The Ripon Hornblower – one of the longest ongoing traditions in the world & still (just about) going
Updated: Jan 25, 2021
The story of the Wakeman of Ripon is a fascinating tale and who would believe that here in Yorkshire we have one of, if not “the” longest ongoing traditions in the world, which still comes alive every single night in this North Yorkshire City (although with Covid in a slightly different way!).
To get the inside track on the history, we chatted to George Pickles, who was the Ripon City Hornblower between 2003 and 2015, being the last person to hold the post singularly (the duties are now shared between a team including the first female Hornblower!).
So what was a Wakeman and what’s the relevance of a horn?
The tradition dates back to the 800’s and a visit by King Alfred the Great at the time when Viking incursions into the area were regular events. Alfred was apparently so impressed with Ripon and the support he was given that he decided to grant the community a Royal Charter. Having no parchment or scroll to record this, he donated a Horn as a symbol of the Charter.
The horn became known as The Charter Horn and is still kept safe in Ripon Town Hall today.
He warned the people of Ripon to be vigilant of the Vikings and suggested they appoint a “Wakeman” who would stay awake and patrol the area during the hours of darkness between dusk and dawn. The idea being that the residents could sleep safely knowing that there was someone on “watch” over the City.
The residents of Ripon decided to put the horn to use by using it to set the watch. The “Wakeman would therefore blow the horn in all four corners of the market cross at dusk each evening to let the people know he was keeping a watchful eye over them.
As well as watching out for attacks from outside the city, the Wakeman would also employ constables to patrol the streets, enforce the law and ensure no burglaries from local vagabonds. The Wakeman also had the right to levy a fee from the residents for his service based upon the number of outside doors.
From Wakeman to Hornblower
George Pickles explained that the ritual continued throughout the centuries almost unchanged until 1604, when King James I granted the city a second Charter. The King felt the “Wakeman” had become too powerful as he always was one of the 15 most powerful men in Ripon and he’d heard that they made laws up to suit themselves. James I decided things should become more democratic so the position of “Wakeman” was discontinued and replaced with a Mayor who was elected by the vote of the people.
The Mayor would be responsible for appointing a Hornblower to continue the ceremony of setting the watch and look after the sleeping city on their behalf. So now the horn was blown in all four corners of the obelisk by the Hornblower at 9pm, who then had to find the Mayor everyday to report that he was starting his duty.
When he held the post of Hornblower, George Pickles told us how he had to find the Mayor wherever he was in Ripon, be that at home, the Town Hall, a Civic Function at a Hotel or the Cathedral. He would have to stand in front of the Mayor and state “With your permission Mr Mayor”, blow his horn three times, raise his hat, bow and then say “Mr Mayor, the watch is set”.
Interestingly, if you visit Ripon today, you will see the Town Hall on the edge of the market square has the words “Except ye Lord, Keep ye Cittie, ye Wakeman Waketh in Vain”.
This setting of the watch has continued right up to the modern day, the only change being during the second world war when the blowing of the horn was moved to 6pm. Usually, everyday including Christmas Day a small crowd would come to witness the Hornblower carrying out his duty and it became quite a tourist attraction for the City. George Pickles even had some lucky wooden pennies made which he would hand out to visitors as a memory of their visit.
The pandemic has changed things. With people not allowed to meet in groups or outdoors, this ancient ceremony has had to adapt to our present situation. The three present Hornblowers – Wayne Cobbett, Richard Midgeley and Alison Clark, who perform the ceremony on a rotational basis have decided to continue the tradition by still blowing the horn every night.
Whilst this is not done in the market square, they are doing it at their homes and posting up footage each day on the Hornblower’s official Facebook page. It is wonderful that under difficult circumstances that today’s Hornblowers have found a safe way to keep this historic tradition going.
The Charter Horn mentioned earlier is no longer used as a blowing horn, but can still be seen in the Town Hall and is now only used for Ceremonial purposes.
There are 4 other horns in use.
Horn number 2 was purchased in 1690 by the Corporation for a fee of 6/8d (about 34p!) and is still used today. Another – Horn 3 was purchased by the Mayor in 1865 and is the largest of the horns. Horn 4 was presented to the City in 1986 for the 1100 year celebrations by Sigma Antiques and as well as being blown by George Pickles, is one of the horns blown today by the incumbent hornblowers. Finally, Horn 5 was bought in 2018 by the City to ensure
the 4 Hornblowers at the time each had their own horn to blow.
Learning to blow the horn
On a final note, I asked George about becoming the Ripon Hornblower in 2003 and what experience he had. It turned out he had relocated to Ripon 18 months earlier having run his own machine tooling company for a number of years. He heard the City was struggling to find a replacement for the previous Hornblower and not wanting the ancient tradition to falter offered his services. Having never blown a horn before George told me “My learning to blow the horn at home nearly caused a divorce! I used to have to drive out into the countryside to practice on my own”. Now there’s dedication!
So let’s hope that the adapting of the Hornblower tradition during thepandemic is temporary and that the nightly hornblowing can be brought back to the Market Square and help revitalise Ripon’s post Covid tourism recovery.