time my mother was diagnosed with cancer) and I was a rather large altar boy from around 12 years old. At 18, I took a gap year and, alongside work with Community Archaeology Ltd, I worked as a verger and photographer at Ripon Cathedral.

Around this time the then Dean of Ripon, Keith Jukes, asked me to redesign the cathedral website. Keith was an ex-press photographer and would pass on tips as I grappled with the exposure triangle, rule of thirds and how to correct distortion: Keith knew I liked a project and had an eye for design. I agreed to take on the cathedral’s website, readily diving into the world of web design, and later received a £50 Amazon voucher to say thank you. 10 years on, I am still managing the site, now heading up the marketing but in the interim spending time as a member of the ‘heavy squad’ who dismantle stages after performances, a verger, a photographer in residence, a communications officer, a marketing officer and a part-time heritage officer. Hopefully you’ll agree that isn’t a bad return from that £50 voucher.

That’s not to say it was my passion project exclusively, its been a vision shared by many from the work of the Cathedral Flower Guild and their 27 installations telling elements of Wilfrid’s life to the incredible drive Chris Baily, producer of the From Rome to Ripon art exhibition, this project has been an all-consuming period for many of us. Well-connected members of cathedral community were brought in to form the ‘1350th Steering Group’ under the able chairmanship of Rick Compton DL of nearby Newby Hall. Articles were written, letters sent out, contacts approached and help sought from across the region. From the beginning, the Dean of Ripon, the Very Revd Dean John Dobson DL, threw his weight and considerable energy behind the project, grasping and moulding the vision as it took shape.

I feel as if I have been talking about the 1350th for years. Indeed, back in 2019, I was asked how I would market the cathedral in 2022, during its 1350th year – some of the ideas from this interview have actually born fruit whilst most have rightly fallen by the wayside. At interview, I also discussed other opportunities for the cathedral and so started work planning two years worth of programming, ‘annual themes’, which would lead up to our 1350th anniversary. These were sadly postponed due to the outbreak of COVID-19 and thus we went into our first year of major programming without the benefit of learning from previous mistakes. However, I used some of the time through the pandemic to reconnect with contacts, call in favours and to create a programme of events, a wish-list, which turned into reality (i.e. a budget) thanks to the arrival of Jo Bussey, our newly-appointed Director of Development. Dean and Chapter saw fit to back it and, for the very first time, Ripon Cathedral had the sketchy outline of its own programme of events, stretching from Easter to Advent: we would be saying what we wanted to say.

But, what did we want to say?

Well, this is why Ripon Cathedral 1350th needed to be someone’s passion project. Only when you have to stand in front of a crowd and explain why someone with no prior connection to Ripon Cathedral should care about an Anglo-Saxon crypt: the oldest fabric of any English Cathedral, built all the way back in 672AD and still fulfilling its original function 1350 years later; a space made from Roman stones from nearby Aldborough in order to evoke memories of Rome itself; and St Wilfrid, a man who brought relics from his three trips to Rome; who thought Ripon important enough to be his burial place, a place where he created the then finest stone structure north of the alps, filling it with music, art and life; a man who helped to bring the church in pre-England under a unified roof: that is why you need someone with the passion to speak with confidence about why they, perhaps even you, should care.

Ripon’s history, its beautiful crypt, and its founding saint has captured generation after generation – I call it the Ripon Bug. My own hero is John Richard Walbran, born in the early 19th century to a Ripon iron merchant, he evidently fell in love with the heritage of his locale, going from being an independent wine merchant to directing archaeological investigations at Fountains Abbey and writing the definitive guidebook of Ripon and its surrounds, continuously and assiduously reissuing it as new facts came to light. I studied his works for my dissertation: referencing was a nightmare as there were just so many editions of his works, each slightly different from the last. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries London and later twice elected Mayor of Ripon. Walbran had the Ripon Bug.

When I started out at Ripon, the then Dean’s Verger, Bill Forster, a retired chemist, had written the latest version of the guidebook as he, despite having no formal education in history, had caught the Ripon bug. Bill’s book has just been superseded by a new guidebook, written by Malcolm Hanson and a great bunch of volunteers (all of whom must surely have the Ripon bug), with assistance from me with photography and design (and I definitely have the Ripon bug).

When putting the programme together, I reached out to one of my favourite historians, whose book Dominion: the making of the western mind I had just finished. I DM’d Tom Holland on twitter and asked if he would be willing to speak about Ripon and its founding saint. I didn’t specify much more than that. Tom readily agreed (reminding me of the good old days of Twitter when you could engage in conversation with Stephen Fry about book recommendations) and thus, perhaps the most perfect distillation of why you too should have the Ripon Bug was created.

You can watch it here: