It’s funny that England remains a bit of an unknown quantity to me, when I have spent all of my adult life here. I’ve passed through most of its cities when playing gigs, going to away matches or visiting friends, but I wouldn’t usually consider it for a holiday. I think of these towns as insufficiently exotic to go and visit. There is no basis in fact for this; at its best, England matches the picturesque and ancient qualities of my favourite corners of Europe with the state-of-the-art comforts (stuff actually works) of Holland or Germany. There comes a point when it seems ridiculous that you’ve been to St Peter’s, St Mark’s, St Nicholas’, St Anthony in Padua and St Francis in Assisi and yet are wholly unacquainted with the great cathedrals of your own country. And so, to Lincoln.
I’ve never been to this part of the world, or known anything about it. Zoom out of Google Maps to the point where it only shows 40-50 British cities, and Lincolnshire appears as a blank rural parenthesis between the cities of Peterborough and Hull, neither of which are the most enticing offers in England themselves. Nottingham, Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester occupy the western and central flanks, and most of the East is marginalised, a land which the Edinburgh trains skirt without stopping. Get as far as York, Durham or Newcastle and you’re in familiar territory but past Cambridgeshire it’s neither South nor North. If the government-appointing ‘Middle England’ is a state of mind that eludes definition, whither the Midlands?
If not exactly the Via Francigena, my visit to Lincoln Cathedral did feel a tiny bit like a pilgrimage because it wasn’t the easiest journey in the world, and approaching the great church at the summit of the hill, I did feel a certain degree of affinity with the many people who had done so before me over the past millennium; as I followed in their footsteps, and drew close to the cathedral, I most certainly shared in the gale-force awe they must have felt.
Having decided to make the trip on a whim a fortnight earlier, the only affordable train ticket was the 5:50am from Kings Cross to Leeds. Now I have been priced out of North London, this necessitated two night buses (filled with cleaning staff and croissant bakers, no doubt). My first bus, supposedly for London Bridge, decided to terminate at New Cross Gate and after a quick Usain Bolt impression, I managed to board the Kings Cross train around 30 seconds before it left. At either Peterborough or Newark, you must get off your London train and wait around for a crowded, tiny single-carriage service to Lincoln, via a string of barely-there villages with names that could come straight from Thomas Hardy’s imagination and toytown stations that miraculously dodged the axe of Dr Beeching. Also on the Lincoln line is Sleaford, which does indeed look a cold house for mods.
Around here, you can see why Lincoln became a focal point; it is the only steep hill in a topographically flat land that appears to carry on where Norfolk and Cambridgeshire leave off. Nevertheless, when your train finally pulls into town you get a view of the cathedral right away and it is as stirring a sight as you could wish for.
The station is on a faintly seedy road off the high street with tattoo parlours, e-cigarette emporiums, and places that specialise in fish pedicures: in short, all the cultural practices that make me feel like some C18th fop who has woken up one morning to find himself transported centuries forward into an alien society whose mores are incomprehensible. On the corner, St Mary’s church has some strange construction in its yard that I take for a watchhouse or elaborate tomb, but turns out to be a well.
The main stretch of the high street kicks off with fairly good Victorian buildings following typical templates, and a couple of small market squares. At this time of day it is quite deserted, with just the odd shop assistant having a fag whilst waiting for their manager to let them into Clinton Cards/Holland & Barrett/Ann Summers. Tourist information tells us that at the time of the Norman Conquest, Lincoln was one of the largest cities in Britain with a population of around 6,000. Statistics like this always give me a twinge of envy; how quiet everywhere must have been and how much easier to make your mark on the world. On the other hand, there was a 50% chance you’d die of the plague and London was probably as remote to these folk as Beijing is to us.
Soon we cross the Witham river, although you could easily be none the wiser, as one side of the bridge is marked off by balustrades behind benches and the other is covered, Ponte Vecchio-style, by a great big ye olde black-and-white timber building housing tea rooms. It is all very charming, and you half expect to see punting students pass underneath the bridge.
At Guildhall Street, a very old building whose ground floor is a colonnaded gateway into the hilly heart of town, and which forms a sort of psychological frontier marking off the centro storico. It is still used by the council for meetings and ceremonies, and apparently contains Richard II’s sword. Around Guildhall St are lots of former chapels and churches which have been converted into recruitment agencies, theme pubs and the like; there is also a café I read about in a random Guardian article about where to go for grub, who served my (very cheap) breakfast on a wooden tray with three slots for a cappuccino, a glass of water and an extra shot of espresso with a terrific roasted flavour. They may be in the provinces but they’re not entirely provincial.
As you continue your ascent, the High Street becomes The Strait, and then the candidly-titled Steep Hill. All the independent shops appear to be flying a flag that at first glance I take for one of the Caribbean states. This turns out to be the county flag, designed in 2005, and predominantly blue/green to reflect how Lincolnshire is all sky/fields.
Steep Hill widens, then narrows, then follows a slight zig-zag pattern, but all the while its steepness is the defining trait. At times you feel as if you are walking up a sixty-degree gradient (in reality, it is apparently 14% at its worst).
The vast majority of Lincoln’s sights lie on this straightish line between station and cathedral; around here you will notice a few C12th Norman houses; with their trademark Romanesque arches, they provide a strange echo of some of the things I have seen in Southern Italy. The Norman house is very appealing, but the adjacent Jews House and Jews Court have the more colourful histories. In 1255 the death of a local boy, later dubbed ‘Little Saint Hugh’, was the pretext for an anti-semitic pogrom; every Jewish community in England was charged with participating in his ritualised murder, and 90 of them were held in the Tower. By 1290 England had expelled all of its Jews, who would not be readmitted until the reign of Cromwell.
The summit is eventually marked by the Tudor, timber-heavy Pemberton House on Castle Square. To your left is Lincoln Castle, to your right the cathedral is behind Exchequer’s Gate. We are nearing our quarry.
Passing under the arch and coming face to face with the West Front of the cathedral was magical. The moment of ‘reveal’ is on a par with seeing Orvieto Duomo for the first time. It struck me like a huge wave; I could feel my spirit soaring into the stratospheres as my eyes greedily drank it all in. Having never believed in God or Jesus, it made me want to fall to my knees and praise medieval man; with none of our wealth or technology or resources, he still managed to build something with far more art or heart or glory than any of our post-modern glass-and-steel fripperies.
The facade reminded me of Ferrara Cathedral, except around six times bigger. The needle-thin Gothic arches hint at Gothic architecture’s origins in the Crusades, and all the styles and structures Europeans would have seen whilst raping and pillaging their way through the Islamic world.
The central tower used to have a spire, which was lopped off in a gale; this made the cathedral 160 metres high at the time, and ended the Great Pyramid of Giza’s 4,000-year reign as tallest building on earth. Lincoln itself was eventually dethroned by a C17th church in the Hanseatic town of Stralsund (when I went to Estonia they claimed the same for one of their church spires, so don’t quote me on this).
Taken as a whole, the cathedral is wonderful; taken in isolation, each of its countless small details are all wonderful too. As you contemplate it, the penny drops as to why the Victorians felt there was nothing for it but to diligently copy the Gothic style; this feels quite close to perfect, and quite impossible to improve upon. The Houses of Parliament are ersatz, this is the real thing. I am mesmerised as I walk around it, casting covetous glances at the surrounding houses (many of which seem to operate as offices these days, and one of which has a plaque for the early composer William Byrd). A lot of the statues have been decapitated, presumably during the Reformation.
Inside, the rear of the nave behind the seating is free to enter, but it costs £8 to pass any further. This is astute; your tastebuds are stimulated by the glories of the nave, and there is just enough of a glimpse at the distant choir, aisles and transept for you to realise that you are only seeing around a quarter of what is inside, but that the rest is equally magnificent. The nave itself -even if its restoration is perhaps a little too pristine- I found very uplifting. Beyond the tower, the choir’s vaulted ceiling matches that of the nave like a reflection in water or a mirror. It reminded me of Temple Church on Fleet Street, albeit on a far larger scale.
Beyond the barrier, the nave features a modern abstract Stations of the Cross. The baptismal font is black marble with griffins and other mythical beasts doing battle, and the stained glass is good too; Victorian in the nave and medieval in the vast rose windows facing north and south.
The central tower as we know it now was added in the early 1300s, and looks even more perfect and startling from the inside; like viewing a snowflake through a microscope.
The choir screen, beneath the organ, comes as a surprise. You can see why John Ruskin was the fiercest champion of Lincoln Cathedral, because the flicked, curling points of these Fry’s Turkish Delight ogee arches are pure Venice.
The detail is immense. It took me around three hours to see everything in the church and this screen is populated with an all-singing, all-dancing cast; flower garlands, saints, hunchbacks, wild animals eating each other. A passing tour guide asks his group if they can spot the Green Man, of whom there are thirty-three in the cathedral. A covert piece of resistance, or an attempt to assert continuation from the paganism whose festivals (and gods) Christianity nicked?
The brochure tells us that this screen, and much else in the cathedral, would originally have been painted in very bright colours, like the statues and temples of Rome. You can still see flecks of red and green in the grooves of the carving, and it seems a pity that the colour has gone. Until, that is, you see some pieces that have had the original colours restored, making them look uncannily like toy action figures.
Wherever you wander in the cathedral, this immense accumulation of detail is replicated. One of the greatest pleasures is simply standing in an aisle and letting your eyes follow the path ahead.
At the opposite end of the church is the Angel Choir, containing the tombs of St Hugh of Avalon (the Bishop who had a central role in rebuilding the cathedral, after an earthquake did for most of the Norman original), Edward I’s Eleanor of Castile (Westminster Abbey got the body, Lincoln got the vital organs) and others.
This section is also home to the church’s most famous resident, the Lincoln Imp. The place must have several hundred carved little beasties inside and out, and it’s another of life’s unpredictabilities that this scamp, very small and actually rather difficult to find, should be better known than the saints and nobles associated with the cathedral. Perhaps people simply adore the legend that gets told, about Satan sending two imps to cause havoc in England. They were smashing up the cathedral’s contents and caught the attention of an angel. One imp hid and escaped, the other perched on a pillar to throw stones and was turned to stone itself. If you’re struggling to find the imp you can turn a spotlight on it for 20p; I found him rather endearing, but torches shone from underneath cast unnatural shadows, and he does assume a more menacing hue when illuminated (the Imp is clearly an aficionado of cheap horror films).
Between the nave, angel choir and aisles, the glorious St Hugh’s Choir is the heart of the church, with its contrast of dark and light around the seats for clergymen and the high altar.
There is an ornate spire-topped pulpit, a throne for the Bishop, and it is fascinating to note that each seat belongs to a different parish within the diocese. In here it is easy to see why Lincoln Cathedral often acts as a stand-in for Westminster Abbey in the movies.
All this and out in the corner, towards the Chapterhouse, you will encounter a lovely set of wooden-ceilinged cloisters.
Eventually, I reluctantly staggered out of the cathedral to nurse my Stendhal syndrome in the Wig & Mitre, an upmarket gastropub with a vast lunch menu, who served me up a great beef stew with horseradish mash. My ticket was for the cathedral and castle, so the castle kept me occupied in the afternoon.
I think I’ve now made my peace with castles, after a few disappointing experiences (hello Lisbon). At the back of my mind I still carry a fairytale notion that the castle is the luxurious palace where the King lives; this is probably derived from growing up in a city that came into being long after castles had served their function, and whose own ‘castle’ is a Victorian folly. I have now learnt that authentic castles are simply high walls around the highest hilltop in town, with a courtyard and a small collection of functional buildings within- useful when under siege and more likely to contain prisoners than princesses. In Lincoln’s case, the contents of William the Conqueror’s walls are a few disparate pieces of building; a red-brick Georgian gaol, a Gothic Revival courthouse. One of the best things about the castle is the view of the cathedral from its ramparts, behind a sea of slate rooftops.
You can see quite far from the walls and their intermittent towers, and coming from a megalopolis like London it’s surprising how little of Lincoln there is before you hit open fields and countryside. The only high-rise building in the field of vision comes as a real jolt.
Another star attraction of the castle is one of the four original copies of the Magna Carta. This crucial episode in history is of course 800 years old at the time of writing, and to mark the centenary there is a swish new visitors’ centre. The entrance room features the entire text, translated from Latin to English and in legible size, on a vast wall. The document itself (and the subsequent Charter of the Forest, which generously allowed people to hunt & subsist on the King’s lands, that is to say England) are kept behind glass in a climate-controlled chamber. There is also a cinema room, with a twenty-minute film that takes its lead from the Total War series of computer games: martial drums, keening female vocals and a portentous voiceover (“the stormclouds of civil war are gathering over England”). Important as the Magna Carta undoubtedly is, it’s not much to look at, but you can ponder the technique of its wondrously minute calligraphy.
The other notable feature in the castle is a C19th model prison, in which you will find the naively moralistic ‘do-gooder’ aspect of the Victorians at their weirdest.
A frequent complaint about our prisons is that stray delinquents receive their sentence, go inside and get inducted/schooled in the ways of the hardened criminal. The Victorian solution for this was the “separate system”, which kept each prisoner in isolation with only a Bible for company, so that Pinocchio’s conscience could speak to him freely without the interference of any malign influences. So, individual cells (in theory), and a prison chapel that is one of the strangest things I have ever seen. The plain altar makes the Presbyterian Ikea churches of rural Ulster look like Hagia Sophia and each prisoner is kept in an individual cubicle where the only thing they can see, like a blinkered racehorse, is the chaplain in his miserably blank pulpit. I hope he had some good jokes, other than the one prisoners found themselves in.
On the way back to the station, there are crowds gathered around two people with owls on Guildhall St (and why not?). Wanting to stop for a pint in one of the nice old pubs, I choose The Cardinal’s Hat, in one of the Tudor buildings. This is presumably a reference to poor old Cardinal Wolsey, hounded to death when he failed to obtain Henry VIII’s divorce; I know from writing a dissertation on anti-Catholicism in English theatre that his hat ended up being used as a theatre prop when everyone was trying to appease the Puritans by writing plays about nefarious Papists. It’s not what I expected, but I liked it; the decor is carefully distressed, the menu is comprehensive, and in contrast to London the barman enthusiastically initiates a chat about the weather. They’re playing Aerosmith and Guns N Roses; in the kingdom of tea rooms and fudge shops, I suppose the poodle rock pub is the one-eyed king of Alternative.
And so farewell to Lincoln. I’m reminded that Huysmans’ best-selling novel in his lifetime was not Against Nature, but a book-length dissertation on Chartres Cathedral, and there is certainly a good book or six to be had from the many stories and characters that inhabit Lincoln Cathedral. I’m very glad that I finally got around to visiting.