A Day Out With Elspeth in Lincoln and Newark

Lincoln1I’d not been to Lincoln for a dozen years and wondered how the exciting things that the marketing teams told me about had developed.

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?

Lincoln4 Lincoln3

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.

Lincoln5So 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.

Lincs Newark market and churchLincs Newark Olde White Hart

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.

See what else I’ve been up to:


A Day Out With Elspeth in Stamford

The Easterner’s Cotswold fix

I think this was my first stone town – that of warm, golden beige, unmarred by the grey of age or industry, and I was enchanted; I still am. I like that even the modern housing enclave by the station is made of that light Jurassic park limestone that runs like a seatbelt from Yorkshire to the West country. The station is also made of it, but its cuteness was reversed by the following: it is unstaffed after midday; and trains run once an hour in each direction, in a clump, so much of the hour, there’s no action and no-one around. Not fun at night and it’s not that easy to find your way out of – one of the first signs you see is “No entry – your council at your service.”


Having escaped the housing enclave, you are greeted with meadows and the many towers of a gorgeous little town that looks like mini Oxford. And if that city had not suppressed Stamford’s medieval college, perhaps it might have become one. And as you walk, you keep finding little streets all in that limestone, with the odd timbered or whitewashed house. You have to walk quite a way till that ceases. Stamford’s not a big town – c20,000 – but it was, which means it hasn’t expanded much but it does have quite a big historic core, where many residents live. Going beyond that core reveals that though you may be on the Cambridgeshire border (Burghley House is in Cambs) you are definitely in the Midlands; the accent also underscores what the style of Victorian houses tell you.

I was charmed, wandering as I felt led, sometimes in residential streets, sometimes with shops. I love that Stamford has no shopping mall or anything high rise, although I did discover some uglier bits (eg Waitrose, whom I’d suspected for the town, but in a horrible, non stone building on West Street). I love that posh independents and higher end chains sit by the kind of shops in Thetford – Poundland’s two doors down from a French named nice things shop. There’s lots of smart ladies’ shoes (and a man shoe shop), and a bookshop in a former timber framed post office which is above Thornton’s chocolates and newsagents – go up stairs to the padded carpet and enjoy a sofa. I saw nowhere save another dark long WHSmith’s that sold any other kind of media.

Stamford5StamfordMy elephant grey moan (see my other blog “Keep Elephant grey for elephant’s bottoms“) is particularly pertinent here, as it doesn’t go with the stone. The old colours brought its beigy gold out; this one makes it drab. I can’t wait for that fad to end.

Save the House I’ll get to in a minute, there’s not any individual outstanding buildings, nothing you come to see in Stamford. It’s the whole, not parts. The museum has closed and heritage is now a room in the library, sans the models of extremes Tiny Tom Thumb and big Daniel Lambert. The leaflets – full of people pointing (another potential post and point of irritation) – make out that there’s more here than the single room with a tapestry, pictures of the town you can see anyway, and a touch screen.

There’s medieval Browne’s Hospital, but I’ve never been able to as its opening hours are few and seasonal. I thought this visit had coincided with them, but you now have to be part of a large group.

The churches make a great skyline; guides speak of five medieval ones, but there are seven with a churchyard of another. Most guides omit that the church tower (St Michael’s) which frames views down the High and Ironmonger streets was chopped into shops in the 1980s, and the top half – which could have been a hall – seems dead. There’s seats in the graveyard and one of those horrible private land parking company signs I will moan about on my other blog. Again, the churches make a joined whole, but inside especially, I found them not places to linger or recall separately .

The Arts Centre is now featured on my sister blog. This Georgian theatre is also the tourist information centre, who were very warm and helpful, and assisted me to locate the stump of Norman St Leonard’s priory, sitting alone in a field, and inaccessible.

To reach High Street St Martin you have to dice with death; it has several busy roads and no crossings. This attractive street, with the not so attractive George inn sign when you know what it is across it, is close to the station and the route to Burghley House. Beware: maps suggest that the park entrance is nigh. It is, but the Barnack Road way isn’t nice as it’s a busy road, a high tree lined wall and industrial sheds; Water Street is better and takes you to the pedestrian entrance. Cars have to carry on further, but they go in nearer the house which is a good half hour’s walk or more from the pedestrian gate. You can see it quite early on in the free to enter park that’s open to dusk each day, but then it disappears behind a mound, and you’ve got a way to walk until you reach it.

Burghley is not what I’d imagined when I first saw the outside. Most of the Elizabethan prodigy has gone internally. Save the kitchen with the horrible turtle skulls and sheep diagram, it’s late 17th C plaster and terrifying frescoes.


me and an obliging deer from a previous visit

I also found out that the Burghleys (descended from Richard Attenborough’s part in the 1998 film Elizabeth) are the reason that Stamford looks how the Georgians left it: fearing the 1832 Reform Bill’s effect on landowners, they repressed the town’s expansion and industrialism. Nice for us today, but I’m angry at upper class monopoly.

I had another delightful time in Stamford, finding lovely scenes and shops, meadows and parkland (no deer, what is it with creatures and me at the moment, I didn’t find an adder in Thetford either). I think it’s truly beautiful and I’d love to come back – I did and shall again. On my first visit, I found food finding missions far harder than anticipated, and that restaurant chains are quite dominant for a small town proud of its independents. On my second, I reversed that opinion, and noted the classy characterful pubs especially.

It is rather ill-lit at night and only two of the churches are illuminated and felt very quiet.

I’ve often thought that Stamford and Peterborough should lend to one another: Peterborough’s got the cathedral, Stamford’s got the town that ought to go round it. Peterborough is Stamford’s antithesis, as I will share in another post.