The big ideaLincoln is a city very much shaped by its location: perched on a hill surrounded by countryside and fields that offer up some of the finest produce around (not for nothing is it called the bread basket of England). It feels quite remote – and there is a certain independence about the place (as evidenced by the number of independent boutiques and restaurants) – but its remoteness belies a real cosmopolitan feel. There’s a lovely mix of cobbles and architecture and a vibrant cultural scene.
With some cracking Mediaeval buildings – some of the finest examples of their type in the country – and such a strong flying tradition in the county (this is the Bomber County of England), Lincoln’s a hugely important city in England, and well worth discovering.
Lincoln houses some of the finest historical structures in the country, not least its magnificent cathedral, which is one of the finest Gothic buildings in Europe. It’s the third-largest cathedral in the country, and sits proudly at the top of the hill, visible for miles around. It’s no wonder that the makers of the Tom Hanks’ film The Da Vinci Code used it as a stand-in for the interior of Westminster Abbey.In the shadow of the cathedral is the Mediaeval Bishop’s Palace, once home to the administrative centre of the largest diocese in England, and one of the most important residences in the country. And then there’s the castle – one of the best remaining Norman castles, which now houses the Lincoln Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forests.
Boutique shopping and fine food
What’s really striking about Lincoln is that, no matter where you go in the city, there’s a great number of boutiques, antique, book and other specialist shops, delis, and fabulous little cafes and restaurants. Take Bailgate, in the shadow of the cathedral, with its cobbled streets, York stone pathways and quirky shops and restaurants; or Steep Hill (and it really is steep: really, really, very steep [about a one-in-seven gradient]), lined with book shops and tea rooms and the main link between historic Lincoln at the top of the hill and modern Lincoln at the bottom.
20% of the nation’s food is grown here (hence that ‘bread basket of England’ moniker), and there’s many a local speciality as a result, including cheeses, sausages, sweet plum breads and chutneys (and plenty of places to sample them). Is it no surprise then that Lincoln held the UK’s first German-style Christmas market (which still happens every year)?
But fine food and buildings aren’t its only trump cards: move out in to Lincolnshire and you’re in Bomber County, so-called because of the number of air bases located here. Among others, there’s RAF Scampton – home to the world-famous Red Arrows and a rather good Dambusters exhibition – and RAF Digby, the oldest RAF station in the country. And on top of that there’s the RAF Waddington International Airshow and the fact that the Sopwith Camel was built here.
Who’s it ideal for/ how it can make you feelIf you love your food (good food, that is, food with provenance and quality in abundance) and you love your shopping (not in the soulless, identikit-shopping-centre sense, but in the exciting, I-just-found-the-most-amazing-little-shop sense) then this is the place for you. But it’s also perfect for history lovers, families wanting a great day out, couples looking for a different type of city getaway: in fact, it’s great for anyone looking for uniqueness, quirkiness and individuality.
Interesting bits in the historyWhen the Romans arrived and found a Celtic settlement living by the Brayford Pool, they named the place ‘Lindum’, from the Celtic word for lake, ‘lindo’.
The camp, and subsequently fort, they set up marked one of the most northerly outposts of the Roman Empire; indeed Lincoln was chosen to be a Colonia– one of the significant towns established to spread the Roman ideas and ways of life – and later a regional capital, when the country was divided into four.
When the Romans departed, the town became an important ecclesiastical centre in the 8th and 9th centuries, and then, following the Viking invasion in the 10th century the town grew to great importance.
Lincoln’s history gets really interesting in the 11th century, when the first cathedral was built – probably inspired by the Saint-Denis cathedral in Paris – and William the Conqueror built that fine Norman castle (many other fabulous little Norman houses were also constructed in Lincoln during this period, many of which still stand today).
The city thrived throughout the 12th and 13th centuries on the wool and cloth trades (the local long-wool sheep were recognised as producing some of the finest wool in the country, and the fine dyed Lincoln cloth had a widespread reputation and is best known today as the choice of cloth for one Robin Hood and his band of men). Indeed, at this point Lincoln was one of the wealthiest and most important cities in England with its royal castle and cathedral, in fact, it was second only to London and York.
The cathedral itself suffered several misfortunes, such as fire and even an earthquake, but was rebuilt and added to over the years; when the cathedral was completed, in 1311, it was – with a spire of 482ft – the tallest building in the world; an awesome feat.
But 1349 saw the arrival of the Black Death, which wiped out over half the population and saw the collapse of the cloth-making industry. And so, in the early Tudor years, decline set in. Things weren’t helped by the damage caused during the Civil War, but, from the mid-19th century, things started looking up.
The railways opened and helped to drive Lincoln’s engineering industry, indeed, the Stamp End Works, which produced steam-driven thrashing machines, was called the ‘greatest manufactory in the world’, and Lincoln became one of the most important producers of agricultural machinery in the world.
And it was from this manufacturing base that Lincoln’s massive contribution to World War I came: the first tanks were built here (the famous ’Little Willie’), and it was also home to the largest producer of aircraft engines in the country: in fact, from 1915-1919, it was one of the largest centres of aircraft production in the world. And Lincoln’s contribution (unfortunately at far greater cost) didn’t end there: 1,000 men from Lincoln lost their lives during the war, as is evidenced by the war memorial outside St Benedict’s Church.
After the wars, the manufacturing industry went in to steady decline; however, Lincoln is now a thriving city, with a healthy tourist trade and the respected university being one of the city’s largest employers.
How to experience what’s different/get under the skin of
Start at the magnificent Cathedral to the north of the city. And where to start with this treasure? Declared by Victorian artist John Ruskin as ‘out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles’, there really is a lot to take in here.
Check out the roof, one of the earliest examples in England of the steep gothic roof common across the continent, then head for the West Front, recently unveiled following two decades of painstaking restoration, and marvel at the Romanesque frieze, with stunning carvings depicting heaven and hell (even more beautiful when illuminated at night).
Once inside, look at the rib-vaulting – the first example in the country to be used purely for decorative purposes – it set the trend for other cathedrals across England and then check out the wonderful carved screen, the 14th century misericords and the two rose windows, a rare feature in mediaeval architecture.
Outside, from the cathedral precinct gatehouse, follow the wall on the right and go through a doorway halfway along the wall to find the remains of the Mediaeval Bishop’s Palace, inside you’ll find an audio tour of the barrel-vaulted undercroft beneath the West Hall. Make sure you check out the contemporary Heritage Gardens, too – they’re delightful and a place of real tranquillity.
After the splendour of the cathedral and the calm of Bishops Palace, head out onto the wide York Stone-paved Bailgate. Here there’s a lovely selection of independent boutiques, smart shops and great places to eat (Tourist Information’s here, as well).
Pop over the courtyard towards the castle and head in through Exchequergate, the only surviving 14th century gate in the city. The castle is home to one of only four copies in the country of the Magna Carta (and the Charter of the Forest; the only place in the world where these two documents are held together), the castle contains a still-operational crown court and the only Victorian prison chapel of its kind. Take a walk around the huge 14th century walls and admire probably one of the best-preserved castles in the country.
Next, head down the appropriately named Steep Hill (fans of Charles Dickens will recognise this as the street where Oliver Twist was apprenticed to an undertaker), there’s some more charming little unique shops down here, including antiquarian books, specialist food shops and one-off clothes stores. And near the bottom is one of the most famous Norman houses in the country, Jews House, which was built in 1150.
Turn left part way down the hill along Danes Terrace and look out for The Collection, a new stylishly designed museum that features a 2,000-year-old Roman mosaic, one of the earliest Bronze Age gold bracelets in Europe and a host of Iron Age finds; next door is The Usher, sett in lovely grounds, named after local entrepreneur and collector James Ward Usher, featuring his outstanding collection of fine and decorative arts, along with contemporary works and temporary exhibitions.
Stroll down Flaxengate, and turn right when you reach Clasketgate. On the right here you’ll pass by the Theatre Royal, Lincoln’s 481-seat theatre, the local home for drama, comedy and amateur dramatics.
Turn left onto the High Street and cross Silver Street (for a diversion, if you turn right up there you’d find the Drill Hall, a well-known music and arts venue; to the left you’ve got the impressive Stonebow and Guildhall) and you’re now into the main shopping area of the city, including on the left hand side the Waterside, Lincoln’s main covered shopping centre.
Carry on and cross over the River Witham on the High Bridge, which dates back to the 16th century and is the only one in the country today with a secular mediaeval bridge standing on it. Over the bridge on the right hand side is the original Brayford Pool, the site of the original Celtic settlement, some 2,000 years ago. Here, at Brayford Waterfront, there’s a marina, boat rides over the water, and a wide selection of bars and restaurants to while away the evening.
A perfect end to a rather special day.