Vibrant, up-to-date and yet wonderfully historic, Lincoln is the perfect place for a weekend break, says our Deputy Editor Geoff Palmer
For someone who first visited Lincoln 40 years ago, as I did, the transformation in this extraordinary city has been dramatic.
Because in that time it has morphed from somewhere that seemed lost in post-industrial torpor, into a truly vivid, lively place without losing its amazing heritage.
Lincoln has the sort of history that many other cities can only dream about. It was a big cheese in Roman Britain – the place where the Fosse Way met Ermine Street – and there are many Roman remains still to be seen.
By the Middle Ages it had developed into one of the richest towns in England, famous for its woollen cloth – the iconic Lincoln green as worn by Robin Hood and his Merry Men.
But then its star slowly faded. Bypassed by the old Great North Road in the 18th century and the railway from London to York and Scotland in the 19th, it seemed destined to become a backwater.
Luckily, the city’s waning fortunes ensured the survival of many historic buildings, including some of the earliest surviving domestic townhouses in the country, many half-timbered medieval and Tudor structures, a historic castle and one of the greatest medieval cathedrals in Europe.
And now Lincoln’s very much on the up again, there’s a whole lot more to the city than just history.
Ancient and modern
In effect, there are now two Lincolns – the original historic centre at the top of the hill, with the castle, Bishops’ Palace and cathedral, and the lower town at the bottom, alongside the River Witham.
And it’s the lower part that’s seen real change in recent years, well demonstrated by the area around Brayford Pool, a large lake on the river to the west of the historic High Bridge; this once post-industrial eyesore has been transformed into a marina beloved by the local swans, surrounded by bars, restaurants, waterside walks, and the all-new Lincoln University, which has also enlivened the feel of the city by filling it with students.
This rejuvenation extends across the lower city – it’s now full of elegant pedestrianised streets lined with busy shops, plus there’s a waterside shopping centre and a nicely restored Central Market.
We loved walking around this area – and in the middle of it is the picturesque 12th-century High Bridge, carrying the old Ermine Street Roman road across the Witham.
It’s a rare survival, the oldest bridge in Britain which still has buildings on it – a smaller version of the old London Bridge.
And in one of the pretty half-timbered buildings on top is the stylish Stokes Cafe, full
of uniformed waitresses and the most delicious cakes.
Once you’ve had your fill of this thriving commercial centre, the lure of the upper part of the city beckons.
From High Bridge we followed the traffic-free High Street (the old Roman road) northwards under the old town gate, past the many listed buildings.
Ahead you can see the giant cathedral on the top of the hill as the road begins to climb.
The chain stores fall away as you get higher, and the road narrows to little more than a lane, lined with smaller boutiques, restaurants and quirky antiques shops.
On the left you pass the Jew’s House, one of the earliest surviving townhouses in the UK (Lincoln had a thriving Jewish community in the early Middle Ages, one of whom, Aaron of Lincoln, was reputed to be the wealthiest man in Norman England), until finally the road actually becomes a stairway – the aptly named Steep Hill – and you ascend past fudge shops, higgledy-piggledy pubs and tea shops to the very top of the hill.
You come into a cobbled square – Castle Hill – with the ramparts to your left, a handsome 16th- century, half-timbered house (a tourist information centre) in front of you, and the Cathedral Close.
So much to see
As you walk into the Close, the sheer size of the cathedral takes your breath away – for a couple of centuries in the Middle Ages it was actually the tallest building in the world, and it dominates the landscape for miles around.
The inside is a wonderfully serene space – Ruskin called it ‘the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles’ – with magnificent stained-glass windows and world-famous foliage carvings that are not to be missed.
Hidden in the stone leaves at the east end is the famous Lincoln Imp – now a symbol of the city. Adults and children alike have great fun trying to spot him.
But make sure you don’t miss Lincoln Castle either (one ticket gets you into both).
Among the many interesting things inside its medieval walls are a restored 19th-century prison, which featured in Downton Abbey, and the star of the show: one of only four surviving copies of the original Magna Carta, now beautifully displayed in a newly-built complex.
Great for culture vultures
Don’t miss The Collection museum, which is packed with paintings (Turner, Lowry, and local artist Peter de Wint), neoclassical sculpture, fine arts and important archaeological finds.
Great for food lovers
There are loads of fine places to eat. We chose the posh Green Room restaurant overlooking the cathedral, which was spectacular value for money.
The restaurant is attached to the delightful 60s retro Lincoln Hotel (01522 520 348; thelincolnhotel.com), where we stayed the night, and we’d heartily recommend it too.
Great for RAF fans
Lincolnshire is the spiritual home of the RAF. Its training college at Cranwell has a free heritage centre (01529 488 490).
The Dambusters raid was launched from RAF Scampton – the Dambusters Inn, outside the base, has a collection of memorabilia. And RAF Coningsby is home to the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
Tours are available to see the aircraft (01522 782 040; raf.mod.uk/rafconingsby).