Lincoln: Summer 2017
I’ve rarely been on a friendlier train. Even people busy with their phones (mostly games…one scrolling through eBay for kitchen utensils and one on Facebook) were happy to answer my questions. Cheerful people got off at Collingham and Swinderby, presumably to work, and a dozen fresh faces got on at North Hykeham to bring their smiles into the city. It seems to do people good to live and work in this part of Lincolnshire.
I’m early. The main attractions don’t open until 10 o’clock. A good breakfast would come in handy and I drop lucky. Stokes’ High Bridge Tearooms are exceptional. Seating on three storeys of a historic building on a bridge across the River Witham. Waitresses in traditional black dresses with white pinafores make it feel both timeless and authentic. I hope the food matches. It does. And the tea is superb. Take a note cafe owners. It’s really ridiculously simple. Take all your tea bags and throw them in the dustbin. Buy good loose-leaf tea, put it in an attractive earthenware teapot, add boiling water and leave to infuse slowly. Take to the table with a jug of milk (don’t be stingy) and a second pot of boiling water for topping up. A cup, a saucer, a teaspoon and, for the careful, a tea strainer. Result, tea worth drinking.
Try the plum loaf while you’re there; it’s exceptional.
I like Lincoln but it has always seemed to underplay itself. It should be up there with Oxford and Bath and Canterbury but it often finds itself lining up with other under-rated county towns like Worcester and Lancaster. We should visit these towns more often. Their splendours often match the tourist honeypots and they have the huge advantage of being quiet enough to actually enjoy what is there. Lincoln cathedral is one of the great ecclesiastical buildings and the castle is outrageously good at any time. It’s even better this year.It provides, in no particular order, one of Europe’s great castle wall walks, two almost perfect examples of the motte and bailey design, stunning views, a Victorian prison you can walk round, dress up as a prisoner or warder (I did both), visit the strangely haunting chapel where prisoners were kept incommunicado, stand where the scaffold was or the graves of those sentenced to be buried within the prison confines, take in an active Crown Court where (judging by the number of high security vans parked outside) some serious felons stand accused and then, after you’ve enjoyed a cup of coffee or tea (bags I’m afraid) you can enter the special vault where not only the Magna Carta is on permanent display but this summer it is joined by The Charter of the Forest (yes, me too!) and the Domesday Book. No not a replica or a copy or one of ten originals but THE Domesday Book.
O.K. they’re in glass display cabinets but believe me these are not only worth seeing but they’re worth travelling to see. Three of the most important documents in our history on display in a single room. Everybody who came through was awed by the experience of simply looking at the ancient parchments. They meant something different to each visitor. A law student stood rapt for half an hour seeing the foundation of English jurisprudence. An American couple saw a significant building block in their country’s constitution, a farmer knew his village is mentioned in the great book, a small boy told the joke “Where did King John sign the Magna Carta? At the bottom!” only to be corrected by the guard who showed him the holes where the royal seal would have been hung. I had gone to see the Magna Carta and didn’t know the other two would be there. Suddenly I’m speechless. If I’d been standing between Abraham Lincoln, Florence Nightingale and Bob Dylan I wouldn’t have been more starstruck. I bought a season ticket. I’m going back.
“How much are they worth?” asked a man in a Guns and Roses t shirt. “Priceless” came the answer and I reckon this room contains the very definition of that word.
The guard was great. (there are a lot of guards around the castle this year but they keep their watchful presence with gentle good humour). This fellow had been won over by the Domeday Book in particular. The official castle guide couldn’t get a word in edgeways as a man who looked like a uniformed thug, and a big one at that, held forth about the hierarchy of land ownership in 11th century Lincolnshire, then onto a workable précis of the feudal system and finally a detailed description of how they made the ink.
Downstairs in the impressive mini cinema we enjoyed a wraparound film that explained in entertaining detail where the security man had got his information. (Just a note to Lincoln Castle if you’re reading this… a few extra pounds spent on genuine actors might have been a good investment.)
I spent four hours in the castle and was never once less than impressed. The prison chapel is an awful place, as is the prison. But awful in a way that should be remembered. The presence of Lincoln Crown Court in the castle grounds is a reminder that we may not have learned all the lessons just yet.
My visit inside the cells was brightened by the peculiar sound of two women singing Mozart a cappella on the prison landing. I complimented them once they were done. They said they were rehearsing for a wedding that weekend when there were going to be twenty singers. It never occurred to me thirty odd years ago that I could have got married in a building that had experienced such extreme examples of man’s inhumanity to man and woman. The massed choirs of the sixth sphere of heaven wouldn’t have tempted me. Having said that, the singing was pretty good.
Then a short walk of stunning beauty past a number of tempting pubs and eating houses to the cathedral. It was done up to the nines for the graduation ceremony of one of Lincoln’s two universities. One university provides for the young and the other for the older student. I’m not sure if this is planned but as I watched the parade pass before me it felt like the gold watch ceremony for completing 25 years service with the local council.
I was just in time to be one of three communicants at a service in a glorious chantry. The lesser the congregation the greater the share of glory. The priest was a visitor to the city having spent his career divided between chaplaincy at a Cambridge college and singing opera professionally. He was excellent company.
As was the guide in the Wren Library. It was quiet up there and I think he fancied a little conversation that allowed him the veer from the prepared parts of speech. We shared a love of books, of beautiful rooms (the Wren Library was described by Sir Roy Strong as “the most beautiful room in England” and I wouldn’t disagree), of a love of learning, illuminated documents, bookbinding, civil wars and the history of the legend of Robin Hood. We talked for over an hour and I didn’t notice the time go by.
Further round the cloisters is the Chapter House. Stunning in size and another treat lay in store. The wonderful sound of a violin doing justice to Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending drew me in. Artist in residence Dominic Parczuk was enjoying a break from his duties and the amazing acoustics of the chapter house to have a little practice. It was stunning and the impressive thing is that Dominic (a really pleasant, decent, friendly sort) isn’t there to play the violin. That’s just his hobby. He’s a visual artist, and a very good one. Not for the first time that day I felt very privileged indeed.
They’ve gone document crazy in Lincoln this summer. In the gallery at the bottom of the hill is a special exhibition where you can see a cornucopia of the nations most important scrolls, books, letters and laws. Among the exhibits are the death warrant of Mary Queen of Scots, Edward VIII abdication letter, the actual scroll of the Act of Settlement 1701, Henry V’s will, stunning and rarely seen portraits from the Queen’s own collection. It is a feast of stuff having a rare outing. Get there before September 5th. It’s normally all housed in London and most of it in vaults rather than on display.
Add to this a first rate regional gallery with some first class paintings including a delightful Stubbs of a spaniel type dog that seemed every bit alive as my sheepdog at home.
I was torn between the train or afternoon tea back at Stokes. I had an appointment that evening so the train won but shall bring the current Mrs J here for tea in the near future.
Even after a hard day’s work my fellow passengers were cheerful and lovely. One girl gave me a smile that made me wonder what it would be like to be thirty years younger and at least twice as handsome.
Go to Lincoln. If there’s a better day out in England this summer I haven’t found it.