Ripon Hornblowers' keeping ancient traditions alive from their own home gardens

An ancient custom to ward off threat from crooks or villains has for over 1,000 years seen Ripon's city watch set by four short blasts of the horn.

Allison Clark one of the Ripon hornblowing team keeping the tradition going by blowing the 1690 horn in her Ripon garden. Image: Gary Longbottom
Allison Clark one of the Ripon hornblowing team keeping the tradition going by blowing the 1690 horn in her Ripon garden. Image: Gary Longbottom

Now this hallowed ceremony, having endured through two world wars and a royal intervention, has once again persisted through a tumultuoustime in its history.

The city's hornblowers have been carrying the watch's call from their own gardens, rather than the four corners of the market cross, to ensure the ritual survives.

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There is no tradition more ingrained here than the sounding of the horn, they said, so long as it comes from within the city bounds.

Allison Clark one of the Ripon hornblowing team keeping the tradition going by blowing the 1690 horn in her Ripon garden. Image: Gary Longbottom

"It's always been done, as far back as living memory, and it is living history," said Allison Clark, one of three hornblowers charged with carrying this symbol of the city.

"The hornblower has always set the watch. There is a sense of security, that it carries on regardless."

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The hornblowers' custom dates back to 886, when Ripon's first citizen was appointed to keep the city safe from Viking invasion in the Middle Ages.

Allison Clark one of the Ripon hornblowing team keeping the tradition going by blowing the 1690 horn in her Ripon garden. Image: Gary Longbottom

The wakeman, as he was known, was not allowed to dwell outside the city limits unless there was a pestilence, and any abuse with "slanderous" words was punishable to time in the stocks.

Patrolling with his deputies, the wakeman was charged with blowing a horn every night at 9pm at the four corners of the market cross to signal the start of his watch.

There is no known time that it has been missed, although in the Second World War it was moved to an earlier hour of 6pm to avoid the regular blackouts.

Once the watch is set the hornblowers must make their way to the Mayor's abode, doffing their tricord hat to shout "Mr Mayor, the watch is set!"

Allison Clark one of the Ripon hornblowing team cleaning the 1865 horn at her home in Ripon. Image: Gary Longbottom

"There's been times when it's been done by the skin of its teeth, but as long as it's before midnight it's alright," said Mrs Clark.

"We've had the opposite problem more often, where two of us turn up."

Challenges under lockdown

The horn blowing has become a tourist draw in its own right, attracting international visitors to witness a ceremony that has been in existence since before Australia was discovered.

Allison Clark one of the Ripon hornblowing team keeping the tradition going by blowing the 1690 horn in her Ripon garden. Image: Gary Longbottom

Under lockdown, the watch setting has once again been moved, to the hornblowers' own back gardens, and broadcast over the internet as it happens for all to witness.

There have been challenges, with Wi-fi pitfalls for live broadcasts and lighting as early March nights drew in, but for over 130 days the tradition has carried on.

The digital record shows an extraordinary passing of time as the seasons change, said Mrs Clark, and while the tradition in public is missed, it will one day return.

Ripon City Council is following Buckingham Palace as a guide, she said, as to when it begins to reinstate its official ceremonial duties which can often draw a crowd.

"The important thing for the city is that the tradition endures," she said. "It means a lot to the city and, for the people of Ripon. They can rely on it, they can set their watch by it.

"We're really proud that we've kept it going, that we have adapted and moved with the times. This history, and these traditions, do give people a sense of pride."

Allison Clark one of the Ripon hornblowing team keeping the tradition going by blowing the 1690 horn in her Ripon garden. Image: Gary Longbottom

History of the hornblower

The first hornblower was appointed in 1604 when Ripon received its first royal charter from James l, and the official wakeman was instead made Mayor.

There are now three, Richard Midgley, Wayne Cobbett, and Mrs Clark, after Jim Vauvert retired in January after 25 years.

There are four official horns now in use, with the oldest dating back to 1690 and costing just 6s to make, or around 34p in today's money.

The original, gifted by Alfred the Great in 866, is kept in safekeeping in Ripon Town Hall, covered in black velvet and capped in solid silver.

The newest, crafted in 2019 by Mr Midgley, is made from the horn of a bull made famous in the opening credits of the 2016 Dad's Army Film featuring Catherine Zeta Jones, which was partly filmed in Yorkshire.

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