Steeped in history

View from Lincoln castle towards the cathedral.
View from Lincoln castle towards the cathedral.
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Lincoln: Centurions once strode along a city street on their way to York. Helen Werin explores a place where it’s all uphill

We’re standing in a pretty, medieval cobbled square with one of the finest Gothic buildings in Europe beyond the archway. Behind us looms the imposing Norman castle, guarding one of only four remaining originals of the Magna Carta. To one side is the most photogenic of Tourist Information Centres in a timber-framed building from 1540. On the other, the cobbles run down Steep Hill – very steep but, thankfully, quite short – past centuries-old buildings housing tiny tea rooms and quirky shops. There’s also a pie shop and restaurant, favoured, so we’re told, by Sir Ian McKellen, who signed the visitors’ book as “Gandalf, Lord of the Rings”.

Beneath our feet are the remains of Roman Lincoln. Indeed, this Steep Hill up which we’ve panted with our suitcases is Ermine Street, along which centurions once strode on their way to York.

Just up the street is the historic gateway to the city from the north, the Newport Arch. This is the only Roman arch in the UK through which traffic can still drive. Unfortunately, its history has been somewhat tarnished. It stood intact for centuries, surviving the Danish invaders, the Normans and the Civil War, until the 1960s. That’s when a lorry carrying fish fingers got stuck in it and it had to be rebuilt.

It’s the same at the cathedral, though it’s the effects of fire and an earthquake that prompted rebuilding here. For two centuries, this cathedral, the country’s third largest, was also reputed to be the world’s tallest building. That was until 1548 when its record was toppled, literally, by a storm.

The eminent Victorian writer John Ruskin declared Lincoln’s cathedral as “out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles”.

It’s easy to understand why. We enter under rather graphic 12th century carvings depicting lust and avarice and other temptations in life. Two spectacularly radiant rose windows face each other across the transept. Most of the medieval windows were shot out during the Civil War. But these two, from 1220 and 1320, are incredible, their story even more so. They were rehashed using a substantial amount of their original glass – saved after being shattered.

As if our ground-level vision is not beautiful enough, we climb up inside the West Front to the balcony to experience the proverbial sharp intake of breath as we look out over the nave. This is Bank’s View, where the 18th century naturalist and explorer, Sir Joseph Banks, used to love to sit and sketch.

All this ethereal splendour should be a hard act to follow, but we’ve only got to cross the square again to be in thrall to Lincoln Castle. There’s plenty of haunting reminders of a disturbing past here; from when William the Conqueror decided to build a wooden castle on a derelict Roman fort, burning down more than 160 houses to make room for it, to the isolating prison system of the 19th century within its walls. This was a system which drove people to madness.

We get so caught up in tales of public hangings and miscarriages of justice that we almost forget about the Magna Carta. It’s only when we hear the jangling of keys echoing in the stone corridors that we realise it’s nearly closing time.

The custodian is so proud of Lincoln’s charter of English freedoms – the only Magna Carta which goes on tour all over the world, he tells us – that he won’t let us leave until we’ve had a good look.

The castle’s volunteer guides are both enlightening and amusing. Our guide, Bill, leads us to the top of Cobb Hall, where hangings were held. From the top of another tower we look down on what was the women prisoners’ exercise yard. Bill likens the women’s appearance to that of Daleks as they wore head to foot veils to conceal their identities from each other. This was all part of the “separate system”. It worked on the belief that enforced loneliness would break the spirit of even the worst offender.

Our immediate view from the top of the castle walls is over the Bailgate area where smart boutiques, independent shops and specialist stores are flanked by cobbled streets and York stone pathways. Brian Taylor is one of the Green Badge Guides who offer a variety of walking tours around the city. He tells us that there is a definite distinction between “uphill” and “downhill” Lincoln. To get here, we’ve climbed up past the usual High Street retail scene and arriving “uphill” certainly feels like entering another city altogether.

Opposite our hotel, the Lincoln, is an impressive statue of the county’s literary giant, Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

The view from our balcony is of the cathedral.

We’re told that we owe its former owner, Arthur Shuttleworth, a Victorian entrepreneur and industrialist, for that privilege. When he lived here in his mansion house he did not like what he saw out of his window, his view of the cathedral obscured by a row of tenements and pubs. So, he simply bought them up and tore them down.

I’d read that the writer Daniel Defoe, called Lincoln an “old, dying, decay’d dirty city... it is scarce tolerable to call a city”. Of course, that was nearly 300 years ago when the wool trade on which Lincoln’s prosperity was built was going into decline.

But I can’t help ponder if he did actually make it up that Steep Hill to see the wonders at its top.

Getting there

The Lincoln Hotel, Eastgate, Lincoln, LN2 1PN. 01522 520 348 www.thelincolnhotel.com

The very friendly, independent, Lincoln Hotel is at the heart of uphill Lincoln, with great views of the cathedral.

The Green Room at The Lincoln Hotel offers fine dining in a sophisticated setting. Head chef Sam Owen’s dishes are elegant combinations of flavours made from local ingredients. 01522 520 348 www.thelincolnhotel.com.

Helen Werin travelled with East Midlands Trains. The cathedral and castle are at the top of a steep, partly-cobbled hill about 15 minutes’ walk from the station. Alternatively, catch the Walk+Ride bus service.