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the cathedral city of lincoln, england
The eerie screeching coming from the direction of Lincoln Cathedral echoes around the rooftops and makes us look up. Three peregrine falcons are stretching their wings in spectacular style, diving and gliding effortlessly around their territory like little spitfires. They have a nest high up on the cliff face of one of the towers and mother and father is showing junior the do’s and don’ts of living in such hallowed surroundings while scaring the life out of the feral pigeon population.
Inside the main door of the Cathedral Jo Vitoria is waiting. He’s booked for an hour to give us his take on this quite staggering building. We could have gone on a roof tour which I rather fancied, for you peer down from the tops of the Cathedral just like a peregrine. Jo picks us out as we enter the main door. “Thought you might have been American,” he confesses as we say hello. That’s because he knew we were writing for Sally’s Place. Tour guides can sometimes sound like robots hammering out the statistics, dates and names and in no time you’ve glazed over and fallen asleep while standing up. But not Jo.
Refreshingly he engaged us in conversation not in the roof tops but on the vast floor of the Cathedral and gently passed on its history. It starts with William the Conqueror in 1072. Let’s build some cathedrals he instructed and Lincoln was one of them. And so it became the seat of a massive diocese from the Humber in the north to the Thames in the south. But this building gobbled up money to the tune of £5 million a year in today’s money and a huge workforce of skilled craftsmen working from dawn until dusk. In 1185, after all that time and all that money, an earthquake brought it to its knees. Only the Norman west front was spared and it’s still there today. And so another Bishop, Hugh of Avalon took on the task of rebuilding it and half a century later it was back up and joined to the original bit which is more or less what you see today minus a central tower that collapsed during a storm in 1548.
We have two nights booked at Lincoln House in Wordsworth Street with a spot of self catering but with the Wig & Mitre pub down the hill and round the corner offering porridge for breakfast and twice baked soufflés followed by fillet of beef en croute for dinner we won’t be doing much cooking.
The deep bong of the cathedral bell strikes away the hours and adds another gratifying sound to this charming, higgled piggledy city. We pick our way across cobbled streets to the castle and head for the Magna Carta, which hides in a darkened vault next to the Victorian prison. It’s written in shorthand, Latin shorthand no less, which reduces it to no more than a single sheet of neat, perfectly straight characters stretching across the page exactly in line as though printed by a machine! It tells a remarkable story. 800 years ago, after many days of discussions with powerful barons, King John, who had taxed too heavily and acted unilaterally, avoided a rebellion by agreeing to behave himself and follow the rule of law.
A highly detailed document, it’s full of statements of principle which are enshrined in our laws today. Copies of it were sent throughout the land to be made public and the precious document was supposed to be kept safely in every town and city. However, there is some doubt as to whether that happened, for it seems that only thirteen copies of the charter were made; four of those original documents, sealed by King John in 1215, have survived. One of them made its way to Lincoln Cathedral, as it was supposed to, and stayed there. It’s dramatically displayed in Lincoln Castle as part of a £22 million restoration project and is a moving reminder of the values of liberty and freedom, those same values that helped lay down the American Bill of Rights as well.
Fast forward a few centuries and we are in prison. It’s the middle of the nineteenth century and you might have been sent here to hang. If so you were one of seven murderers that were strung up over a period of thirty years and buried in the Lucy Tower. You can still see their graves.
Otherwise isolation was the order of the day, a so called ‘separate system’ that would benefit the prisoners and make them reflect, repent and reform. Crimes ranged from petty theft to highway robbery and of course murder.
Today, though it’s very much open door for visitors to wander at will in and out of the cells. You can even dress up as a prisoner or become the governor or matron. But watch out you may be put on bread and water.
Just out of town is Doddington Hall, an Elizabethan masterpiece with a charming walled garden. We take a late afternoon stroll through the vegetable beds and along the walls of trained fruit trees and bump into the head gardener who has recently arrived from Cornwall to take on this vast garden. I imagine he has lots of help. A bit like the old days when this garden would have had many pairs of hands, I put to him. “Oh no,” he says full of enthusiasm. “It’s more or less just me keeping the restaurant and cafe supplied with fresh vegetables and fruit.” He shows me an asparagus bed that he’s just planted which will start to crop in a couple of years.
And then he points us in the direction of the formal gardens and two enormous sweet chestnut trees. Their contorted trunks and limbs spiral around us and sweep down to the ground. The deep furrows in the bark cry out to be touched and even caressed for they are centuries old. It was the Romans who introduced them to England and somewhere there will be one or two even older than the Magna Carta itself.
For more details about visiting and staying in Lincoln go to:
Keith and Lynne Allan are one time BBC Radio journalists who now make audio podcasts for websites and write for a number of British newspapers and magazines on travel and food.
They also run their own concept store called The Old Dairy in Ford. It specialises in antiques, vintage and interiors and at the heart of it is a fabulous coffee shop and small bistro where they are to be found most of the time. They love to cook on an AGA cooker and have recently become AGA Ambassadors, which means they help to sell AGA cookers by organising demonstrations and cookery classes. Their open kitchen and parlour is a magnet for customers.