Ripon reveals it was really Alice in Yorkshireland

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The North Yorkshire city of Ripon is happy to announce - and not before time - that it has truly arrived in the land of the Mad Hatters.

The North Yorkshire city of Ripon is happy to announce - and not before time - that it has truly arrived in the land of the Mad Hatters.

Lest any doubt about its credentials prevails, 38 enthusiasts have spent the past 48 hours peering under cathedral choir stalls and over gypsum craters in the city, confirming an increasingly probable truth in their own mad world: that Ripon was an inspiration for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, her rabbit holes, Mad Hatters and all.

This means the city's inhabitants may release a collective sigh of relief. Since Carroll's death in 1898, Ripon's influence on the Alice stories has been largely overlooked while Oxford, Daresbury in Cheshire and Llandudno, North Wales, have built tourism industries around their Alice heritage - some of which is pretty tenuous in Ripon's opinion.

Ripon's big breakthrough has arrived with the first descent into the city of the 400-strong international Lewis Carroll Society for its annual conference this week. The results were impressive even before they began poking about the place: the number of delegates has been bettered only by the society's centennial gathering at Oxford in recent years.

The enthusiasts, from Sweden, Israel, the United States and beyond, might not have dressed up as Mad Hatters but they have been particularly anxious to crawl round the choir stall seats at Ripon Cathedral.

This was the place where the father of Lewis Carroll (the pseudonym adopted by the author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was canon. Carroll frequented it and misericord carvings there depict possible prototype Hatters.

One carving depicts a griffin catching a rabbit who subsequently escapes down a hole. Is this why Alice, in the words of the story, fell "down, down, down", 4,000 miles to the centre of the earth, to land "bump, bump, bump?" It has been a matter of quiet contemplation.

On another misericord, a small misshapen character looks rather like Alice did after she ate a piece of mushroom and shrank. But more pertinent still is the question of four-year-old Mary Badcock. Carroll took photographs of her that were probably adapted by the artist Sir John Tenniel into illustrations in his first edition of Alice in Wonderland.

Was Mary more of an inspiration for Carroll's book than Alice Liddell - the child he knew at Oxford? Such issues are labyrinthine. Even the question off whether Carroll was inspired by a photograph of Mary in a Ripon shop window or one hanging on a Ripon vicarage wall has been vexatious this week.

The local historian Maurice Taylor, whose painstakingly researched volume Lewis Carroll's Ripon has greatly influenced the city's new-found credentials, is convinced. "Alice's face was stiff and static at first and definitely becomes more like Mary Badcock's," he said.

If he is right, then Llandudno's own claims on a piece of the heritage are dented. The town has milked some tenuous connections, promoting itself as a "resort where the real Alice in Wonderland [Alice Liddell] spent her childhood summers" and creating the Alice in Wonderland Centre, where visitors can venture down a rabbit hole and relive her adventures. "Ripon's got more [credentials] than Llandudno and they make a tourist industry out of it," Mr Taylor said. "It's doubtful that Lewis Carroll ever went to Llandudno. It was only the Liddell family that did."

Even the august membership of the British Association has listened to Ripon's case. Last September, its conference heard from the British Geological Survey that a complex system of gypsum caves beneath Ripon, once accessible through subsidence holes, could have inspired Alice's fall into the Earth.

The Lewis Carroll Society secretary, Alan White, whose members yesterday pored over a Carroll photographic archive in Bradford before settling back to Jonathan Miller's 1970s TV adaptation of Alice, is convinced that Ripon is a key influence on the wonderland. "We have chosen to visit Ripon because it relates to Lewis Carroll. It was a place he visited and his father was a canon at the cathedral," he said.

Links between city and author appear to be as endless as rabbit holes. Carroll's links with chess and the Victorian ghost story are among those up for discussion today before a gala dinner tonight at which fancy dress, regrettably, is not required.

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