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  • Writer's pictureRoyston Nicholls

Lincoln – City on a Hill

Lincoln Cathedral on its hill

If you were to ask any visitor to name an English city with a magnificent cathedral, castle remains, ancient walls, and medieval architecture, the chances are that York would be their first choice. However, just 55 miles south of York, is a city every bit as impressive, a bit more off the beaten path and certainly worth a visit. Lincoln.

The old city (the Cathedral district) stands on a steep hill, overlooking the River Witham, and the city is divided informally into two zones, known unofficially as uphill and downhill. The original Iron Age settlement was built by a deep pool in the river and the Celtic name for this settlement, Lindon, has the same origins as that of Dublin in Ireland (Dubh Linn, Black Pool). The Romans conquered this part of Britain in AD 48 and shortly afterwards built a legionary fortress high on the hill overlooking this pool (the modern day Brayford Pool), and at the northern end of the Fosse Way Roman road. The Celtic name Lindon was subsequently Latinised to Lindum and given the title Colonia when it was converted into a settlement for army veterans. Later, the Normans built Lincoln Cathedral and Lincoln Castle on the same site.

Brayford Pool, site of the original Iron Age settlement

Lincoln Cathedral from Bailgate, site of the Roman Forum

Linking uphill and downhill, is the ancient Steep Hill, a steep, cobbled street, lined with shops, tea rooms and restaurants that leads to and from Lincoln Cathedral, Lincoln Castle, and the Cathedral Quarter. The central (and steepest) part of the route is unsuited to any form of vehicle, and only passable on foot. A handrail is provided along this section. There are two Norman houses on Steep Hill, one formerly called Aaron the Jew's House – now known as the Norman House – and the Jew's House. Medieval Lincoln had a thriving Jewish community, but in 1290, the entire Jewish community was expelled from England, and the Jew's House is said to have been seized from its Jewish owner. The building has remained continuously occupied to the present day. The route is part of the Roman route from the ford over the River Witham to the site of the Roman Forum in modern Bailgate, and where the Roman Ermine Street ends. Bailgate is one of the most historic parts of Lincoln's Cathedral Quarter, a network of narrow, cobbled streets, lined with timber-framed buildings, where the visitor is surrounded by the remains of medieval Lincoln, and even some hidden Romans remains.

Steep Hill is very steep!

The Jew's House, one of the oldest continuously occupied houses in England

Lincoln Cathedral, sometimes known as Lincoln Minster, is the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lincoln and is the seat of the Anglican Bishop of Lincoln. Construction commenced in 1072 and continued in several phases throughout the High and later Middle Ages. The cathedral has always been highly regarded by architectural scholars and the Victorian writer John Ruskin declared, ‘I have always held ... that the cathedral of Lincoln is out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles and roughly speaking worth any two other cathedrals we have.’ For hundreds of years the cathedral held one of the four remaining copies of the original Magna Carta, now securely displayed in Lincoln Castle. The Cathedral features two major rose windows, unusual among medieval architecture in England. On the north side of the cathedral there is the “Dean's Eye” which survives from the original structure of the building and on the south side there is the “Bishop's Eye” which was most likely rebuilt circa 1325–1350. This south window is one of the largest examples of curvilinear tracery seen in medieval architecture. And amongst the numerous stone carvings within the cathedral, is the Lincoln Imp. According to legend, two mischievous imps were sent by Satan to do evil work on Earth. After causing mayhem elsewhere in Northern England the two imps headed to Lincoln Cathedral, where they smashed tables and chairs and tripped up the Bishop. An angel appeared in the Angel Choir and ordered them to stop. One of the imps sat atop a stone pillar and started throwing stones at the angel whilst the other cowered under the broken tables and chairs. The angel turned the first imp to stone, allowing the second imp to escape. The imp that turned to stone can still be found sitting atop his stone column in the Angel Choir.

The Lincoln Imp

Lincoln Castle was built during the late 11th century by William the Conqueror on the site of a pre-existing Roman fortress. The Castle remained in use as a prison and court into modern times (the Crown Courts continue to this day) and is one of the best-preserved castles in England. It is open to the public most days of the week and it is possible to walk around the walls from which there are views of the castle complex, cathedral, the city, and surrounding countryside. The castle is now owned by Lincolnshire County Council and is a scheduled monument. Newport Arch is one of the original Roman gateways, dating from the 3rd-century and is reputedly the oldest arch in the United Kingdom still used by traffic. As the north gate of the city, it carried the major Roman road Ermine Street northward almost in a straight line to the River Humber.

The entrance to Lincoln Castle

Newport Arch. The oldest Roman gateway and beginning of Roman Ermine Street

Lincoln is a magnificent city and worth a visit. Enjoy!

*All photos courtesy of the public domain

One of the many medieval houses in Lincoln

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