HELEN WERIN ventures north to explore the historic city of Lincoln and its awe-inspiring architecture and quaint streets.

I was standing in a pretty, medieval cobbled square with one of the finest Gothic buildings in Europe, Lincoln Cathedral, beyond the archway.

Behind me loomed the imposing Norman castle, guarding one of only four remaining originals of the Magna Carta. To one side was the most photogenic of Tourist Information Centres in a timber-framed building from 1540. On the other, the cobbles ran down Steep Hill past centuries-old buildings housing tiny tea rooms and quirky shops.

There was also a pie shop and restaurant, favoured, so we’re told, by Sir Ian McKellen, who signed the visitors’ book as ‘Gandalf, Lord of the Rings’.

A couple of metres beneath my feet were the remains of Roman Lincoln, in those times a prosperous inland port.

Just up Steep Hill is the historic gateway to the city from the north, the Newport Arch. This is the only Roman arch in the UK through which traffic can still drive.

Unfortunately its history has been somewhat tarnished. It stood intact for centuries, surviving the Danish invaders, the Normans and the Civil War, until the 1960s. That’s when a lorry carrying fish fingers got stuck in it and it had to be rebuilt!

It’s the same at the cathedral, though, it’s the effects of fire and an earthquake that prompted rebuilding here. For two centuries, this cathedral, the country’s third largest, was also reputed to be the world’s tallest building. That was until 1548 when its record was toppled by a storm.

I entered under rather graphic 12th century carvings depicting lust and avarice and other temptations in life. Two spectacularly radiant rose windows faced each other across the transept.

Most of the medieval windows were shot out during the Civil War. But these two, from 1220 and 1320, are incredible, their story even more so.

They were rehashed using a substantial amount of their original glass after someone had had the foresight to pick up the shattered pieces and save them.

As if my ground-level vision is not beautiful enough, I climb up inside the West Front to the balcony to experience the proverbial sharp intake of breath as I looked out over the nave. This is Bank’s View, where the 18th century naturalist and explorer, Sir Joseph Banks, used to love to sit and sketch.

It’s no surprise that filmmakers love this location. The cathedral’s doubled on two occasions for Westminster Abbey; in The Da Vinci Code, starring Tom Hanks, and for the coronation scenes in The Young Victoria.

All this ethereal splendour should be a hard act to follow, but you’ve only got to cross the square again to be in thrall to Lincoln Castle. There’s plenty of haunting reminders of a disturbing past here; from when William the Conqueror decided to build a wooden castle on a derelict Roman fort, burning down more than 160 houses to make room for it, to the isolating prison system of the 19th century within its walls. This was a system which drove people to madness.

In fact, I got so caught up in tales of public hangings and miscarriages of justice and the unnerving sight of row upon row of coffin-like pews in the only chapel of its kind in the world that I almost forget about the Magna Carta.

It’s only when I hear the jangling of keys echoing in the stone corridors that I realise it’s nearly closing time. The custodian is so proud of Lincoln’s charter of English freedoms – the only Magna Carta which goes on tour all over the world, he tells me – that he won’t let me leave until we’ve had a good look.

The castle’s volunteer guides are both enlightening and amusing. My guide, Bill, leads me to the top of Cobb Hall, where hangings were held.

As many as 20,000 people would come to watch. From the top of another tower you can look down on what was the women prisoners’ exercise yard. Bill likened the women’s appearance to that of Daleks as they wore head to foot veils to conceal their identities from each other. This was all part of the ‘separate system’. It worked on the belief that enforced loneliness would break the spirit of even the worst offender and bring them to repentance.

The starkest illustration of this is undoubtedly in the chapel.

Inmates would file in to the tiers of pews, removing their masks only when they were locked in by isolation panels.

A little light relief only comes when I hear about the prison laundry which had to employ women aged over 30. It was feared younger ones would be corrupted by the sight of men’s underpants.

My immediate view from the top of the castle walls is over the Bailgate area where smart boutiques, independent shops and specialist stores are flanked by cobbled streets and York stone pathways.

Brian Taylor is one of the Green Badge Guides who offer a variety of walking tours around the city We climbed up past the usual High Street retail scene, though somewhat tempered by the 12th century High Bridge. This is the oldest bridge in the country which still has buildings on it. Arriving ‘uphill’ certainly feels like entering another city altogether.

I’d read that the so-called father of the English novel, Daniel Defoe, called Lincoln an ‘old, dying, decay’d (sic) dirty city... it is scarce tolerable to call a city’.

Of course, that was nearly 300 years ago when the wool trade on which Lincoln’s prosperity was built was going into decline.

But I can’t help ponder if he did actually make it up that Steep Hill to see the wonders at its top...

FACTFILE Lincoln is the birthplace of the tank. The Museum of Lincolnshire Life www.lincolnshire.gov.uk/museumoflincolnshirelife Highlights of The Collection include a Roman mosaic found during the building of this museum. Free entry. www.thecollection.lincoln.museum Climb the gatehouse tower of The Medieval Bishop’s Palace, for great views of the cathedral. www.english-heritage.org.uk Take The Original Lincoln Ghost Walk. www.lincolnhistorywalks.co.uk WHERE TO STAY: The Lincoln Hotel, Eastgate, Lincoln, LN2 1PN. 01522 520 348 www.thelincolnhotel.com The very friendly hotel is at the heart of uphill Lincoln, with great views of the cathedral.

WHERE TO EAT The Green Room at The Lincoln Hotel offers fine dining in a sophisticated setting. 01522 520 348 www.thelincolnhotel.com The Cheese Society Café has between 80-120 cheeses on offer at any one time. 1 St Martin's Lane, Lincoln, LN2 1HY 01522 511003 www.thecheesesociety.co.uk INFORMATION www.visitlincoln.com For Green Badge guided tours; www.lincolnguidedtours.co.uk