Lincoln Overview

City Description

This part of Heritage Connect looks at the whole of Lincoln and describes some of the broader characteristics of the city. Find out about the city's overall character and its historical development according to the four themes below. Each theme is broken down into a series of sections which discuss specific topics in detail. 

  • Location in region
    Lincoln is situated in the East Midlands, approximately 40 miles northeast of Nottingham, the nearest major city. The Romans built a military camp here, and later one of only three colonia in England, due to its location. In the first instance it was on the route of one of the major Roman Roads, Ermine Street, which connected London and York. It was chosen for its key strategic position. The limestone escarpment provided a defensible position with long ranging views and it was at the crossing point of the River Witham, a route that was important for water borne trade down to the Wash. The importance of the Witham as a trading route is shown by the construction of the Fosse Way, the only surviving Roman canal in the country. The Medieval date of High Bridge shows that this remained a strategic crossing point over the river.
     Map of Lincoln and the counties of the East Midlands
    Fig.1 The location of Lincoln in the East Midlands
    Despite its importance during the Roman period, Lincoln has not attracted comparably large road infrastructure in the Modern period to other major cities around the UK and as a result is disconnected from the remainder of country to some extent. For example, the M11 stopped at Cambridge rather than continuing up to Lincoln and the A1 only comes as close as Grantham and Newark. It has largely retained its role as a market centre in an expansive rural county and its surrounding road infrastructure predominantly dates to the Roman and Medieval periods. Although there are road and rail links to major cities such as Nottingham and Sheffield these are not major roads and the rail service is mainly a local service. For travel to London it is still quickest to take the train to Newark and then change to the East Coast Mainline.
  • Geology/Topography
    The city is located within a large almost parabolic valley cut through the limestone ridge, which runs in north/south direction through the County of Lincolnshire. The conspicuous breach in the otherwise constant limestone scarp edge is known as the ‘Witham Gap’, after the River Witham which flows east/west through the city. The gap was cut by glacial meltwater probably during the Devensian Glaciation (110,000 – 12,000 years b.p). The water also carried large quantities of gravel which were deposited in the south and east of the city.
    Map of the Joint Character Areas within Lincoln
    Fig. 1 The Joint Countryside Character Areas defined by the Countryside Commission (now Natural England)
    Breaching of the limestone escarpment served to unite landscapes lying either side of the limestone ridge, and consequently Lincoln lies at the intersection of four different landscape areas: Northern Lincolnshire Edge with coversands, Southern Lincolnshire Edge, The Fens, and the Trent and Belvoir Vales, (as identified in the Joint Character Area study, Countryside Commission, 1996).
  • Escarpment Slopes

    The elevated northern escarpment summit and slope provided a strategic and defensive location for Roman settlement, leading to the foundation of Lincoln in c.40 AD. The escarpment slopes had regular springs, providing essential clean water, and several still survive in the townscape (e.g. South Common). The exposed escarpment slopes provided easy access to key building materials, including limestone, clay and ironstone. Remains of varying scales of quarrying activity are visible in several areas of the escarpment slopes, most noticeably at Greetwell Quarry, and the ready supply of local building materials (e.g. stone, clay for brick manufacture) strongly influenced building in the city until the 20th century.

    Views dominated by large-scale exposed quarry face to the east of the Character Area

    Fig: 1 Greetwell Quarry located on the north escarpment in the east of the city

    The steepness of the escarpment slopes have strongly influenced street patterns in the city, with frequent terraces running parallel to contours, and connecting roads which bisect the escarpment slope to allow for shallower climbs to the north and south (e.g. Lindum Hill and Yarborough Road Character Areas). The escarpment slope also offers prominent and strategic locations for many buildings, as well as wide ranging views from elevated positions. Consequently, the escarpment slopes have provided a direction for the aspect of many buildings, and are often the location of elite residences or high status buildings (e.g. Spring Hill, Cathedral, and Lindum Terrace Character Areas). The rising and descending slopes of the escarpment also serve to emphasise the complexity and vertical and horizontal components of views onto and off the escarpment slopes respectively.

    Large Late Vivtorian/Edwardian villa at the top of the north escarpment overlooking the Arboretum

    Fig: 2 A large Late Victorian villa positioned at the summit of the north escarpment overlooking the Arboretum

    Level ground at the top of the north escarpment has allowed development to fan out, reaching to the fringes of the escarpment slope to the east and west of the city centre. Here street patterns run straight, un-impeded by topography, and development has occurred on a piecemeal basis, with large phases of expansion constructed on open rural land. There are low lying views of The Wolds to the east, and more extensive views over the Witham valley and the Trent Valley nearer the escarpment and valley edges.

  • Wetlands

    Wetlands within the valley bottom and along the River Witham have provided an essential source of food and building materials since the Prehistoric Era [10,000 BC – 60 AD]. However, the suitability of Lincoln’s topography to construct a strategic crossing across the narrow band wetland within the Witham Gap, both in Prehistoric times for the Jurassic Way, and from Roman times when a crossing point for the road from London to York was established at the location of the current High Bridge, a surviving medieval crossing built c. 1150. Many roads leading into Lincoln from outlying areas also take their alignment from the pattern of wetlands in low lying areas, with several routes skirting slightly higher land adjacent to river channels and wetland, such as Hykeham Road, Winn Street, Carholme Road and Washingborough Road, all of which run broadly parallel with the 5m contour at the base of the Witham valley. The River and, from the 9th century if not earlier, the Fossedyke also provided important trade routes uniting the city with The Wash Estuary and the River Trent respectively.

    Looking west along the River Witham. The Cathedral is visible in the background with large industrial units in front of it and housing developments to the east.

    Fig. 1: View west along the engineered banks of the River Witham towards the city centre and Lincoln Cathedral

    Through a series of land reclamations since the Roman period, low-lying areas at the base of the Witham Valley have been converted for industrial and residential use. As a result, the River Witham has been progressively diverted into its current course and is bounded by levees or hard channels along many stretches. Initially land drainage in Lincoln was a series of incremental reclamations, but was undertaken on a large scale to improve marginal land to the east and west of the city in the early 19th century (e.g. Skewbridge Character Area and Witham East Character Area). As a result the lower land within the city boundary is dominated by a network of drainage infrastructure, relating to successive stages of land management. Watercourses are both conspicuous and subdued elements, best illustrated by Sincil Dyke which is open for much of its length until it disappears to the south of the railway station, only to re-appear within Great Northern Terrace Character Area.

    The Character Area is a drained landscape. The drains were part of the Lincoln West Drainage Scheme of 1804-1816

    Fig. 2: The Catchwater Drain in Skewbridge Character Area, one of the many drains created as part of the Lincoln West Drainage Scheme (1804-1816)

    Since the establishment of a crossing point wetland around the city has formed a obstacle to both resident and potential intruder. From the High Medieval Era, Sincil Dyke, and possibly the Great and Little Gowts, were constructed or improved to form a defensive barrier around the south of the High Medieval city. Wetland in the east and west of the city, largely comprising the ephemeral flood plains of the River Witham, has historically developed much later than the remainder of the urban area, with drier areas on the escarpment slopes proving preferable locations. The ‘egg-timer’ shape of Lincoln’s urban area is a large-scale manifestation of the biased nature of development. Open areas of wetland leading into the city centre later provided key undeveloped corridors for railway infrastructure in the mid 19th century, as well as open and relatively undesirable land that was suited to the needs of the city’s growing industries most notably in the Post-railway Expansion and Late Victorian/Edwardian Periods. The relationship between land-use and geology still survives in the modern townscape, such as Great Northern Terrace Character Area and Tritton Road Character Area.

  • Low Lying Gravels

    Parts of the south west of the city are located on gravel deposits which form a band of marginally higher ground to the west of the River channel before it turn east and passes through the Witham Gap. Due to its location 4/5km from the city centre, much of the area remained agricultural in use until the late 19th and 20th centuries. From early times the area was an important source of wood for the city, and the southwest of the city remains sparsely wooded (e.g. Birchwood and Boultham Moor Industrial Character Areas). Gravel deposits were extracted from the 19th century, the extraction pits of which now form a series of small lakes within the south west of the city (see Swanholme Lakes Character Area and Birchwood Fringe Character Area).

    View of Pond from Farrington Crescent looking east

    Fig. 1 A flooded gravel pit surrounded by Birch trees in Birchwood Fringe Character Area

    During the mid 19th century the undeveloped rural nature of the land, and the ready accessibility of water led to the development of a number of large private estates in the area, each of which was set within informal parkland . Although only one of the private houses remains standing (Bracebridge Hall), the former lakes and informal gardens form part of a green suburban belt at the south-west of the city.

  • Rural hinterland

    Lincoln has always been and continues to be a market centre for a substantial rural hinterland. Large elements of the city’s former medieval agricultural structure have survived in the current townscape, and are intrinsic to the city’s rural setting. For example, medieval ridge and furrow earthworks are still evident on West Common. Open spaces such as the West and South Commons, Burton Fields, Burton Ridge, Skewbridge and the Witham Valley to the east of the city centre are transitional areas that sit within the boundary of the city but have many characteristics in common with the agricultural land beyond it. These areas provide direct links between urban and rural areas. In many cases they form part of ‘green wedges’ or corridors that reach deep into central areas of the city. For example, the river corridors of Witham East Character Area and Upper Witham Valley Character Area, which extend from the city centre out into the agricultural land surrounding Lincoln.

    Southerly views of Lincoln’s rural hinterland

    Fig.1: Southerly views off the north escarpment from Yarborough Road Character Area

    There are long standing links between the economy and industry of the city and the surrounding agriculture. Several market places are still in use in the City (Sincil Street Character Area) and heavy industrial buildings have survived, for example along the Brayford (Brayford Character Area) and Waterside South (Great Northern Terrace Character Area). During the gradual expansion of the built up area of the city into its rural hinterland, buildings associated with agriculture have been gradually absorbed into the urban townscape, such as a number of farmhouses incorporated into residential developments (Glebe Park Character Area, Burton Road Character Area, Newport Character Area). The rural setting of the city within the lower Witham Valley and The Wolds is embodied within rural views from many places in the city, most notably when looking outwards from the slopes of the North Escarpment and on the fringes of the city. From West Common there are also views of the city on the hillside with a rural foreground a rural foreground that runs to within 500m of the Castle walls.