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Lincoln Cathedral towers over the old town

Lincoln is a fascinating small town in the middle of England, with a magnificent cathedral, an ancient castle, lots of pubs and a copy of the Magna Carta.

We were going to visit York, see the cathedral and walk around the Roman walls, but Lincoln is much closer and as our stay in Yorkshire comes to a close, time for a longer outing has suddenly disappeared. Soon after setting out on our journey in the trusty Corsa, we pass through Sherwood Forest. Robin Hood, if he existed, wore Lincoln Green. The town was famous in the early middle ages for its coloured woolen cloth. The deep warm olive green colour was made by first dying the cloth blue with woad and then overdyeing it yellow with something called weld. Since the industrial revolution the town is better known as a manufacturing centre, and though that trade is far from its peak, the largest employer still produces gas turbine engines. I suspect it now lives mostly off the tourists.

Approaching the town across the flat Lincolnshire farmlands and the toll bridge over the River Trent, the steep limestone cliff for which the town is famous, can be clearly seen. Years ago, an actor friend of mine, also called Nigel, made a TV pilot where he visited pubs, bars and restaurants all over the world. Sadly, the show didn’t get picked up, but I wish he was with me now to sample the row of little old pubs up and down the aptly named Steep Hill in Lincoln. Before setting out to explore the Cathedral and the Castle we visit the Magna Carta pub in the square between the two sites, at the top of the hill.

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The Magna Carta pub guards the top of Steep Hill

Well refreshed, we head first to Lincoln Cathedral where busloads of uniformed school children are unloading. It’s their end of term service and the main entrance and the nave are closed, so we head for a side door, the Judgement Porch, where a chatty Reverend Canon tells us about the place. He’s retired from being a vicar, but not from being a priest, he says. We wander around the parts of the cathedral we can access, to the accompaniment of a glorious children’s choir with angelic voices and a thundering organ, marvelling at the ornate St. Hugh’s Choir, which is a church within a church. There’s an interesting art exhibition in the Chapter House and the Cloister is suitably cloistered. We’ll have to visit another time, when the Nave is open.

The first cathedral on the site was built in 1092 but was mostly destroyed by a very unusual severe earthquake in 1185. Very little of this building remains. After the disaster a new bishop was appointed, who became St. Hugh of Lincoln, patron saint of sick children, shoemakers and swans. Our chatty canon tells us the new building was started with construction at each end, and due to some surveyor’s error there’s a distinct jog in the middle where the two teams met. After Hugh’s death work continued with arches, vaulting and flying buttresses allowing for great vertical walls and huge stained glass windows. The cathedral quickly became a shrine for the saint and a destination for pilgrims. As the third largest cathedral in England, is often stands in for Westminster Abbey, notably in the The Da Vinci Code and Young Victoria.

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The main tower from the Cloister

Outside we stare up at the three great towers. Most of the outside of the building is clad in scaffolding, undergoing renovation. When the steeple, once atop the great tower, fell down in 1548, it was the tallest building in the world, surpassing even the Great Pyramid of Giza. It wasn’t replaced.

Through the ornate stone Exchequer Gate and across the square lies the East Gate of Lincoln Castle. The old Norman pile is completely buried in scaffolding too and the entry price has been much reduced to compensate visitors. The castle is unusual in that it has two mottes, or the mounds on which the keep is built. The only other one in England, also built by the conquering William, is at Lewes, where my mother lives. On the day of our visit, both mottes are closed for renovation, but we can see enough of the original Lucy Tower to imagine how tough it would have been for soldiers to storm. It’s surrounded by a steep grassy slope and a wooden staircase runs up to the main door. In case of attack, after the main gates and the walls have been breached, the residents could rush up the stairs, the last one in being given the task of pouring flammable oil down the steps and setting them alight.

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Separate system prisoners isolated in their pews

We’ve recently watched a television show on the prison, which is contained in two buildings, one Georgian and one Victorian, within the castle walls. Here the idea of incarcerating prisoners as punishment was first tried in the 1840s. Before this, prison was just a holding place until sentence was carried out, usually brutal and designed to humiliate: hanging, whipping, stocks, transportation. Then authorities came up with the idea that prisoners should repent their crimes, hence the word penitentiary. In Lincoln prison a further idea was implemented: keeping prisoners completely separate from each other and forbidding any form of communication. Whenever they went outside their cells they wore leather hoods, keeping them almost completely in the dark. All the prison is closed for renovations, surprise, but we do get access to the prison chapel and see the separate system in action. It’s horrible. Each prisoner stands in a separate high-sided pew, where he can only see the chaplain in his pulpit, no doubt raining fire and brimstone down upon them. After only five minutes shut in one I get claustrophobic. It took up to two years for most of the prisoners to go mad and the experiment was abandoned by the 1870s.

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Castle history carved into a tree stump

Outside our friendly guide Helen takes us around the parts of the castle that are open, and apologises frequently for the bits she can’t show us. It’s all about the Magna Carta. I wondered why the pub had that name, so far from Runnymede, near Windsor Castle, where the great freedom and rights document was signed by bad old King John. And I wondered why there was an empty display box in the cathedral apologising for the actual Magna Carta being absent from the display with a poor curling photocopy as a substitute. Turns out that only one of four surviving copies of the document was given to Bishop Hugh, who attended the ceremony, and has been in Lincoln ever since. Now they’re building a huge new centre to hold the priceless relic, for all to see and admire. But it won’t be ready until the 800th anniversary in 2015. That’s when the castle will reopen fully and all the scaffolding will be gone.

Anyway, we dodge through piles of building rubble to climb a tower, walk along part of the wall, admire the views of town and country and view the West Gate. It was only discovered recently under piles of rubble discarded during the original prison construction. Helen makes it all interesting with the limited amount she can show us. The best bits were when she explained how attackers were dealt with by the defenders throwing rocks and spears down on their heads through hidden murder holes. We couldn’t actually see them as they were surrounded by scaffolding.

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Steep Hill calls for stiff drinks

Released from our abbreviated tour, we head back to Steep Hill and pop into the Wig and Mitre for another refreshment. We chat to some other tourists and a man who has lived in Lincoln all his life and most of that not 100 feet from where we are. He has an upstairs flat on the street, works on the street and comes into the pub most days. He seems very happy. After another round, we head down Steep Hill, determined to see the last remaining original Norman building on the street, bluntly named Jew’s House. The street is too steep for vehicular traffic, and at one point becomes so steep it has a hand rail and wide sloping steps to help pedestrians. I casually mention that we’ll have to climb back up all this and ask if it’s worth the effort to see another old building. No, we decide, we’ve seen enough old buildings for one day, and anyway it’s probably closed for renovation.

We’ll come back to Lincoln for another visit when it’s all been prettied up for the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta’s signing. Perhaps we should have gone to York after all.

This article was originally posted on July 14, 2013.

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