Well, access by rail hasn’t improved – you can only really get to Newark or Nottingham and I wasn’t coming from either, but I did visit the former since I was going to get stuck there anyway. Fares to Lincoln are pricey and there’s no prebooking, even from a nearby and kindred region. I travelled longer than I was in Lincoln, even though I’d not come from far.
Everything else planned for Lincoln has come to fruition. Across the street from the station, you’re now met by a considerable, very new campus of Lincoln university – AS Byatt’s 1990 novel about academia was set here because it didn’t have a university then. I wonder if it’s the only uni in the world whose library is housed in an industrial building. Next door, the Engine Shed is so clad in modernity that it’s unrecognisable. It is a gigs venue. Behind is LPAC – the performing arts centre. Both felt dead when I sought out a coffee, but they were things I felt lacking in the city which it now has. There’s not exactly an arts cinema as promised, though you can see artier films at Bishop Grosseteste campus – anyone else grossed out by that name? You do pronounce it how it sounds. It’s out of town, and no leaflet or map explained where or how far. Otherwise, you’ve a multiplex.
Lincoln sometimes looks and feels like York, and around the station with the timbered building over the old High Bridge, the guildhall come gatehouse ahead, and the small beige stone pre-Norman churches, you might feel you were somewhere akin. But Lincoln has less of that feel as you walk up into town. If you wondered what happens if you turn your back on the cathedral and wander away from the river: you see another 11th C diminutive church, a sneaky timbered building down an alley, a rare Norman guildhall, and eventually, you come to a common that gives a view of the city. Otherwise, it’s retail park. Interest is generally found by going up – and I do mean, up. North and well above the water level, sharply.
Beyond the Stonebow gate, it feels small town and a bit grimy and chainy shopping wise – there’s hardly anywhere to eat round here. (All the chain restaurants are by Brayford Pool, in not very sympathetic surrounds, ruining the water feature). It’s only as you start to puff up the hill that you see the bits the photos are of, and interesting shops and cafes appear next to and within ancient buildings. You may well need that rail as you go up Steep Hill.
Finding out what else has changed since 2003 showed me that deviating off this street reveals that Lincoln is a bit of a one street city. It feels like a mid sized midlands county town – which it is – but neither grand nor quaint; it’s what keeps it out of York’s league, because York does variety over a larger area, though it does do a little scruffy too. Lincoln’s major public works haven’t improved any of those side streets, and that includes the one linking the Drill Hall with the new museum, the appealing sounding Flaxengate.
Drill Hall was what is sounds – a military training centre, made of red brick and suitably battlemented. It is now a live arts centre. But you enter not though the castellated main gates on Broadgate, whose closedness suggests that the building is still dead, but through a door meant for performers and deliveries on Free School Lane, and it’s not well signed. Its cafe is lively inside, but shuts at 4 – something I was to come up against regularly today and on other sojourns.
The Usher Gallery’s extension will date, I predict. It may be of golden hue now, because it’s new, but its blockiness will be quickly regretted and that paving area will look as good as a “public realm works” as its 1960s counterparts. There didn’t seem to be much inside the new museum for Lincolnshire, called The Collection. Collection of what, I wondered, stepping over mosaic insets into the floor. There’s some displays cases of maps and bits from digs, but no story of the county. It felt like a boutique trying to hide its lack of wares by setting things out nicely and spaciously. The Usher gallery was more old fashioned art; a big room was between exhibitions. I didn’t linger long.
Returning to the main street, now called The Strait and Steep Hill, you see what puts Lincoln on the tourist trail. Here are those photos in brochures – the two Norman stone houses (two thirds of Britain’s collection), the red brick against black and white timbering, the protruding old shop fronts – now more colourful – and their independent wares. You have to stop to shop just to ease your ascent. Useful for business?
And then you come out onto the prize view – Castle Hill, the old market (still functioning as such on some days), with the castle gate at one end, the cathedral’s at the other. The building which houses the TIC draws the eye – an overhanging timbered building on a stone base – but most centuries are represented in this square. There’s another cute church, a classical building… and the striking triple towered facade of England’s most admired cathedral.
The Castle has also had a makeover, which was just complete the weekend I went. Yet it was hard to see where the millions – and my £12 – were or would be spent. There already was a Victorian chapel, and most of the castle is about the walled walk and its view of its neighbour, rather than having much to go in and see. A big focus of the castle – and the reason for the works now – is the Magna Carta document, whose birthday it is. All I learned about the Magna Carta is that there is no The. The queues were offputtingly long and the entrance to the ticket office is shared with the shop, meaning I couldn’t even browse. I decided my life and day were too short to join the queue, and you have to enter the bailey anyway and thus you see much of what is on offer – mostly an enclosed lawn.
Going under the vast gate to the Cathedral, whose front never looks quite as satisfying as it might, I was faced with another queue and fee. It’s £8 (you can make it £16 if you buy a joint ticket with the castle), and again, you have to enter to buy and ticket, and get to view much of what’s on offer for free. Being more of a Norman and perpendicular person, Lincoln cathedral’s mainly 13-14th C offerings don’t really tempt me, and I passed on that too.
So instead, I wandered the Cathedral Close, which is the most interesting part. I picked up an excellent Toucan city guide for £5. Behind the cathedral is the Potter’s gate and a big stretch of green. There’s a tithe barn, wonky lamp post and buildings in blue and early brick.
Many people stop their journey at Castle Hill, but it’s worth taking the other road out of it and continuing north to Bailgate. It may not have such historic buildings, but it does have atmosphere and more interesting shops – as well as Lincoln’s best Georgian building: the Assembly House. Go as far as the Roman Newport Arch, and then retrace. There are other things to see, slightly further away. The Lawn asylum is no longer a museum, but the Museum of Lincolnshire Life and Ellis mill are still open to visit.
That in essence is Lincoln: deviations will bring forth carparks, offices, ring roads and soulless chains.
There’s a little along the river path worth meandering by, such as the two old pubs – the Green Dragon and the Witch and the Wardrobe (almost Narnian) – and Greyfriars which you now can’t get in; and the English Heritage owned ruins of one of the greats bishops’ palaces – you can also stay in part of it as a hotel. But then, you (or I) really have done with Lindum Colona.
Hence, back to the uninviting station and on a train towards
I was forced to change at Newark – and by change, I meant, stations, not just trains. There’s no shuttle bus or linking line – you have to walk. And your route is not on a map. Castle Station is near that landmark, and as you walk over the bridge towards it, you feel you’ve landed somewhere interesting. It’s also opposite the tiny, 4pm closing TIC. Newark Northgate station is not on maps, nor near the centre of town (I estimate it’s a mile, going by my 20 min walk there), and it’s not even on that street – it should be Newark Appletongate station. Despite being the mainline station, there’s nothing main about it or to do around it.
If you should need to walk between stations, from Castle Stn: Go over the bridge keeping the castle on your right. You could turn left, follow Northgate to the end and bear right, but it’s more fun to cut through the town, up Boar and Chain lanes, through the market and to Bridge Street. Appletongate has the theatre on it and you should emerge near to it. Turn left out of the narrow passageway, turn left and keep going for over a mile.
Newark Castle is free as it is all ruins, but substantial, commanding and picturesque, in a park, with a free leaflet if you can catch the TIC open, and I think, occasional tours to the bits deemed too unsafe for us to wander in alone.
From there, I didn’t know what to do, as signs weren’t helpful, so I headed towards the tall tower of St Mary Magdalene. Intrigued by this big late Gothic church and its designation to one of my favourite people, I eagerly followed the spire, to find it too was a 4pm closer – and I’d just missed it. So what is within, I still do not know. At 252 ft, it is not, as rumoured, the 5th highest spire in England, it’s the 9th, though it scrapes in as 5th if you miss out the cathedrals. (Yes I have the heights of all of them and checked.) It may be in the top 5 best parish churches of Britain. Which I didn’t get to go inside!
And that was to be the highlight; for Newark only seems to have a small gallery and museum in the Town Hall, also shut… and the despite being a bank holiday Saturday, it was preparing to sleep at least an hour before most shops would normally close.
The big market place suggests a town of importance, and the wide array of old street names – often ending in ‘gate’ – suggest a large town of antiquity. The town centre may still spread over some area, but its photographic depictions are misleading. Despite the leaflet on timbered buildings, including the coloured medieval Old White Hart (not even public! a building society just uses the bottom of it), Newark is mostly Georgian and red brick. Its Town Hall is golden and classical, but little else really stands out. Its arts offerings are an Odeon cinema and the old (1920) but mainstream Palace theatre, and its shops and cafes less varied than I had first thought too.
Hence my stay in Newark was not a long one, and that time should’ve been enough to catch the things I wanted – but they were CLOSED! I spent a disproportionate time getting to the diminutive station and generally hovering by tracks and going through hated ticket barriers.
But I’ve been back – see my post on Southwell and Newark.