‘I have always held and am prepared against all evidence to maintain that the Cathedral of Lincoln is out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles and roughly speaking worth any two other cathedrals we have’.
John Ruskin 1819-1900
Lincoln cathedral is a part of me. Its image and presence are always there within.
I am the boy cycling around the countryside, always on the lookout for that sudden view across the flat Lincolnshire plain of the unmistakeable cathedral standing proud on the hill – from the south on my regular bike rides through Hykeham and Auburn – from the west near Saxilby by the Roman-built Fosse Dyke, along which pleasure boats ventured from Brayford Pool towards the River Trent – and from the east near Southrey, where we loved crossing the River Witham on the chain ferry.
I am the teenager on the bus going to secondary school in the centre of Lincoln, two miles from home – we always sat at the front upstairs and watched the cathedral getting closer and closer, often forced to wait as steam trains traversed the two level crossings on the High Street.
I am the student at that City School, the old technical college. Every Wednesday at lunchtime we would independently climb up the steep Greestone Steps, along by the girls’ High School. A friend and I often kicked a tennis ball along the way, defying it to get past us and roll down Lindum Hill into the lower city. There were a few scares, but it never did.
At the top the steps open out into the cathedral precinct and we walked in the shadow of its mighty walls, often pausing to inspect the statue of Lincolnshire poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson on the green, before walking on another mile to the school sports ground – to endure or enjoy as the case might be.
The annual school service was held in the nave of the cathedral, so we spent slightly bored minutes there as the service slowly progressed, but at the same time absorbed the experience of those magnificent gothic arches.
I am the football fan, regularly watching Lincoln City play at their Sincil Bank ground. City then frequented the lower reaches of the old Second Division. We shouted ‘come on the imps’ or ‘up the imps’, long before I knew they got that nickname from the stone imp in the cathedral.
I am the adult who made pilgrimages to that cathedral when I could fit them in – the view of the west front from the castle, the walk around the outside, the internal tour of nave, choir, the imp itself high up on a pillar, cloisters, library and the chapter house where parliament once sat. And sometimes a look at the cathedral’s copy of Magna Carta [now on display in Lincoln Castle], and possibly a climb up the 338 steps of the cathedral tower. This was always something special, picking out all those familiar places from this unfamiliar angle. On windy days the tower sways. On clear days you can see Boston Stump, nearly 30 miles away. You used to just turn up and climb on your own, but you now have to go with a tour.
Sometimes the tower was closed. I remember fairly regular reports in the Lincolnshire Echo that someone had jumped to his or her death from the great tower, but I believe this is now much more difficult.
In more recent years, an evening walk has seen the cathedral floodlit into an achingly clear etching in the night sky.
No trip to Lincoln was complete without also visiting the Usher Art Gallery [now simply the Usher Gallery]. What always attracted me the most was a number of excellent paintings of the cathedral by the English landscape painter Peter de Wint, whose wife was from Lincoln.
According to Wikipedia, for 238 years, from 1311-1549, Lincoln Cathedral was the highest building in the world at 524 feet. That is a far longer period of dominance than any other building since 1300. It only lost its preeminence in 1549 because the spire on the central tower collapsed and was never rebuilt – Lincoln was never again as rich as in that early medieval period. It seems that, had this spire remained, Lincoln Cathedral would have retained top spot until Ulm Minster was completed in 1890, at 530ft – that’s 579 years! [Add to that the fact Lincoln Cathedral sits on top of a steep hill!]
The spires on the western towers were removed in 1807; even without spires the building remains beautiful and dominates the city.
Lincoln Cathedral also has the third largest by floor space in England, after St Paul’s in London and York Minster.
It was probably the childhood inspiration that came from frequent contact with this great building that led to my lifelong interest in cathedrals and great religious buildings. Having visited many of the great European gothic cathedrals, I can report that, for me, none surpasses Lincoln for its overall effect – probably because of its magnificent hilltop location. I recall only Laon in France as being similarly dominant over its surroundings. Certainly Chartres is more mystical and has superior stained glass windows, as does the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, Amiens and Cologne are more massive, St Denis and Reims are perhaps more historic, and so on. They each have their own special features. But overall Lincoln is, for me as for John Ruskin, simply the best.
Some images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons:
view from castle by Jungpionier
the imp by Dave Hitchborne
spire model by Aidan McRae Thomson