Archaeological dig planned at Ripon Cathedral ahead of bid to build new cafe

There is a rich history to Ripon Cathedral, in a tale founded on the fortunes of an English saint and to this day housing the nation's oldest known place of worship.

Intricately carved Tudor rabbits, immortalised in its quire, are said to be Lewis Carroll's own inspiration, while it's nave proved a sanctuary in times of war for poet Wilfred Owen.

The Very Reverend John Dobson, Dean of Ripon Cathedral. Image: Gary Longbottom.

The Very Reverend John Dobson, Dean of Ripon Cathedral. Image: Gary Longbottom.

Now, as guardians of this great Gothic structure take a cautious step to the 21st century, plans are submitted for an archaeological investigation ahead of hopes for a new build.

What is unearthed could yet scupper all ambitions, were ancient remains of an early Anglo-Saxon settlement to be found from the saint's own original community.

But custodians, only too aware of the legacy they uphold, say they must ready for change if they are to preserve the cathedral's future, and the first step is in expanding its house.

"We've got this ancient history, this fantastic architecture," said the Very Reverend John Dobson, Dean of Ripon Cathedral. "What we haven't got is the facilities that people need.

The Very Reverend John Dobson, Dean of Ripon Cathedral, pictured in the south churchyard where the Ripon Cathedral Renewed Project would see a new building. Image: Gary Longbottom

The Very Reverend John Dobson, Dean of Ripon Cathedral, pictured in the south churchyard where the Ripon Cathedral Renewed Project would see a new building. Image: Gary Longbottom

"All of this life is going on here, and it needs to be lived in a 21st century way - it's not as if we lock it all away in a glass cage and the cathedral is very much used.

"Each generation has, over 13 centuries, taken on what has been handed to it and made it's contribution. We have a responsibility, in our generation, to make our contribution now."

Read more -> A wonderland of inspiring carvings - Lewis Carroll's inspiration in the heart of Ripon Cathedral
Ancient crypt

Ripon Cathedral is famed for its ancient crypt, all that remains of a seventh-century stone basilica built in 672 AD by St Wilfrid on the site of an old Celtic monastery.

Charles Lewis Dodgson, famed author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland under the pen name Lewis Carroll, would be acquainted with the medieval carvings in the choir at Ripon Cathedral as his father, Charles Dodgson, was a canon there. One of the misericords mercy seats has a carving of a griffin chasing a rabbit and another disappearing down a rabbit hole, this reportedly supplied ideas for his Alice stories. Image: Cathedral

Charles Lewis Dodgson, famed author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland under the pen name Lewis Carroll, would be acquainted with the medieval carvings in the choir at Ripon Cathedral as his father, Charles Dodgson, was a canon there. One of the misericords mercy seats has a carving of a griffin chasing a rabbit and another disappearing down a rabbit hole, this reportedly supplied ideas for his Alice stories. Image: Cathedral

It now lays claim to being the oldest structure of any English cathedral, and the one in longest continuous known use as a place of worship.

The present building dates from 1180 and today serves a community of 2.5m people, across Leeds, West and half of North Yorkshire.

But as expectations have changed, the cathedral has stayed the same, says the Dean. There are no toilets, the shop is in the tower base, and an aisle is closed to accommodate storage.

For some time plans have been in the works for a new building, housing a cafe, storage, and its choir, with members at present having to rehearse in a Norman undercroft once used as a charnel house for bones.

Ripon Cathedral is famed for its ancient crypt, all that remains of a seventh-century stone basilica built in 672 AD by St Wilfrid on the site of an old Celtic monastry. Image: Cathedral

Ripon Cathedral is famed for its ancient crypt, all that remains of a seventh-century stone basilica built in 672 AD by St Wilfrid on the site of an old Celtic monastry. Image: Cathedral

Were there a purpose-built space to accommodate its needs, says the Dean, parts of the cathedral previously unseen, such as its towers, could be opened up to the public.

Archaeologists have completed 'x-ray' style reports of what they believe may be found in test areas where a new build may be, and now begins the first steps in formal investigations.

Plans have been submitted over an archaeological dig, with up to four test trenches in the south churchyard to see what may lie beneath.

Read more -> Armistice 100. Words of War poet will never die
Investigative dig

There will be graves in some areas, the Dean confirms, but this is to be expected and the church, he adds, is very "sensitive" to this and experienced in such matters.

But there is an "exciting" prospect, he adds, that may lay in the discovery of Anglo-Saxon remains, and potentially the buildings of St Wilfrid's time.

The Very Reverend John Dobson, Dean of Ripon Cathedral, has shared the chapter's vision for its future to bring it into the 21st century. Image: Gary Longbottom.

The Very Reverend John Dobson, Dean of Ripon Cathedral, has shared the chapter's vision for its future to bring it into the 21st century. Image: Gary Longbottom.

"There's a lot of people rather hoping that we discover where St Wilfrid's community was based," says the Dean. "That might slow down the development of the project - but it would be exciting.

"We're not holding our breath, and we're not working towards that, but that's why this site is so sensitive."

The plans come under ecclesiastical exemption, which means that a decision rests with the Cathedrals Fabric Commission, and scheduled monument consent from Historic England.

Were it to go ahead, this would be the first concrete step forward in an ambitious £6m project which has already secured well over half its funding from donors.

It is of importance, said the Dean, not just to the cathedral but to the city and region, in terms of economy and visitor draw as a tourism destination.

"The cathedral is a national treasure," said the Dean. "Here in Ripon, in the heart of North Yorkshire and the gateway to the dales, we're very keen to serve all the communities of this region.

"We've got this long history, we've got this wonderful building, but it's quite clear to us now that we need 21st century facilities that people expect."

Read more -> These are the 12 oldest buildings in Yorkshire

Plans have been submitted over an archeological dig, with up to four small test trenches in the south churchyard to see what may lie beneath. Image: Gary Longbottom

Plans have been submitted over an archeological dig, with up to four small test trenches in the south churchyard to see what may lie beneath. Image: Gary Longbottom