Tennyson Country part 1: Lincoln

In which I traverse the upper slopes of the South face of Lincoln High Street.

To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield

We had a lovely summer, Mrs. P and I. Rather than take a long holiday, we took a series of short breaks: we motored around the country, visiting friends in various far flung locations, staying for one or two nights in guest houses. We weren’t tied to an itinerary but meandered around, stopping where the fancy took us. It’s the only way to travel and allows the literary traveller to take their time and discover a few literary gems. Mrs. P could discover some interesting and unusual shops. One of the best places we have found for both activities was Lincoln. Lincoln is a fine city: the cathedral sits atop a hill that dominates the low lying East Anglian landscape for miles around. The top of the hill is an oasis for the literary traveller: teashops and pubs abound and there is a distinctly medieval flavour. Stone buildings hug the hillside in winding, narrow streets. There is a castle, a cathedral and some of the most ancient buildings in the country.

Lincolnshire is where Queen Victoria’s favourite poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson was born and the city is home to the largest collection of Tennyson texts in the country. The Tennyson Research Centre is located within the county archives and most of the documents under their care are available for you to research if you give them a couple of days’ notice. I had reserved some of them for closer inspection: a couple of early drafts of the Charge of the Light Brigade with annotations and corrections, along with some letters and photographs. I just wanted to hold some of his work in my hands and see a great writer’s handwriting close up. They did not disappoint! The early drafts of Light Brigade were fascinating as I was able to see how Tennyson had adjusted the rhythm and emphasis. I was witnessing the poet’s craft in action and it was a breathtaking experience. I wondered why, with all these marvellous, historically important texts, does the archives not open a permanent exhibition? “it’s all a question of money” the extremely helpful archivist informed me. “there are constant requests for funding to put some of the artefacts on display but there are so many demands on the council’s funds.” It would be wonderful if there could be displays. Not just at the Tennyson Research Centre but at county archives throughout the country, These places hold a bewildering collection of historically important documents, all filed away in rooms rarely to see the light of day. It’s a real shame because they deserve to be seen and studied and enjoyed; I’m sure they would be welcome additions to local heritage. They do have some artefacts on display in the foyer and I was able to view the poet’s famous hat and cloak while I waited my turn.

Local heritage is something at which Lincoln excels: there is a very good archeological museum, mapping the history of the region through displays and reconstructions. I wandered around it now. My attention was caught by a display about the significance of place names (they are mostly viking in Lincolnshire, apparently). Elsewhere in the exhibition were reconstructions of local scenes through the ages and fossils collected from the fens and wolds. I love local museums: they remind me of childhood days out and I always try to seek them out when I travel. There is a very good Art Gallery on the same site, featuring Lincolnshire artists past and present and there are many views of the city (about a hundred scenes featuring Lincoln cathedral appearing from various densities of mist). The collection goes right up to the present day, and there are some really clever modern installations by local artists working today. I loved it and, were it not teatime, would have stayed longer. I had promised to meet Mrs. P for tea and so I set off to find her now.

Looking North towards the col ridge

If anyone ever tells you that Eastern England is flat, get them to walk up Lincoln high street. It’s ridiculously steep (the name, ‘Steep Hill’ is a bit of a giveaway). I had to stop for a breather half way up (the council has installed a lot of public seating and railings for leaning against!). On reaching the upper slopes of the south face I met Mrs. P, who had set up camp before the final assault on the summit. She told me that she had seen a nice dress in a vintage clothes shop down the hill and could I go and see it? I could, and I agreed that it was very nice and bought it for her. I now faced the hill for the second time that afternoon but tea was beckoning so I pushed on, stopping half way up for a breather. Mrs. P then left me to going to review her purchases in front of the TV in the hotel room so I ventured out alone. I had an hour or two to kill, and here’s what I decided to do. I would go to a lovely little second hand bookshop I had seen earlier, located in the Jews House: an ancient building dating from 1150. I would see if they had a collected works of Tennyson, find a nice quiet pub and sit and read and drink for a while before dinner. Good plan? I thought so. They didn’t have a Tennyson. So… I would walk down the hill, find Waterstones and get one there. Back down the hill I went, thinking how I would shortly have to climb up the bloody thing again for the third time today! I was unsuccessful in my quest for Waterstones but I found a WH Smith’s but – guess what – they had no Tennyson. Neither did the Tourist Information office. I climbed back up the hill, stopping for a breather half way, found a pub and ordered a Bateman’s. I had picked up a few leaflets and flicked through those and made a few notes but… not quite what I had in mind.

I had come on this trip expressly to find out about Tennyson who is part of the history of a city which really appreciates its history. Lincoln should do more to celebrate him: bookshops could keep a couple of editions of his poems; I am sure that some tourists would buy a copy. I know he has fallen out of favour and is a little Victorian and sentimental for our modern, sophisticated tastes but he is still much loved, was used to illustrate Olympic ideals at the 2012 games and is on the GCSE curriculum. Surely the tourist information office could keep a couple of cheap editions of his work? or even a leaflet, “visit the Lincolnshire Wolds: birthplace of Queen Victoria’s poet laureate”? I know such a thing exists because I have one. I picked it up in the Lincolnshire Wolds, when I was already there and didn’t need it! He’s an historically and culturally important figure. Lincoln, you need to celebrate him more.

“…I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.”

I had planned to spend some time looking around the Cathedral but on discovering that they charge you eight quid to get in, I decided to give it a miss. I visited a few years ago so felt no pressing need to see the church. I suppose it’s not that expensive when you consider what you get for the price: a locally famous stone carving of a demon, known as the Lincoln Imp, some wonderful glass and beautiful architecture, the Magna Carta and a Bede manuscript. And to be fair to the Cathedral, they do open for free once a week for the benefit of people who can’t afford the usual entrance fee. I had no need of these entertainments, however. As I looked up at the magnificent double towers, I was happy to see the resident peregrines wheeling around. Regular readers will know that I am no bird expert but a pair of peregrines, flying and swooping around their adopted urban cliff face, is a magnificent sight, so I stopped for a minute to watch them. They were making their presence felt and squeaking and squawking and generally expressing how happy they were about being peregrines.

I reluctantly left them to their peregrinations and I returned to mine, making my way to the cathedral east green, where there is a large bronze statue of Tennyson by George Frederick Watts. It depicts the poet, with faithful dog, Karenina, at his side, closely examining a tiny flower in his hand. Although unveiled in 1905 (the year after Watts’s death), it is a fittingly Victorian scene: the intellectual gentleman mulling over the intricacies of nature. I rather liked it and was particularly impressed, not only by the imposing size, but also by the loving gaze of his faithful companion. I was now suitably intellectually refreshed and went to collect Mrs. P. for dinner. There is a great restaurant in Lincoln we first visited about 30 years ago (yes, I was little more than a child then!)

Brown’s Pie Shop, in the former home of TE Lawrence

Mrs. Brown’s Pie Shop, as you could probably guess from the name, specialises in pies. They have every kind of pie you can imagine and quite a few that you can’t and they are served with all the trimmings and good ale and a smile: I had lamb and rosemary; Mrs. P went for the traditional Steak and Kidney. It is friendly and welcoming and inexpensive and, I imagine, it is immensely popular among the city’s student population. The reason I had chosen to visit this particular venue is that it was once the home of TE Lawrence: friend of George Bernard Shaw, author of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and popularly remembered as Lawrence of Arabia. He was stationed nearby while serving with the RAF. There is a plaque to him outside the restaurant and, inside, pies, ale and the promise of a sticky pud with custard, probably. Unfortunately, we never got that far. We were so stuffed by the pie course that we left for a walk, promising ourselves we would return, but never did. We walked around the castle and some of the streets that trace the top of the hill. There are some pleasant pubs throughout Lincoln and the town was buzzing with happy drinkers. On street corners and by old buildings there are plaques offering you further information and the whole place just seethes with history. We love Lincoln, Mrs. P and I. Whether the bookshops stock Tennyson or not, it really is a lovely city.

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