A travel memory, a very happy one: I’ve just turned eleven years old and I’m on top of the world.
For a young boy from rural Northern Ireland I am already quite widely travelled; with my parents both teachers, my summer holidays generally consist of gallivanting around France and Spain with a rickety folding caravan. I am quite accustomed, therefore, to seeing the continental European cathedrals, all gothic arches, flying buttresses and sun-kissed stone stretching up to the sky.
But I have never EVER seen anything quite like Lincoln Cathedral before, and the feeling of being at the summit of its central (and tallest) tower at such an impressionable time of my life is something that will live with me forevermore.
There has been a cathedral on this prominent hill emerging from the plains of eastern England since the 11th century. Over its first 300 years or so it was progressively rebuilt (those pesky fires and earthquakes!) and expanded to its present mammoth size; in fact, Lincoln Cathedral ended up being so big that the old Roman city walls needed to be repositioned merely to contain it. Its location is not only spectacular, but also immensely practical – unlike many other cathedrals, the elegant limestone used to build Lincoln’s masterpiece is quarried nearby; perhaps another contributory factor to its gargantuan proportions?
If I had been a boy standing atop Lincoln Cathedral between the 14th to 16th centuries, I – quite literally – would have been at the top of the world (or the man-made world at least): a spire rose from the central tower to a soaring height of 160 metres, making Lincoln Cathedral the tallest building in the world for some 238 years. When this record-breaking monument collapsed in a storm in 1549 it took humankind another 335 years before they managed to build anything taller (the Washington Monument, which is arguably not really a “building” at all…). Even today, it remains the second tallest cathedral spire ever built (after Ulm Munster in Germany, which was completed some 600 years later).
Ash, my eldest son, is now the same age as I was when I scaled the tower, and he had exactly the same gobsmacked wide-eyed reaction upon seeing the cathedral for the first time. So, with nostalgic excitement, I bounded up to the ticket office inside the nave and enquired about tower tours.
“How old is he?” the lady asked, nodding in Ash’s general direction.
“Sorry, but climbing the tower is for those aged fourteen and over only”
“Health and safety regulations I’m afraid.”
HEALTH AND SAFETY??? It’s a staircase. This boy has been abseiling. This boy has climbed every tree he has ever seen. This boy has swam across rivers and borders. This boy has conquered mountains, kayaked down rivers and laughed his way through the fastest, highest roller-coaster in Europe (my knuckles are still white…). Dear Lincoln Cathedral – are you serious??
Unfortunately, they were. Upon subsequent clarification I learnt that it wasn’t strictly a legal health and safety issue, but a draconian stipulation of the cathedral’s insurance policies. Nevertheless, it seems absurd to presume that an eleven-year old is unable to climb some steps safely under adult supervision, and I have never encountered anything remotely similar in all my years of exploring continental European cathedrals and towers.
But, this being England, an alternative form of kids’ educational experience was soon offered up, a health-and-safety-compliant one: ah, yes! The good old British treasure hunt.
I’m going to admit it: the “Cathedral Explorers” pack was a big hit with my girls (aged 5 and 8), teaching them – and me! – many interesting anecdotes about the cathedral and helping us to locate its best-known (but hardest to find) gargoyle*: the Lincoln Imp.
But for the pre-teen Ash, the prospect of counting stained glass windows under the faint promise of a sticker or two was never going to compensate for the disappointment of the tower.
So I conducted an experiment – I handed him my camera and set him the challenge of taking photographs which captured what he liked most about the cathedral.
The results were surprising, and for those of you who think that an eleven-year old is not capable of seeing the beauty of these ancient monuments, take a look at this (photos not cropped, nor filters added).
Psychologists take note: symmetry would appear to be an important factor in the life of an eleven-year old. So taken was he with his new hobby that he stepped outside the cathedral and continued snapping: (Disclosure: I added a filter to the “telephone box in the archway” photo below).
Our experience at Lincoln Cathedral wasn’t exactly what we wished it would be, but it remains – quite simply – one of the most extraordinary, awe-inspiring and impressive religious buildings that we have ever had the privilege of visiting (and we have visited a lot). A veritable symphony in stone. It looks like we’ll have to go back in three years’ time or whenever the insurance company shows a little common sense, whichever comes first…
Practical information on visiting Lincoln Cathedral
- Lincoln is in eastern England, about three hours north of London and a bit east of Sheffield and Nottingham. Once there, you cannot possibly miss the cathedral…
- Entrance to the cathedral costs £8.00 for adults and £4.80 for children (under 5s free), with a family ticket (two adults, up to three kids) priced at £20.80 (As at April 2017).
- TIP: Entrance is free of charge after 16h30 and before 9h00, as well as all day Sunday. Restrictions may apply, e.g. if a service is underway.
- The “Cathedral Explorers” treasure hunt for kids was included in the entrance fee, and very much enjoyed.
- There are a plethora of guided tours available – best consult the website for full details. Just make sure everyone in your party is at least fourteen years old before you book a roof or tower tour…
Daisy the bus visited Lincoln in April 2017
(c) 2017 Jonathan Orr
We were in Lincoln primarily to visit my Great-Aunt, an inspirational figure in my life.
As a boy growing up in Northern Ireland, I cherished the rare visits to my wonderfully different Great-Aunt in England. Most of my family were deeply religious; my Great-Aunt was refreshingly agnostic. With the exception of my parents, most of my family had rarely ventured further afield than Belfast; my Great-Aunt had seen the world. Before settling in England, she had lived in Singapore and Germany and travelled to countless other places whose foreign names filled my impressionable young mind with intrigue and mystique. And she always seemed to have time for me, patiently answering all my silly questions and always keeping abreast of what I was doing, even as I grew from that inquisitive Northern Irish boy into the man I am today. My parents have no recollection of climbing the tower of Lincoln Cathedral with me, so it was probably my Great-Aunt who took the time to show a young boy the best view in Central England.
Shortly after our visit, my dearly beloved Great-Aunt died suddenly and unexpectedly in her home at the age of 87. She will be hugely missed, but her adventurous spirit and curiosity of foreign cultures will continue to live on in my own travel experiences, and those of my children.