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Lincoln Cathedral & Steep Hill. My photo.

 

Apparently the last time I visited Lincoln I was only 8 years old. I have no recollection of it and I’m actually glad of that. All I knew about Lincoln before last weekend was that it had a huge cathedral sitting on top of a big hill. I wasn’t prepared for any of it and it simply blew my mind.

 

Before you reach the cathedral you have to negotiate the hill. It is possible to get to the top without walking but if you do that you miss the fascinating and charming Steep Hill: a hill so steep that’s what they named it. This is not some gentle meandering slope but a hill I can only describe as vertiginous. I imagine that in the depths of an icy winter it would be advisable to wear crampons on the way up and skis on the way down.

 

I would be lying if I said I didn’t struggle with the hill. My friends and I tackled it twice. The first time was in the dark when I was unsuspecting and unaware that there were places to sit strategically placed along the route. I arrived at the pub we were eating in unable to breathe with sweat pouring down my face. Not an especially attractive look but then I am incredibly unfit. My friends put me to shame! The second time was in the daylight when the shops were open and the places to sit easy to spot. I took it slower and found it a little less exhausting.

 

You would think walking back down the hill would be easier and it is as long as you’re not as unfit as I am. I found that, after the climb up the hill, walking down it rendered my legs and knees somewhat wobbly. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re a sufferer of vertigo!

 

In the daylight there is much to see on Steep Hill. From certain places the glimpses of the Lincolnshire countryside, famously flat, are breathtaking. There are many interesting buildings of varying age but there are two that stick out as especially remarkable: Jew’s House and Norman House.

 

Jew’s House, Steep Hill. Source.

 

Jew’s House is one of the earliest surviving town houses in England. Built around 1170-80 it is a fine example of Norman architecture complete with original doorway with chimney buttress above and two windows of the first floor hall. There was a thriving Jewish community in Lincoln during medieval times until all Jews were expelled from England in 1290. Tradition says that this house was seized from a Jewish owner at that time, possibly a Rabbi.

 

Norman House, Steep Hill. Source: Dave Hitchborne.

 

Norman House was probably built around a similar time to Jew’s House. For many years it was known as “Aaron the Jew’s House” and it is believed to have been the residence of Aaron of Lincoln (d. 1186) who was the greatest Jewish financier in England.

 

Next to Jew’s House is Jews’ Court. This building is thought by architects to have been built in the 17th century (there has been no archaeological survey to ascertain its actual age which could be as early as 14th century). Tradition says it’s built on the site of a medieval synagogue (Wikipedia states that the current building is actually the Norman-built synagogue but this is not thought to be the case).

 

Once at the top of the hill, if you look to your right you’ll see the Exchequergate and the imposing cathedral beyond. The castle is to the left but we didn’t venture that way.

 

Lincoln Cathedral & Exchequergate from Castle Hill. Source.

 

First impressions of Lincoln Cathedral when approaching it, I imagine from any angle, are that it is simply enormous. The sheer scale of it leaves you a little speechless. By floor space it sits 3rd in Britain only after St Paul’s Cathedral and York Minster. For over two hundred years it was reputedly the tallest building in the world (1311-1549), but then its spire blew down!

 

As you draw closer and can make out the detail of the stonework it defies imagination, or at least it did for me. The whole time I spent in and outside Lincoln Cathedral my jaw was firmly lodged on the floor. I’ve been to some beautiful churches, York Minster being a fine example, but Lincoln is something else entirely. If its size wasn’t enough, the intricacies of its stonework will leave you wide-eyed.

 

On 9th May 1092 the first cathedral, built by Bishop Remigius, who died two days earlier, was consecrated. Remigius, a Benedictine monk, was the first Norman Bishop of the largest diocese in medieval England, stretching from the Humber to the Thames. The remains of this Norman church are still visible today in the west façade. Many of the rounded arches of the doors and niches survive. In 1125 or 1141 (chronicles disagree) a fire destroyed the timber roof over the nave, which is thought to have been replaced with a stone vault. A frieze was carved and painted in a horizontal band over the main doors, showing Bible stories of God’s salvation for the faithful and fearful punishments for sinners – these still exist today and are undergoing some restoration, the restored friezes causing quite a stir with their depictions of fornication, sodomy and avarice. An earthquake in 1185 meant that major reconstruction of the cathedral was required.

 

Romanesque Frieze depicting Torments of the Damned in Hell & the Harrowing of Hell. My photo.

 

St Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln from 1186 to 1200 and canonised in 1220, began rebuilding the east end of the cathedral in the Early English Gothic style. The nave was completed in the middle of the 13th century and was joined with the remains of the Norman west end. The west end was then widened and heightened in the Gothic style. I could go on about the history but you should really see it for yourselves if at all possible.

 

Norman Arch, West Façade. My photo.

 

The thing to remember when visiting the cathedral is that it is really old; in many places, older than my brain can really compute. It may help if you consider that some of what you see when you stand in front of the west façade was there 921 years ago, and that when construction of some of what you can still see was started, William the Conqueror had only been dead for 2 years.

 

The Nave. My photo.

 

Stepping inside the cathedral you are faced with the nave. This is an incredible sight. It is vast and cavernous and stunning. When we visited there were no chairs (I don’t know if this is usually the case) and this made the space seem even larger. The thing that particularly struck me though was the colour of the stained glass. The over-riding colour is blue. It is a rich, deep, royal or cobalt blue that makes me think of blue velvet and sapphires. In actual fact, there are many colours and many shades of blue but the memory of this jewel-like blue is what will stay with me forever.
 

Stained Glass (these photos do not do the windows justice). My photos.

 

Around every corner you turn there is something new to discover. Everywhere you look there is intricate and ancient stonework. Each window I gazed at seemed to be bluer than the last. I ran out of superlatives to describe what I discovered but one that is oft misused and definitely overused is “amazing”. Lincoln Cathedral is truly amazing.

 

Amazing – Causing great surprise or wonder; astonishing

Oxford English Dictionary

 

The Lincoln Imp. My photo.

 

We found the famous Lincoln Imp atop a pillar looking down upon the Angel Choir (behind the high altar – most easterly part of the cathedral) and popped 20 pence in an unobtrusive box to make him light up. We sat in the choir and listened to a choir practice, the choristers’ angelic voices floating around the vaulted roof as if heaven-sent. We spent a long time sitting on some radiators in the Chapter House which was the warmest place to be on what was a very cold day. This simple space is round with a central column from which the ceiling vaults fan out overhead like a gigantic umbrella. It’s calm and peaceful and somewhere I could happily have sat for some considerable time, especially as my legs were rather achy! As with the rest of the cathedral, it has beautiful stained glass.

 

The Chapter House. Source.

 

As we slowly made our way back down the nave, I was still wandering about with my jaw on the floor. I tried to assemble my thoughts into something coherent to sum up what I thought of the cathedral. I don’t think there is a superlative that really adequately describes what I saw or how I felt. Although it was a Saturday, the cathedral was surprisingly empty; a cold February climb up Steep Hill accompanied by flurries of snow perhaps not the most tempting of prospects. The emptiness of the vast and impressive building made me feel as if I had uncovered some precious gem, a forgotten jewel in our architectural heritage. It felt like a secret place and I felt privileged to walk there.

 

Lincoln Cathedral is unspoilt and unassuming but is majestic and awe-inspiring. It is magical and exquisite and extraordinary. Its unanticipated splendour is enhanced by the quaint and unusual Steep Hill. Despite the view of the towers as you ascend, once you reach the top, all breathless and aching, the very last thing you expect to find built above such a precipitous slope is a building such as this.

 


 

I plan to return to Lincoln before too long to search out all the things we missed. I’ve never been one for guidebooks but here you really need one if you want to avoid doing what we did and overlooking the tombs of Katherine Swynford (3rd wife of John of Gaunt) and her daughter Joan Beaufort (grandmother of Richard III).  We also overlooked the tomb containing the viscera of Eleanor of Castile (wife of Edward I – Edward Longshanks and Hammer of the Scots). There are many other things we missed including a cadaver tomb of Bishop Fleming. Annoyingly I photographed the top but not the bottom (depicting the cadaver) – gruesome but fascinating!

 

You can view more of my photos here on Flickr. My friend also took lots of lovely photos.

 

The Lincoln Cathedral website has lots more information about its history, architecture and restoration.

 

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