What to Do in Lincoln, England

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    Lincoln, Lincolnshire, England
    LatitudeStock - Roy Westlake/Getty Images

    Visitors to the city of Lincoln in England's East Midlands are sometimes surprised to find such a massive Cathedral and impressive castle in what is, apparently, a smallish city. But Lincoln has an impressive history, dating to prehistoric times.

    As Colonia Lindum, it was a Roman provincial capital and the junction of two important Roman Roads, Ermine Street from London to York and the Fosse Way from Exeter to Lincoln. By the time the Normans arrived to build their castle, Lincoln was the third most important city of the realm.

    Today it is the main retail center of Lincolnshire, one of England's most important food production areas. The Uphill area with its ancient Roman and Medieval buildings as well as its independent specialist shops is of most interest to visitors touring the region.

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    Roman Gate into Lincoln

    Roman Gate
    © Ferne Arfin

    The Roman gateway, now Newport Arch, was Lincoln's entrance in the third century. It is the world's only original Roman arch still open to traffic.

    The Newport Arch was the gateway through which Ermine Street, one of the most important Roman roads, headed north from Lincoln. The arch and associated pedestrian passages on each side would have risen to a height of 35 feet, but the rubble and refuse of time have buried the base of the arch so that it is now eight feet below street level. The side passages were excavated to allow pedestrians to stand upright.

    The Roman arch is thought to be the only original Roman gateway in the world still open to regular traffic. That may not necessarily be a good thing. In 1964, a truck tried to pass under the arch and nearly destroyed it. It sustained minor damage in 2004 when it was, once again, hit by a truck.

    Newport Arch is just one of an extensive network of Roman ruins around Lincoln, including the tallest Roman wall still standing in Britain.

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    Climbing Steep Hill

    Steep Hill

    Lincoln's High Street become a really high street when it changes its name to Steep Hill and climbs up to the original site of Roman and medieval Lincoln.

    Steep Hill is so steep in some parts, it is lined with railings to help pedestrians make their way. The route, which leads to the Bailgate and Lincoln's Castle and Cathedral Quarters, is too steep for cars and is reserved for pedestrians. Among the historic houses that line the route is one known as "The Jew's House."

    In the Middle Ages, Lincoln had a large Jewish population. During the reign of Richard I, England's Jews experience persecution and eventual expulsion. St. Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln at the time, berated the King for the mass persecutions. He was known for protecting Lincoln's Jewish population and in the late 12th century, he risked his own life by facing down armed mobs to defend them.

    Hugh stood up bravely to three different Kings. When he died, King John (who was later forced to sign the Magna Carta) helped to carry his coffin up Steep Hill to the Cathedral. That much is recorded. But at least one local guide told me that, in fact, three kings - the kings of England, Scotland, and France - carried the casket up the hill. And they were barefoot. And there was snow and ice covering the ground. I don't know if any of that is true but it certainly makes a great story.

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    Lincoln's Castle Square From Bailgate

    Lincoln Cathedral and Castle SquareBrian Lawrence
    Brian Lawrence/Getty Images

    Lincoln's medieval cathedral arches face the gates of its Norman castle across Castle Square.

    Today the square is lined with law offices (the Castle is also the Crown Court), pubs and atmospheric black and white buildings. Tourist maps and the local tourist information office have labeled this district the Cathedral Quarter but locals refer to it as The Bail.

    Notice the Magna Carta pub on the square? That's no random naming choice. Hugh of Avalon, who, as Bishop of Lincoln, built the first Norman Cathedral here and eventually became St. Hugh of Lincoln, was a signer of the Magna Carter in 1215. One of four original copies of the document that is the basis of our legal system is kept in Lincoln Castle.

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    Lincoln Cathedral Quarter

    View of Lincoln Cathedral

    Lincoln Cathedral Quarter, seen here from the area known as the Bail by locals, is reached through the ancient archways

    Lincoln Cathedral dominates the Bailgate area and its splendid west front is all but hidden by the arched entrance to its precincts. That makes the impact on visitors who pass through the gates even bigger. The facade is dramatic day or night when it is bathed in floodlights.

    The Romanesque frieze from the west front of the original Norman cathedral is considered of international importance. Removed for preservation, several pieces of it can now be seen, on request, exhibited inside the St. James Chapel in the cathedral. Copies have replaced several scenes around the West Portal so that visitors can see what the frieze looked like in situ.

    Christmas in Lincoln

    When Lincoln hosts England's first (and some say best) European Christmas market, the stalls and traders, music, food and entertainment fill the Cathedral Quarter and many of the little streets leading down from the cathedral.

    Find out more about Lincoln's Christmas Market in the Cathedral Quarter

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    West Front of Lincoln Cathedral

    Roy Westlake/Getty Images

    The dramatic West Front of Lincoln Cathedral is sometimes described as a cliff of Gothic stonework. But the original Norman Cathedral is still visible.

    The history of Lincoln Cathedral is written all over its face. Many of England's cathedrals have Norman origins. Some, like York, are even built on Roman foundations. But usually, visitors have to explore cathedral crypts or undercrofts to find the earliest sections.

    Lincoln Cathedral's Norman structure, dating from 1072, is visible in the simple stonework that surrounds the three vaulted arches of its West Front.

    Much of the rest of the Cathedral was built in the 12th and 13th century, inspired by the leadership of its bishop, the Norman Hugh of Avalon, later St. Hugh of Lincoln.

    Lincoln Cathedral has survived fire and even earthquake and has been rebuilt many times. In 1141, fire damaged the cathedral. Then in 1185, an earthquake damaged it again. In 1192, St. Hugh initiated rebuilding the cathedral in its current, Gothic style. According to legend, St. Hugh himself carried a hod in the building works.

    Gothic architecture was in its infancy when Lincoln Cathedral was built. Much of it was experimental, the builders learning as they went. And making mistakes. In 1237 the central of the cathedral's towers collapsed and had to be rebuilt. It was raised to its current height between 1307 and 1311. At one time, all the towers had spires. In fact, until 1549, when the central tower's spire blew down in a storm and the others were removed, Lincoln Cathedral was the only man-made structure in the world taller than the Pyramids.

    Maintaining Lincoln Cathedral is a continuous task. As recently as the 20th century, some of the buttresses were found to be detached from the building and restoration was required. The cathedral has a team of thirty craftsmen and women who use traditional skills to conserve and protect the cathedral and its treasures.

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    The Nave of Lincoln Cathedral

    Eleanor Scriven/Getty Images

    The "new" English Gothic style made Lincoln's tall, wide nave possible.

    When St. Hugh initiated the rebuilding of the Norman Cathedral in Lincoln, the early Gothic style was so different from anything that had been built in Europe, it became known as English Gothic.

    The style includes pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses, all of which makes a wider space and more stained glass possible. If it looks a bit familiar, you may have seen Lincoln Cathedral standing in for Canterbury in the film of "The DaVinci Code".

    Besides its structure, which is a treasure in itself, Lincoln Cathedral's treasures include the books in its two libraries. One Library is the Medieval Library. The other library, extending over the cloister, is one of only two libraries designed by Christopher Wren. Among the many rare books in the libraries is the Lincoln Chapter Bible, an illuminated manuscript from about 1100. The library also has a rare printed school book from 1410 that has the first recorded rhyme about Robin Hood.

    Essentials for Visiting Lincoln Cathedral

    • Hours: Summer weekdays (July and August) 7:15 a.m. to 8 p.m., Weekends to 6 p.m.; Winter weekdays to 6 p.m., weekends to 5 p.m.
    • Library Hours: April through October, weekdays 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., Saturdays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
    • Admission fees cover the Cathedral and the Libraries. There is no fee to attend scheduled worship services.
    • Accessibility: Both libraries are on the first floor (second floor for North Americans) and currently have no disabled access.
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    The High Altar and Angel Choir

    Interior of Lincoln Cathedral. William the Conqueror ordered the first cathedral to be built in Lincoln, in 1072. Lincoln Cathedral is a very popular destination and is visited by over 250,000 tourists a year.
    Roger Coulam/Getty Images

    The gilt high altar at Lincoln Cathedral separates St. Hugh's Choir from a "new" addition, the Angel Choir, dedicated in 1280.

    The Angel Choir extends the eastern end of Lincoln Cathedral, behind the golden high altar at the end of St. Hugh's choir. The Angel Choir was built to house St. Hugh's Shrine, once a jeweled box that contained -- his head. The shrine was a pilgrimage destination until the Reformation when St. Hugh's head also went missing.

    High above, in the vault of the chapel, a carved stone imp looks down on the saint's monument. Local guides like to wink and tell you that the Lincoln Imp was a little devil turned to stone for causing so much mischief in the Cathedral. Whoever he was, he is now the symbol of Lincolnshire and the city's football team.

    Another interesting monument in the Angel Choir is the Victorian reconstruction of the viscera tomb of Eleanor of Castile. Eleanor, the wife of Edward I, died near Lincoln. Her body is buried in Westminster Cathedral and her heart at Blackfriars. The grief-stricken King built a memorial cross, a "Cherie" cross, at every place her coffin rested on the way to London. There were 12 in all. The elaborate monument outside of Charing Cross station is a reconstruction of London's "Cherie cross," which originally stood in Trafalgar Square.

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    Lincoln Cathedral - Carved Choir Screen

    Choir Screen at Lincoln Cathedral
    © Ferne Arfin

    Lincoln Cathedral, built and extended during the heyday of English Gothic Architecture, has many striking features, including this carved choir screen.

    The choir screen under the organ pipes in Lincoln Cathedral is a masterpiece of Gothic Architectural ornamentation. Added in the 14th century, it is positively crawling with allegorical figures, fantastical imps, and creatures. In its original form, it would have been brightly painted and, upon close examination, hints of that early paintwork can be found (see inset top right). It was customary, when the screen was made, for apprentices to carve some of the more repetitive patterns and simple design elements. The variations, in quality and shape, of the repeating flower motifs on the screen (see inset bottom right) show that they were probably made by different carvers, often as apprentice practice pieces.

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    Inside the Walls of Lincoln Castle

    Inside Lincoln Castle

    The towers of Lincoln Cathedral dominate the view from within Lincoln Castle.

    William the Conqueror began building Lincoln Castle within two years of his conquest of England, in 1068. Norman builders demolished 166 Saxon houses to make way for William's battlements. The castle has been used as a court and prison for more than 900 years and is still the Crown Court for the region.

    The Georgian and Victorian prisons inside the castle walls are no longer in use. Visitors never fail to be impressed by the grim Victorian prison chapel, where prisoners attended worship in separate, coffin-like compartments. The prison was run along lines that were known as the "separate system", a form of mid-19th-century prison reform. The chapel is the only remaining example of an original separate system chapel in the world.

    The Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest

    In 1215, Hugh of Wells, then Bishop of Lincoln, was among the witnesses of the signing of the Magna Carta, limiting the rights of the monarch and establishing the rights upon which English (and thus American) common law is based. The Bishop brought his copy back to Lincoln to be read in the county court and then filed for safekeeping at the cathedral.

    This copy of the Magna Carta, one of only four original 1215 copies in existence, is now displayed at Lincoln Castle.

    The Charter of the Forest, issued in 1217 by King Henry III, further defined the rights of vassals, freemen, and serfs. Among other things, it put an end to executions for poaching - "No one shall henceforth lose life or limb because of our venison.." Lincoln Castle is the only place where both of these documents can be seen together.

    Visitor Essentials for Lincoln Castle

    • Where: Castle Hill, Lincoln LN1 3AA
    • Contact: +44 (0)1522 511068
    • Open: Every day - October to March 10a.m.to 4p.m., April and September 10a.m.to 5p.m., May to August 10a.m. to 6p.m.
    • Admission charged but individuals can join guided tours for free. These are a charge for groups taking part in tours.
    • Accessibility: The Castle is partly accessible. There is a ramp to the Magna Carta and Charter of the Forest Exhibition. There is a lift to part of the Prison Experience exhibition.
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    Looking Down Steep Hill in Lincoln

    Eleanor Scriven/Getty Images

    Steep Hill runs through the center of Lincoln, lined with medieval half-timbered buildings as it climbs from Lincoln Downhill to the top of the town, The Bail.

    Lincoln sits in the center of a limestone ridge, sometimes called the Lincoln Edge, where it is broken by the River Witham. Steep Hill connects the top of Lincoln, known as Lincoln Uphill, with the center of town and main retail center on the level plain, below the river.

    As this picture shows, the street is well named. Shops along Steep Hill tend to be independent specialty stores - book shops, sweet shops, gift shops, art galleries and a wonderful teddy bear store at Number 9, Paws for Thought.

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    Shopping on Steep Hill

    VisitBritain/Britain on View/Getty Images

    Shopping on Steep Hill in Lincoln is "recreational", mostly involved in dipping in and out of specialist shops.

    Lincoln's main shopping areas are in the Lincoln Downhill area, below the River Witham. That's where all the high street shops and chain stores are located. But along Steep Hill and throughout the Lincoln Uphill, shops are independent and entertaining. Look here for sweet shops, art galleries, print shops, and a few designer boutiques.

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    Lincoln Cathedral

    Travelpix Ltd/Getty Images

    The impressive architecture of Lincoln Cathedral can be appreciated close up or from a distance.

    Lincoln Cathedral's three massive towers and cliff-of-stone west front are most impressive from a distant vantage point, where they can be seen in their entirety. The cathedral, one of the earliest buildings in the English Gothic style, can be seen from at least twenty-five miles away in clear weather.