Lincolnshire, England: Two Thousand Years of History

The view from Lincoln Cathedral - photos by Sony Stark
The view from Lincoln Cathedral - photos by Sonja Stark

By Sonja Stark

Foreign travel fuels the soul and lights the imagination, and nowhere is this truer than in Lincolnshire, England. The Northeast is home to incredible secrets and romantic adventures.

Lincolnshire Blue Badge Guide Vic Hughes sums it up nicely. “It’s the center of the universe… It’s absolutely one of the most exciting places in England!”

Lincoln Yesterday

In its heyday, Lincoln was the second largest, wealthiest, most influential city in England. It was a major strategic trading port (River Trent) and thrived on agricultural wool farming and religious importance. From crumbling Roman fortresses to mystical cathedrals to enchanting castles, its legacy dates back more than 2000 years.

I compare its timeline to the unfolding of a riotous game of poker. First the Celts played their hand, then the Romans, Danes and Normans upped the ante followed by a few wild cards from the Vikings and eventually a straight flush by native Britons.

Complicated History

If you opt for the familiarity of London, Edinburgh or York you’re missing out on a brilliant world of rooted genealogy and history in Lincoln. A complicated history but one that Hughes makes flow smoothly, like a bottle of burgundy emptying into a thirsty wine glass.

I suppose it’s Hughes' witty British humor and secular irreverence that keeps me smiling two days without sleep. Somehow we manage to squeeze in a three-day history lesson in a five-hour walking tour on the first day.

Lincoln Today

Lincoln, England sits atop an old quarter that spills down a hill covering more than 100 acres. Despite centuries of earthquakes, fires and violent upheavals the town survives with original Roman construction only 8-12 feet beneath your feet. The zigzag network of steep streets wraps past quaint tea shops, lively pubs and flower stalls, and unless you're looking for it, you might miss a very special foundation of ancient stonework and archways.

Vic the guideVic the guide

Original medieval fireplaces and thick walls make up the cellars and basements of many merchants and businesses. The kind owners of a stationary store called ‘Forty Four’ on Steep Hill Road let us take inventory of the relics that remain. Sometimes the stone markings are so old that it’s difficult to guess their age.

But unless you’re a stonemason or geologist you don’t come to stare at burnt lime and volcanic tufa all day. From 30 miles away you can see the towns true calling and why millions have been making pilgrimages here for a thousand years.

The landmark grandeur of the Lincoln Cathedral shines like a lighthouse over a sea of undulating farming fields, moors and drained fenland. It’s a place of scholarly and spiritual influence dating back long before Oxford and Cambridge were founded and it’s a must-see attraction.

Lincoln Cathedral

The Lincoln Chapter HouseThe Lincoln Chapter House

The 18th century Victorian writer John Ruskin said, "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 two of any other cathedrals we have."

Hughes echoes the famous line verbatim as we shuffle through a small gloomy tunnel. Interesting tales bounce off wet cobblestone while ancient city shadows lend an eerie quality to the tour.

The tour guide extends the drama with tales and stories. “Let’s pretend for a moment that we’re medieval pilgrims living in a time when religion dominates every facet of our lives.”

The Church owns the land, makes the laws and raises taxes. The sale and costs of ‘indulgences’ (pardons for sins), holy water, pilgrim tokens, baptisms, marriages and burials allows bishops to build lavishly. The best architects, carpenters, sculptors and decorators are hired to build cathedrals. This is the end result, the Lincoln Cathedral.

The Lincoln CathedralThe Lincoln Cathedral

Setting aside my reservations about organized religion, I stare slack-jawed at the heavenly glow of man’s most powerful asset - his ingenuity in the name of God.

From the years 1300-1549 (250 years) the Cathedral was the tallest building in the England, if not the world. Today it stands taller than ever in the hearts and minds of devout worshippers and visitors alike.

Three original arches decorate the West Front with a small wooden entrance door dwarfed by the awesome splendor of two western towers. A spire, a flying buttress and a ribbed roof vault looms over the busy routine of people passing by.

Locals are used to its splendor but I’m like a deer caught in headlights. Two medieval bells ring out at the top of the hour to signal that this is no dream.

The imposing West Front achieves a remarkable feat: it brings noisy little kids around me to absolute silence. To add to the hypnosis, a glow from the melting sun floods the front with a shimmering gold light. Of all 679 Anglican buildings in Lincolnshire this is the only Cathedral Church, and it’s awesome.

Inside is a soaring cavern ablaze with vibrant color streaming through dozens of stained glass windows. The holiness is an amalgam of early English architecture, Gothic, Romanesque and Tudor.

A stained glass window in the cathedralA stained glass window in the cathedral

There are slender steep columns, statues, paintings, tombs and organ pipes dating back several centuries. There’s also a roof tour from above, but I have no reference to time given my solemn reverence. Hughes tries to move me along pointing out figures, icons and motifs that represent good and evil.

Symbolism fascinates me, especially the yin-and-yang qualities inherit in Christianity. Archangels, angels and cherabims decorate the right or south walls while serpents, dragons, griffons and imps decorate the north or left walls. This, of course is metaphorically speaking. Hughes is careful not to upset anyone from the North, especially the Irish.

The Da Vinci Code

After Westminster Abbey declined Ron Howard’s request, it’s no wonder that Lincoln Cathedral was where he opted to film the ‘Da Vinci Code’.

The filming of the ‘Da Vinci Code’ released more than just a movie in 2006; it helped increase tourism here by twenty percent.

And the room that gets the most attention is the ten-sided Chapter House, the early site where Parliament once convened. Like the stained glass windows above there are intricately painted murals on the walls that match those in Westminster Abbey.

The Old BakeryThe Old Bakery

I’m shocked to learn the murals are completely reproduced for film accuracy. You really can’t tell the difference. The room is still used by the Dean and College of Canons for secular business.

It’s getting late and time to leave. Earlier a purple-robed music conductor politely instructed me not to film the practice choir and now I’m overstaying my welcome. It’s a very busy church with at least six services on Sunday and three every other.

First and foremost, visitors of any denomination or of none are warmly invited to participate. I leave with a wiser understanding of religion and an ever-growing appreciation for architectural wonders like this.

The Old Bakery

One brisk 10-minute walk from my hotel and I’m dining with new friends at an intimate 4-star restaurant called The Old Bakery. Hungry films crews and celebrities ate here during the filming of ‘Da Vinci Code’ so if it’s good enough for Sir Ian McKellen and Tom Hanks then it’s good enough for me (wink, wink).

My chops salivate waiting for a hearty portion of famous Lincoln Red. A tournedo fillet stuffed with Cote Hill blue cheese wrapped in Parma ham nearly fills my will for Christmas pudding. But this is December, an excusable time of year to overindulge.

The view from my hotel windowThe view from my hotel window

Lincoln Red is the name of quality beef bred on organic farms in Lincolnshire. Annually, there’s a show called the ‘Tastes of Lincolnshire’ that encourages people to buy local produce, meat and drink.

The Old Bakery prides itself with homemade breads, cheeses (48 varieties) and wines made with local ingredients. Rarely have I replenished myself with cheese after a dinner but in England it’s tradition. My tummy comes to crashing halt as I push back from the table and head straight for bed.

The White Hart Hotel

Back at the White Hart Hotel I realize I’m in for a night of insomnia rather than sleep. It’s not because of an uncomfortable bed or a leaky bathroom faucet. The room is perfect. It has Victorian flair, it's comfortable and quiet and it has free internet connection.

No. Rather it’s the view of the Lincoln Cathedral through my bedroom window. It’s so stellar and visually-consuming that I reignite my video camera to document more night footage. Not only that but the Cathedral’s magically presence stares back at me whispering its stories into my ear.

It’s weird and there’s no way I can surf the web or watch the telly or read a modern magazine, let alone retire to bed with this much history peaking in at me. I sit by the sill until the wee hours of the night, passing in and out of consciousness, dreaming of bishops, battles and theology.

Pleasantly, in the morning the spell is broken and a friendly phone op, rather than acacophony of bells, wakes me. It’s a fresh sunny morning with plenty of treasures beyond the Cathedral to discover. Many I’ll already recognize from seeing in movies like ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Harry Potter’ and the ‘Burghley Code’.

Other Lincolnshire Sites:

Tattershall Castle
A dramatic red brick tower with brick vaulting and ancient moss-covered gravestones. Ask for Blue Badge Guide Jean Howard for a tour.

Alford Manor House Museum
Thatched 1611 House with a roof of straw and timber that weighs 40 tons. Ask Historian Grant Allan for a tour.

Burghley Castle
Visit in the summer ‘07 for the opening of the Gardens of Surprise - a treat that Lady Victoria loves to share with her visitors.

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