Ripon Cathedral

‘Have you seen our baboon?’ The retired teacher who was serving today as a blue-gowned guide in the cathedral waited kindly for my answer, as he pointed to the carved end of the choir stall. ‘It’s just where the Mayor sits when he attends service—it represents greed or stupidity or something of the sort, but either way it seems appropriate, don’t you think?’ His smile acquired a twinkle.

I had just stepped through the ornately carved screen separating the transept from the high altar of Ripon Cathedral and I found myself in an even more ornately carved choir. The stalls had been fashioned from English oak more than five centuries before and had been done so with skill, artistry and wit. Along the back row of the choir were the misericords—shelf like extensions on the undersides of the seats that when lifted would allow sleep-deprived clerics to remain standing-but-leaning during very early morning services. And by early morning, I really mean middle of the night.

These misericords were each individually carved to depict scenes from the bible or folklore or as allegories of the virtues and vices so abundant in any church. My guide, prompted by my widening eyes, broke in: ‘Beverley Minster has misericords too, but they make nothing of them—you can hardly see them. Here, we’ve tried to make a feature of them—with the uplighters, so you can make out the detail. And they are wonderful aren’t they?’ It was impossible to disagree, especially once you had taken a closer look.

As well as the primate that had been so proudly pointed out, there was a delicious collection of intricate and at times surprising carvings.

In the 19th century, one young man who would have been thoroughly familiar with these misericords, when his father was canon-in-residence here, was one Charles Dodgson. He would later take up mathematics and an academic life in Oxford where, amongst other things, he would acquire the pen name of Lewis Carroll. And, exactly 150 years ago, he would write of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. That wonderland may have had its beginnings in these misericords, for in Ripon Cathedral you will find a rabbit disappearing down a hole on one and fantastical beasts, including griffins like the one appearing in The Mock Turtle’s Story, on others.  On yet another, you will see strange bodies with faces on their torsos, that are reminiscent of slimmed down Humpty Dumpties from Through the Looking-Glass.

These masterpieces were carved by Ripon craftsmen between 1489 and 1494 under the leadership of William Bromflet, later appropriately known as William Carver, who became Wakeman, or Mayor, of Ripon in 1511. Despite the passing of the intervening 500 years, these carvings can still delight and charm—and surprise, for suddenly I noticed in the back row that there were pigs playing bagpipes. These had not found their way into Carroll’s books, but it is hard to imagine that the sight of these dancing and rather musical swine might not have contributed to his surreal view of life.

As for me, the pigs were what clinched it.

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There is pleasure in the unexpected, but there is also a lesson. Too often in life we have decided what we will see before we take the bother to look. If discovery is about anything, it is about observation and the ability to be receptive to all that surrounds us. Whether it is at the end of a microscope or a telescope, whether it is buried in some ancient library, whether it is in the words of those in pain, it is there to be found. But, it won’t be if our preconceived notions are allowed to hold sway over our ability to be surprised.

I thought Ripon might be just another cathedral to add to my collection—old stone and a dash of history decorated with stained glass and candlelight. I anticipated the expected, and I did not expect to be surprised. Shame on me: who knew I would meet 500-year old dancing pigs playing bagpipes today? Who knows what I might see tomorrow?

© Allan Gaw 2015

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