Ripon Cathedral

We saw the cathedral long before we reached Ripon the first day. We emerged from our visit to Fountains Abbey and the water gardens up to the long road out of the estate. The cathedral massed there straight ahead of us on the horizon, a shining presence of stone.

It looked like we could walk straight there, I wanted to. Signs warned against this however. Private road, private property. We had to turn left. We never got to see the cathedral quite like this again.

But in our short time in Ripon we saw it countless times, from many angles. It stands tall on its hill, an oddly solid weight of stone trying to soar. Staring up at the great main face of it praised by Pevsner, it feels almost like a different building altogether. Razed to the ground several times over its 1300 years of history, the power of kings and church rebuilt it reincorporating old patterns–built it higher, bigger, but never finished it. No flying buttresses support its rising. A beautiful wood roof arches over the nave and quire in a still immense echoing of cathedral space that made my heart sing.

The church itself feels quite plain, even without the presence of the coverings for lent. But the wooden misericords and choir stalls are extraordinary, alive with animals, faces, ancient myths and stories once even more layered with meaning. I do love misericords.

Fossils fill the black stone chequered underfoot.

These thick walls enclose the underground 7th century crypt of St Wilfrid’s church here, the first saint since the Roman period to demand the building of god’s worship into stone. Possibly my least favourite saint for his love of wealth and dogmatic power grab on behalf of himself and Rome, and yet…these walls have long outlived the huts favoured by the ascetic Irish tradition, by Cuthbert who also once led worship here before Lidisfarne. Possibly once Roman, or of material lifted from a nearby ruin, I cannot but be grateful to be in such an ancient vaulted space. I wish I could have seen the church here as he built it in 672:

In Ripon, Saint Wilfrid built and completed from the foundations to the roof a church of dressed stone, supported by various columns and side-aisles to a great height and many windows, arched vaults and a winding cloister. (Eddius Stephanus)

Even so, it is hard to imagine how pilgrims once experienced this place:

The crypt was designed so that it would be a powerful experience for pilgrims and help to strengthen their faith. The passageways and central chamber would be lit by candlelight which would light up the luxurious wall decorations in gold, silver and purple. The pilgrim would go underground, to the place of burial, and then up into the awe-inspiring church above, a journey which symbolised Jesus’ death and the hope of his Resurrection. (from the cathedral website)

I think also this is perhaps the first time I have experienced a city where the cathedral is still by far the largest architectural presence. Cities as lived for centuries, before the bombs and the rise of modernism changed all that most everywhere else. It is life with grandeur but at a different scale, a different footprint on the ground and silhouette against the sky, a different meaning and purpose.

It shone in the evening light across the rooftops from our window. On Palm Sunday, the ringing of its bells in beautiful and complex changes filled the air. It rose suddenly before us as we turned corners, and rose above surrounding fields. I have pictures here but they somehow minimise the size of its presence.

Sunday night we walked in the darkness alongside the cathedral and the sound of the organ suddenly came crashing through stone. We jumped, a pleasurable thrill of surprise and fear. The cathedral itself stood beautifully lit, stone emerging golden from the shadows. In the surrounding darkness we could see headstones laid flat and sunken slightly into their graves rolling away from us down the hill to the Skell.

I wished for a fugue given our surroundings, the organist played something terribly modern instead. Discordant chords followed by softer, quite fascinating variations on scales that flowed like churning water. Wondrous.

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