A short stroll from the end of one of the region’s prettiest waterways lies an Anglo-Saxon crypt that is known to be the oldest feature of any English cathedral. This archaeological gem can be found beneath Ripon Cathedral at the business end of the Ripon Canal.
Ripon is believed to have taken its name from an Anglo-Saxon tribe, and the area around the city was once known as Riponshire. For the Anglo-Saxon kings of Northumbria, Ripon was an important place, with a monastery being built here in the 7th century. Then in 672, St Wilfrid, the Bishop of York, started building a huge stone church in Ripon, the crypt of which can still be visited today where it sits below the present-day Ripon Cathedral.
Ripon is also the starting point of the tiny 2.3-mile Ripon Canal, which heads south from the city to connect with the River Ure. The canal opened in 1773, when it was used to transport coal, lead and agricultural products. The Ripon Canal went into decline as rail transport took over, and was almost abandoned in 1894. But it struggled on for a further 50 years before finally being abandoned in 1956. A restoration group was created almost immediately, and the waterway was reopened in 1996.
Wilfrid’s Anglo-Saxon church was destroyed in 950 by the Vikings, and a Norman church was built on top. This was rebuilt in 1181 as the current cathedral. Wilfrid’s original Anglo-Saxon church was built using Roman methods and even used Roman stone, which was taken from the nearby Roman site of Isurium Brigantum at Aldborough. Located close to the Ure Navigation, this features two stunning Roman mosaics and a museum of Roman discoveries.
At Ripon Cathedral, the Anglo-Saxon crypt has survived because it was a complete structure, with no load-bearing capacity. Possibly inspired by churches in Rome and Gaul, it was originally intended as a space for pilgrims to venerate saintly relics. There is free entry, plus a touchscreen to explain the history, construction and purpose of the crypt.