Julian Humphrys battles up Lincoln’s steep streets to discover a historical gem.
Perched high up above the canal, river and pool that once made Lincoln one of England’s most important inland ports, the city’s cathedral quarter enjoys a breathtaking location. Literally breathtaking if, like me, you arrive by train in the lower part of the city and struggle up the ominously-named Steep Hill to get to it. But the delights that await you at the top make the climb well worthwhile. With its compact streets, magnificent cathedral and rather menacing castle, the area has an almost theatrical feel to it, especially at night, and the first view of the cathedral’s west front as you pass through the 14th-century Exchequer Gate into Minster Yard is unforgettable.
Lincoln also boasts some of the best Roman remains in the country. The advantages of the site – easily defensible but with good river communications – was not lost on the Romans who built a fort here in about AD 60. Thirty years later they converted it into a colonia –a settlement for retired legionaries. Formally known as Colonia Lindensium, it was usually referred to as Lindum Colonia, a name that was later shortened by English speakers to Lincoln. At its height it may have had as many as 10,000 inhabitants and stretched down to Brayford Pool at the foot of the hill.
Lincoln was later to thrive as one of the five boroughs of Danish Mercia but it was following the Norman Conquest that it again began to grow in prosperity and importance. In 1068, the Normans built a castle inside the old Roman walls; 166 Saxon dwellings were demolished to make room for it. Four years later, after the establishment of the new diocese of Lincoln, Bishop Remigius began the construction of a new cathedral. Lincoln thus became an important military, religious and administrative centre but soon it was also flexing its commercial muscles as a centre of the wool and cloth trades. By the 13th century, it was the third largest city in England.
The 20th century saw Lincoln grow in different directions, notably as a centre for heavy industry – the first tanks were manufactured here in 1915 and an early model is displayed in the Lincolnshire Life Museum in Burton Road – and more recently as a university city and tourist attraction. Its Christmas market is the largest in Europe.
This is the remains of the third-century northern gateway of the Roman city. The Roman Ermine Street passed through here and ran north to the Humber. Today it’s the oldest arch in Britain still used by traffic.
The original Norman cathedral was begun by Bishop Remigius in 1072 and took 20 years to complete. A fire in 1141 and an earthquake in 1185 led to its reconstruction in a Gothic style and the only surviving part of the first cathedral is the centre of the ornate west front. The central tower was raised in 1311. With its spire (which blew down in 1549) it was 525 feet high, making it the world’s tallest building at the time. Interior highlights include the tombs of Eleanor of Castile and Katherine Swynford, and the stone imp that has become the symbol of the city.
The statue of Lincolnshire-born poet Alfred Lord Tennyson and his dog was created in 1903 by his friend, George Frederick Watts. A display of Tennyson memorabilia is housed in Lincoln Central Library.
Designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield (the architect of the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres) the 1911 water tower was built to hold a new supply of water after a typhoid outbreak in 1904–5 had killed over a hundred of Lincoln’s citizens.
The castle saw action during the reign of Stephen, during the Barons’ Wars of the early 13th century and also during the Civil War (see Where History Happened, page 82). You can walk round a substantial stretch of its walls. In the early 19th century the castle was used for public hangings, which took place on the roof of one of the towers. Don’t miss the remarkable prison chapel. Its cubicles were designed to prevent prisoners from seeing each other during services. Part of the Georgian prison block has been converted into an exhibition centre and houses one of the four surviving copies of Magna Carta.
During the Middle Ages this was one of the most important domestic buildings in England, reflecting the enormous influence of the bishops of Lincoln. Henry VIII and Catherine Howard stayed here in 1541 and it was here that Catherine allegedly committed one of the ‘indiscretions’ that led to her execution. The tower built by Bishop Alnwick in the 15th century survives as does the 12th-century lower east hall.
This was built in 1927 to house the collections of paintings, porcelain and decorative arts of James Usher, a Lincoln jeweller who made a fortune making and selling miniature replicas of the Lincoln Imp. The gallery is closed for refurbishment but will re-open in October.
The Collection is a new museum dedicated to the archaeology of Lincolnshire. Highlights include a Roman mosaic pavement which was actually unearthed on the site during construction work.
This extremely aptly-named street contains a wealth of historic buildings. The Norman House at No 47 dates from about 1170 and has a fine round-arched doorway. It is traditionally associated with Aaron of Lincoln, a wealthy Jewish financier, although in fact he almost certainly lived further up the hill. Down the hill, at No 1, is the Jew’s House, which retains its doorway and the windows of its first floor hall. In the 13th century it was owned by Belaset of Wallingford, who was hanged for clipping coins. The adjacent Jews’ Court stands on the site of a medieval synagogue.
Completed in 1520, the Stonebow is built on the site of the southern gate to the Roman city. Lincoln’s guildhall is on the first floor. The bell which summons councillors to the meetings dates from the 1370s. The old debtors’ prison on the ground floor now houses civic regalia including the sword presented to the city by Richard II.
Lincoln is off the A46 and A15, 140 miles north of London and 75 miles south-east of York.
Tel: 01522 873256
Tel: 01522 561600
Tel 01522 527468
Some car parking is available near the cathedral quarter while a ‘walk and ride’ bus shuttle service linking ‘uphill’ and ‘downhill’ Lincoln runs every 20 minutes. Join it at Silver Street near the Stonebow.
Please check opening times and admission prices before making a special journey.