Ripon and Surrounds


Ripon is a small but fascinating cathedral city, that was formerly in the West Riding of Yorkshire, but is now located in the county of North Yorkshire. It has what is known as a 'folk name' which means that it is a name is of tribal origin, referring to a people or tribe who settled in the area. This is quite common for counties and regions but rare for the names of villages, towns or cities, which usually take their names from a single individual or from neighbouring natural and geographical features.

Records of the name Ripon include Hrypis and Hripis in 715 AD, Inhrypam in 730, Onripum in 890, Rypum in 1030 and Ripun in the Domesday Book of 1089. Ripon, may have been a place of importance before the building of the first monastery which predates the present cathedral and was perhaps a central meeting place for the Hrype tribe, from which it takes its name.

The origin of this Anglo-Saxon tribal name and its exact tribal boundaries are unknown, but in later Medieval times much of the surrounding district was called Riponshire and it it may have encompassed these lands. It has however been suggested that the tribal area may have covered Yorkshire and the East Midlands though this would seem to stretch the imagination a little. Nearby Ripley almost certainly means the woodland of the Hyrppes and a place called Ribston may have been a boundary stone. Repton in Derbyshire derives from 'Hyrpa dun' that is thought to mean the hill of the Hyrpe tribe, providing possible evidence for settlement further afield but perhaps there was another tribe of the same name.


An Anglo-Saxon monastery was founded at Ripon in 657 AD by Alfrith, ruler of the Northumbrian province of Deira and son of the Northumbrian King called Oswy. At first the monastery was settled by monks from Melrose in North Northumbria (but now in Scotland) but when the Northumbrians converted from Celtic to Roman Christianity, the monks refused to change their ways. They were evicted and in 671 AD when St Wilfrid, the Bishop of York was given the monastery he became the abbot.

Wilfrid was one of the most influential figures of his time and was the man largely responsible for persuading the North of England to convert from Celtic Christianity to Roman Christianity. The key event in this change was the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD at which Wilfrid played the major role. In that same year Wilfrid was made Bishop of Lindisfarne but this island was firmly set in its Celtic ways so Wilfrid transferred the Bishopric exclusively to York.

Around 672 AD Wilfrid commenced the building of a new minster church at Ripon on a different site to the earlier monastery. Stonemasons, glaziers and plasterers were employed from Italy and France to build the church.

Wilfrid wished to emulate the basilicas of Rome in the building of his church. He also tried to copy the European styles in his abbey at Hexham in Tynedale, Northumberland which was built two years later.

In 692 Wilfrid, by now Bishop of Hexham was banished from Northumbria after refusuing to allow the creation of a new bishopric based at Ripon. John of Beverley became the new Bishop of Hexham but Wilfrid was later allowed to return. He died at the age of 75 while visiting his monastery at Oundle in Northamptonshire but was buried at Ripon.

St Wilfrid's return from exile is still celebrated at Ripon each July and August in a special procession. Known as the Feast of St Wilfrid, the ceremony originated in a grant made by King Henry I to Thomas Archbishop of York in 1108.


Ripon's minster church, built by St Wilfrid was granted the privilege of sanctuary by King Athelstan in 934 AD and its status would have continued to grow if it were not for its destruction, probably at the hands of the Vikings in 950 AD. All that remains of St Wilfrid's church today is the Anglo-Saxon crypt, very similar to another Anglo-Saxon crypt that remains at Hexham Abbey.

Shortly after Ripon's minster was destroyed, a new church was built, this one lasting until its destruction by the Normans some time after 1066. The Normans began building a new church in 1080 under the authority of Archbishop Thomas of Bayeux. Further reconstruction took place a century later in 1181 under Roger de Ponte l'Eveque, who rebuilt the church in the Norman Transitional style. The cathedral as we see it today is largely his work.

Ripon did not actually become a cathedral (from the Latin cathedra - seat of a Bishop) until 1836 when the diocese of Ripon was created. Stretching from Leeds to Teesdale, Ripon was the first dicoese to be created since the Reformation.


Ripon is located on the River Skell which joins the River Ure on the eastern outskirts of the city. It is the Ure that forms the valley of Wensleydale in its upland stretches but Ripon itself is not regarded as part of Wensleydale.

Ripon is centred around a large rectangular market square, surrounded by Georgian buildings. Here we find a Town Hall of 1801, designed by James Wyatt and a 90ft obelisk of 1703 erected by John Aislabie the then mayor of Ripon who built it in place of an earlier market cross.

Ripon's most famous medieval building, apart from the cathedral is the Wakeman's House in the market square. It is no longer the home of the Wakeman of Ripon, but the Wakeman's traditional duty of blowing the horn or 'Setting the Watch' is still carried out in Ripon - a tradition that has continued for 1,100 years.

At 9pm every evening, a man wearing a three cornered, triangular hat blows a large curved horn in the market place at the obelisk. In historic times the blowing of the horn signified that the care of the town's folk was now in the hands of the Wakeman - a kind of nightwatchman. The services of the wakeman had to be paid for and if any person was robbed during the night, the Wakeman would have to compensate them for their loss, providing they had paid for his service.

The street names of Ripon are very typical of northern medieval towns. Many of the streets have names ending in gate, an old northern word for a street. Thus we have Kirkgate leading from the market place to the cathedral, Agnesgate, St Marygate, Allhallowgate and Blossomgate along with High and Low Skellgate which lead down to the River Skell.

Norton Conyers HALL

The charming Norton Conyers Hall is situated four miles north of Ripon near the pretty village of Wath where the property can be found less than a mile to the east of the River Ure. It is a handsome house with medieval roots and a Dutch gabled exterior. It has been the home of the Graham family for almost 400 years.

Norton Conyers is essentially a late Medieval structure with Tudor and Stuart additions and contains furniture of the seventeenth and eighteenth century.

Historically the house was the seat of a family called Norton whose numbers included Richard Norton, a Chief Justice of England in the late 14th century. In 1569 a descendant of Richard, a Sir Richard Norton supported the Rising of the North, which was a Catholic rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I. Unfortunately for Norton, the rising was a complete disaster and Norton and his two sons were executed on the orders of the Queen.

The Norton Conyers estate passed to the Musgraves and then to the Graham family in 1624. In 1644 Sir Richard Graham, a Royalist of Norton Conyers fought at Marston Moor and somehow managed to return to his beloved home on horseback suffering some twenty-six battle wounds. He would only live the last remaining hour of his life at Norton Conyers and following his death the troops of Cromwell are said to have decimated the house.

In 1679 the house played host to a more welcome guest when the Duke of York, the future King James II, came to stay at the house. Another famous guest who came here in 1839 was the author Charlotte Bronte who was inspired by the Norton Conyers legend of a mad aunt being incarcerated in the attic. She later immortalised Norton Conyers as Thornfield Hall in her novel Jane Eyre in which the mad aunt appeared as Mrs Rochester.

The name Norton derives from the Anglo-Saxon words meaning north farm and is probably named from its situation north of Ripon. The Norton family took their name from the settlement but the Conyers element which also occurs in the name of Hutton Conyers ( high farm) derives from a family surname.

The Conyers family held land in the area between 1099 and 1133 and took their surname from either Cogners or Coignieres in France. Members of the family came to England at the time of the Norman Conquest when William the Conqueror appointed one Roger de Conyers as a Constable of Durham Castle in the North East of England.

Sometime in the twelfth century the Conyers family were granted the manor of Sockburn on Tees on the borders of Durham and Yorkshire. Here the family was associated with the slaying of a legendary beast called the Sockburn Worm. It provided inspiration for the Jabberwocky poem of Lewis Carroll who lived in that area.


Wath, just north of Norton Conyers is a pretty village of one main street with the typical characteristics of those North Yorkshire villages found in the Vales of York and Mowbray. The name Wath is Viking and means 'ford' probably from the crossing of a small stream here. Other villages with Viking names in the vicinity include Melmerby (meaning farm of the sandy field) and Baldersby which throws up images of the Norse god Balder.

Man was living in the vicinity of Wath long before the Vikings however. Heading less than two miles north west of Wath in the direction of Masham we reach the villages of Thornborough and Nosterfield. Here we find the enigmatic Thornborough Henges which are arguably the most important prehistoric monument between Stonehenge and the Orkneys.

They are comprised of three huge circular henges aligned by a large cursus - two parallel dicthes that stretch almost a mile. They have a slight kink in the shape so that the whole layout appears to resemble the three stars of Orion's belt. It is an awe-inspiring site.

The henges are thought to be Neolithic and Bronze Age in origin dating back perhaps as far as 3500BC or at the very least to 2500BC

Masham, SWINTON park and the druid's temple

Masham is situated to the west of the River Ure about five miles north west of Ripon and is a rather tiny town that is little bigger than a village in size. It does however have an extraordinarily large market place. A market was granted here in the thirteenth century and its popularity and size were probably encouraged by the proximity of Fountains Abbey whose monks wished to trade their extensive agricutural produce.

Masham's name is pronounced Mas - am without a 'sh' sound and this often causes confusion for visitors. The town can trace its origins back to Anglo-Saxon times when it was Maessa's homestead and further evidence of the Anglo-Saxon presence is indicated by an Anglo-Saxon cross at the local church. The church itself may have its roots in those times but is mostly of Norman origin.

Today the name of Masham is synonymous with brewing as this place is home to two famous breweries. It is perhaps most famously known for the Theakstons Brewery. This was established in 1827 by a Robert Theakston and a John Wood at the Black Bull Inn at Masham in 1827. In the 1890s Theakstons began brewing Theakston's Old Peculier which is still one of the most popular brands today. Theakston's other brewery is the Black Sheep Brewery which has more recent origins. It was established by Paul Theakston in 1991.

A mile to the south west of Masham is the impressive battlemented stately home called Swinton Park which is now a luxury hotel. Set in a two hundred acre park it was built by Sir Abstrupus Danby in 1695 and rebuilt in the 1760s by the acrhitect John Carr or York. The Danby family came into posession of the land here in 1517 which had previously belonged to the Scrope family. In 1882 Swinton became the property of the Cunliffe-Lister family.

About two miles south west of Swinton Park we find a remarkable feature hidden in the woodland. Here is a complete Stonehenge, though a little smaller than the Wiltshire monument of that name. However unlike Stonehenge or the impressive Thornborough Henges that lie to the east of Masham this is fake and folly. Built in 1820 it was the concept of William of Danby of Swinton who employed local men to construct the henge at a a period when Britain was suffering severe unemployment. He paid the workers a shilling a day for their efforts.

Markenfield Hall

Markenfield Hall three miles to the south of Ripon is an historic house described as one of Yorkshire’s best kept secrets, but is only open to the public on limited occasions.

It is reached from the A61 Ripon to Harrogate Road along a side road called Hell Wath Lane. It is only a mile to the south east of Fountains Abbey but there is no direct road route between the two.

The collective buildings of the hall almost form a quadrangle positioned around a large courtyard green, but what makes the whole site impressive is its situation within an island formed by a surrounding  moat. It is a rather notable house that deserves to be better known.

Parts of the building, namely the Great Hall, date back as far as 1280, though the building's recorded history commences in 1310. In that year King Edward II granted John De Markenfield a licence to fortify the house. The De Markenfields were a family of prominence who fought at Agincourt, Bosworth and Flodden but as with the Nortons of Norton Conyers, their involvement in the Catholic rising known as the Rising of the North in 1569, brought about their downfall.

Executions of those involved took place across the north but the Markenfields were fortunate to escape abroad.

Subsequent owners of the property took little interest in its welfare and rarely visited.  Fortunately, in 1761 it was purchased by Sir Fletcher Norton a descendent of the Markenfields and the property found that it was loved once again. Descendants of the family still own the property to this day. Please note that this is a private property and visitors should check the details of the very occasional opening times in advance.


Fountains Abbey lies along the valley of the River Skell about two miles west of Ripon. It was founded by a group of thirteen Benedictine monks from St Mary's Abbey in York. These monks thought that the regime at St Mary's was not strict enough and wished for a more austere way of living. Disagreements with the abbey at St Mary had brought them into confict with the abbot there, but the monks had the support of Thurstan, the Archbishop of York who invited the monks to his collegiate church at Ripon to celebrate Christmas in the year 1132 .

Fountains Abbey2

Above: Fountains Abbey near Ripon photographed by David Simpson

Two days later on December 27 he led them to some waste ground in the valley of the River Skell west of Ripon. Here an abbey was established and a prior called Richard was appointed abbot. The abbey was named Fountains Abbey because of the springs of water that existed in the area.

The following year, the abbey adopted the Cistercian way of life and although they struggled in poverty during the early years, the retirement there of Hugh, the Dean of York in 1135, brought considerable wealth to the abbey.

Fountains Abbey lived in prosperity for much of its history and owned vast areas of land across western Yorkshire as far west as Pen-y-Ghent high in the Pennines. Much of the land around Ripon and in the lower Ure valley was in the possession of Fountains Abbey, although further up the valley in Wensleydale land belonged to Jervaulx Abbey. Much of the prosperity at these abbeys was based on the trading of wool and lead, utilising two of the Yorkshire Dales' most abundant resources.

Days of prosperity came to an end with the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 and the last abbot, Marmaduke Bradley was given a pension for his enforced retirement. His predecessor, William Thirsk, who had been the abbot of Fountains from 1526-1536 was not so lucky, he was executed by King Henry at Tyburn for plotting against the monarch, along with his friend Adam de Sedbergh, who was the last abbot of Jervaulx.

The ruins of Fountains Abbey are extensive and are one of the most visited properties belonging to the National Trust. The beauty of the ruins is enhanced by their location in the grounds of the Studley Royal Estate. Covering 650 acres of park, woodland and ornamental gardens, Studley Royal is a place of great beauty.

Laid out in the eighteenth century by John Aislabie, the grounds were located around Studley Hall, which was destroyed by fire in 1946. This hall should not be confused with Fountains Hall which lies closer to Fountains Abbey gatehouse. This particular hall was built in 1611 by Sir Stephen Proctor who used building materials taken from the abbey.


The beautiful Newby Hall is situated three miles south east of Ripon near the northern bank of the River Ure where it heads towards the neighbouring town of Boroughbridge. Close by is the village of Skelton on Ure.

Newby is a Viking name meaning the new farm or settlement and was recorded in the 1170s as Neubi. By the 1400s it belonged to a family called Nubie who took their name from the place. Little is known of the property after that time until the seventeenth century when the manor belonged to the Crossland family.

The Crosslands included a Sir Jordan Crossland, a Governor of Scarborough Castle in the reign of Charles II. Sir Jordan’s son sold Newby to Sir Edward Blackett, who became an MP for Ripon later in the century. In 1697 the Blacketts rebuilt the house, seemingly with the assistance of Sir Christopher Wren. This new house was built in a new location a little further from the river and the older property was demolished.

In 1748 Newby was sold to the Weddell family and a William Weddell employed the services of the Yorkshire architect John Carr in the 1760s. Carr seems to have added two wings to the property but by 1767 the famed architect Robert Adam was being employed to construct the galleries.

In 1792 Newby passed to Weddell‘s cousin, Thomas Philip Robinson, who became the 3rd Lord Grantham and he undertook further work on the property.

Grantham's daughter, Mary, married into the Vyner famiy of Lincolnshire and through her Newby passed to Vyners during the early nineteenth century. It was Mary who instigated the construction of the impressive church in the grounds of the hall. The Compton family who presently own Newby Hall are direct descendants of the Vyners.


Aldborough and Boroughbridge are situated on the Roman Road called Dere Street near the banks of the River Ure about six miles south east of Ripon. Aldborough means the old burgh - the old fortified place and was the site of a Celtic stronghold and later a Roman town called Isurium Brigantum.

The original settlement of the great northern Celtic tribe called the Brigantes was located half way between Aldborough and Boroughbridge. Interestingly the largest fortification of the Brigantes was located in a more northerly part of Yorkshire at Stanwick near a place called Aldbrough (note the different spelling). This Aldbrough, correctly called Aldbrough St. John is just north of Scotch Corner.

The Romans established a settlement at the Boroughbridge Aldbororough, to form trade links and encourage civilisation within the ranks of the Brigantian tribe. It became a township of the Romans and was the home of the 9th legion.

By 150 AD this Roman settlement had grown into Isubrigantum - a civillian township - the cantonial civitas (city) of the Brigantes and the most northerly tribal centre in Roman Britain. In 1997 a museum was opened here dedicated to the history of the site.


The great antiquity of the Aldborough area is further demonstrated by the presence of the famous Devil's Arrows at neighbouring Boroughbridge. Here are three (there were originally four) prehistoric monoliths or menhirs, 18 feet, 21 feet and 22 feet in height, each with a depth of 5 ft. The type of stone they are made with was probably brought from the Knaresborough area. In legend the Devil's Arrows are said to have been made by the Devil's rope, scraping the ground when he tried to hang his grandmother. It is thought that the stones actually served some sort of ceremonial purpose and date from the Neolithic or Early Bronze Age.

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