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Above the Vaults in Lincolnshire

A Rooftop Tour of Lincoln Cathedral

Lincoln Cathedral exterior by Barbara Ballard It’s an impressive sight. Lincoln’s massive cathedral, located atop famous “Steep Hill” 40 miles north of London, is visible thirty miles away. I hadn’t anticipated the hard slug up the hill (the same route of medieval pilgrims), but England’s finest Gothic cathedral was more than worth it.

Approached by its elaborately carved and decorated west front and towers, it’s a splendid testimony to the 900 years of worship at this site. The warm golden limestone glowed in the morning’s light as I walked into the spacious light-filled nave.

I spotted a small sign by the door, “Rooftop Tours”. What was this all about? Did it mean a tour on top of the roof? I discovered that the Cathedral has an attic, and an hour-long tour takes in spots locked away and not normally accessible to the tourist. I immediately added the tour to my itinerary. Held only twice a week, I couldn’t wait to come back the next day.

Lincoln Cathedral’s Hard Times

Lincoln Cathedral view of Cathedral from the roof by Barbara Ballard Our rooftop tour begins on the Cathedral’s ground floor in the Bell Ringer’s Chapel in the west front. Tour guide Arthur Nelson relates the long history of disasters that have befallen the Cathedral since its consecration in May 1092. First it was damaged by fire during the reign of King Stephen in 1141. At this time it was partially rebuilt, but then an earthquake in 1185 left the Cathedral in ruins with only the base of the west tower and center part of the west front remaining.

Re-building the cathedral initially called for complete demolition, but this was thwarted when the money put aside for a new cathedral was stolen. In the end the old section—now the west front and towers—was simply joined to a new one.

However, more disasters followed. The central tower collapsed in 1237. A new tower was built, and a spire was added to the top, but in 1548 the spire blew down. Then in the 1700’s the central and western towers and spires began to lean, making it necessary to eventually remove the spires. But enough of this litany of woes. We are ready to begin our climb to the top.

The Towers

Lincoln Cathedral Rooftop Timbers and walkway by Barbara BallardBallard Leaving the Bell Ringer’s chapel, we toil our way up the first section of 100 rough stone circular stairs in the west tower. As we head into a large, high rectangular room (actually one of those leaning towers), Nelson relates the misguided and unsuccessful attempts to strengthen the leaning towers.

In Victorian times, iron battens and bars were installed to hold the towers in place. Alas, the Victorians lacked the knowledge that limestone and iron are not compatible. Over the years the limestone nibbled away at the iron, and 30.5 cm (12 inch) wide cracks gaped in the towers putting them in grave danger of tumbling down.

Nelson assures us they are quite safe now. He points to the repairs made in 1922 when Sir Frances Fox, a structural engineer, recommended reinforcing the towers with concrete beams and ejecting liquid concrete into holes bored in the walls under hydraulic pressure. Lest you think this was all in a day’s work, 32,700 holes were bored in the southwest, northwest and central towers. It took ten years to complete the job. It was a job well worth doing. When the1936 earthquake hit Lincoln, the towers held.

The Rose Balcony

Lincoln Cathedral Interior from Rose Balcony by Barbara Ballard Leaving the tower room, we trudge up even more steps, winding our way towards the top of the Cathedral. Midway in the stairs that stretch upward Nelson leads us through a wooden door, and we find ourselves on a tiny balcony under the Cathedral’s Rose window, created in 1858. From here our splendid view of the magnificent Early English nave extends to the far east window where the stained glass glows in colors of the rainbow. I imagine the pilgrims in their procession up the nave, stopping to pray at the altars along the way.

The Bell Chamber

We return through the balcony door, and, clinging to a rope banister, we climb upward again to the Bell Ringers’ chamber. We are now 26 meters (85 feet) above the cathedral floor—the same height as the stone vaulting of the nave roof we have just seen. Nelson warns us not to touch the bells’ ropes. He explains that these 13 bells turn in a complete circle. The star of the show is the 5-ton bell, known affectionately as “Great Tom”. It, too, was installed as a 360-degree bell. When twelve men strained to ring it for the first time—imagine trying to turn 5 tons in a circle up and over—the bell tower shook so violently that the first time was the last. It is now kept in a stationary position and rung by a clapper.

Lincoln Cathedral View from Rooftop Balcony by Barbara Ballard Nelson pulls aside a curtain in the bell tower, revealing a door leading through the “attic” to another door. “Do any of you have vertigo?” he asks as we walk on planks the few steps to the second door and step outside onto a long narrow balcony on the west front of the Cathedral. Twenty-six meters (85 feet) above the ground, the views are stunning, but the balcony is not for the faint of heart.

Clinging in the wind to its stone sides, I feel a bit of that vertigo. Looking westward over the city and countryside, we see the ruins of Lincoln Castle. Built in 1068, it now houses one of the four surviving original copies of the Magna Carta sealed by King John in 1215. Inching further along the balcony, I can see the ruins of the medieval Bishop’s Palace and the roof of the Cathedral’s great transept to the south.

The “Attic”

Lincoln Cathedral Walk way in Roof by Barbara Ballard Our next destination is a door in the northeast transept that leads us up another 100-step climb, and soon we are again 26 meters (85 feet) above the Cathedral floor. Nelson must be in good shape; he conquers these steps several times a week and loves it. At the top of the steps we venture out onto a catwalk perched above the massive stone vaults of the Cathedral and beneath the lead roof. This is Lincoln Cathedral’s “attic”. Roof timbers, hewn in 912 AD from trees growing before William the Conqueror was born, seem to stretch forever into the distance.

At the time the wood for these timbers was cut, Sherwood Forest was a mere 4 miles away. But, eaten away by man over the years, it is now a 26 miles journey. Approximately 2400 trees were felled to make the oak timbers to hold up the roof of the Cathedral. Wooden nails and metal straps were used to hold the green timbers in place.

Nelson points to rotting timbers caused by water seeping in through the gutters. Suddenly I feel a bit uneasy. The ridgepole is only 12.8 meters (42 feet) above my head, and it’s holding up 475 tons of lead on the 3½ acres of roof. I’m glad to hear Nelson say the roof is regularly inspected, and rotten parts are replaced with new timber.

Lincoln Cathedral Rooftop East Window by Barbara Ballard We carefully make our way along the catwalk to the Cathedral’s east side and look down at masses of 7.6 cm (3 inch) thick concrete poured over the 38 cm (15 inch) thick stone vaults to secure them in place. That’s a lot of weight.

At the attic’s east window we are 95.5 meters (310 feet) above sea level. Straight as a crow flies, heading out over the North and Baltic seas from this window, we’d have clear sailing until reaching the Ural Mountains in Russia.

Lincoln Cathedral Rooftop Fire point by Barbara Ballard Moving still further into the attic, Nelson warns us to stay back. Suddenly, he opens a small door looking on to the sky and empty space. It’s a long way down. This is a firepoint—access for firemen to the roof in case of disaster. It’s reached only by a hydraulic platform that bobs about. I’m glad I don’t have to practice fire drills.

Our fascinating tour ends as we retrace our steps, leaving the timbers and “attic” behind, but Nelson’s comment stays with me, “If I had an attic like this one in my house, I’d put in a snooker table.” I can’t help but think an attic this size would hold enough snooker tables for the whole of Lincoln.

Visitor Information

To reach Lincoln:
Trains run regularly from London to Lincoln. By car from London take the A1(M) north to Peterborough, then the A15 to Lincoln.

Cathedral open all year: summer from 7.15am-8pm; winter from 7.15am-6pm; early closings on Sun

Entrance donation requested. Times for daily tours of Lincoln Cathedral change. Check at the Cathedral or Tourist Information Centre opposite the Cathedral.

Rooftop tours run daily except Sun; March to Oct, 11am and 2pm; Nov-Feb, Mon-Fri, 1:30pm only; Nov-Feb, Sat, 11am and 1:30pm;
limited to 14 persons, no children under 14 allowed, reservations recommended, fee charged.

Tel. 01522 544544

Coffee shop and restaurant are located in the Cathedral.


Lincoln Tourist Information

9 Castle Hill, Lincoln
Tel. 01522 873213

Photos © by Barbara Ballard

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