Lincoln, England: The unlikely English city that the Romans and Vikings prized

As you drive across the flat Lincolnshire fenlands,  Lincoln Cathedral dominates the skyline, its trio of towers marking the summit of the highest hill for miles. Imagine, then, how the cathedral must have seemed to medieval pilgrims during the two centuries it was the tallest building in the world.

Lincoln Cathedral was the first edifice to supplant Giza's Great Pyramid as the world's tallest construction. It remains the only British building to earn that title (now held by Dubai's Burj Khalifa), its fame based on its three spires, none of which survive today.

Legend says the spires were destroyed by "an earthquake". England not being known for earthquakes, architects put the spires' demise down to shoddy medieval workmanship.

Today, let's face it, Lincoln is regarded by most travellers as a cultural also-ran. Midway between London and the Scottish border, it even requires a diversion off the M1 or the AI to reach. Yet if you're interested in British history – Romans, Vikings, Normans, Bomber Command airfields that kept Churchill's Britain in World War II, even the Cromwellian landscape that bred Maggie Thatcher – Lincolnshire has it all.

I arrive on a Sunday in midwinter. It's only 3pm, but every car is in headlight mode, and the cathedral and neighbouring castle are floodlit as I head upwards to "the Cathedral quarter" to catch evensong.

Though Lincoln predates the Roman invasion 2000 years ago, it was the Romans who first recognised its strategic importance on the banks of the River Witham which flows into The Wash. Then came the Vikings, turning Lincoln into the largest and most important inland port in England.

William the Conqueror re-established Lincoln as a key city of his new domain. Lincoln Castle was begun in 1068 while the cathedral was started, on the Conqueror's orders, in 1072.

The two Norman creations stare at each other across a central "square", like an ancient married couple cast in stone. They're surrounded by a warren of medieval streets (Steep Hill, The Strait) that now house cheese shops, gem emporiums, tearooms, bookshops, antique fabric outlets and, fortunately, a surviving pub or two.

Victorian-era art critic John Ruskin described Lincoln Cathedral as "the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles, worth any two other cathedrals we have." Even now, it's the third largest cathedral in Britain after St Paul's and York Minster and its royal pedigree is immense.

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In 1254 at the age of 15 King Edward I, remembered as the Hammer of the Scots, wed as a matter of political convenience the 13-year-old Spanish princess, Eleanor of Castile. Unusually, they fell in love. When Eleanor died in 1290, near Lincoln, Edward ordered the construction of 12 "Eleanor crosses", one for each town where his queen's corpse rested for the night on its way to Westminster Abbey. Eleanor's organs were later returned to Lincoln Cathedral.

For centuries, Lincoln Cathedral held one of the four signed copies of the Magna Carta. That copy now resides in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, on permanent loan. However, the Magna Carta pub on Castle Square carries on as if the historic document is hidden beneath the real ale casks.

My hotel is situated in Lincoln's "cultural quarter".  This part of Lincoln – Brayford wharf, "England's oldest inland waterfront" – has been converted from an industrial wasteland into the city's entertainment and educational hub. Here you'll find a Marco Pierre White-branded restaurant  and at the end of the wharf you'll find the King William IV pub. Its real ales and Yorkshire pudding come highly regarded.

But the highlight is the plaque outside admitting William IV was among the worst monarchs Britain has ever had. The "sailor king", a frequent visitor to Lincoln, inherited the throne in 1830 when he was 64, having fathered 10 illegitimate children by actress Dorothea Jordan.

When he died without an heir in 1837, the crown passed to his niece: Victoria. Whatever happened to her?

TRIP NOTES

Steve Meacham travelled at his own expense.

MORE

traveller.com.au/england

visitlincoln.com

STAY

A twin superior guestroom at Doubletree by Hilton, on Brayford Wharf, costs from £150. See doubletree3.hilton.com

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