The city of Lincoln likely owes its existence to the River Witham. In centuries past, the river was tidal as far as the Brayford Pool, a natural widening of the Witham near the base of Castle Hill, and has been an important navigation link since antiquity. The Romans established the fortress town of Lindum Colonia at what is now Lincoln precisely because it offered access to navigation on the river, the wharf capacity along the pool, and higher ground above the river and the surrounding fens. It served them as an ideal end point for the Fosse Way Roman Road.
During the latter 11th century, the Norman conquerors of Britain followed the strategic example of the Romans, building a castle and a cathedral on the hill above the river with its pool, and these structures stand and (to a highly modified degree) still serve their original functions. Hence it comes as no surprise that today’s Lincoln continues to look to the Witham for much of its character. The city draws much of its personality from this rich riparian past.
When Himself and Yours Truly visit Lincoln, our paths often cross the Witham—either literally or figuratively. Whether shopping, dining, or visiting our favorite historic sites, our destinations are typically influenced in some way by their proximity to the river. In certain areas, time and change make it part of what draws us . . . and what keeps us coming back.
Brayford Pool and its facilities still bring in river traffic, though their uses have largely changed from commercial and military transport to social activity. The area around the pool has seen a renaissance of sorts over the past few decades. The Odeon cinema is located here, along with modern night spots, restaurants, and hotels—not to mention the University of Lincoln. The old Royal William IV pub is still going waterfront business, lending a touch of times past. Our favorite pastime at the pool is low cost and low intensity. We grab an ice cream at the Ben & Jerry’s, walking the pedestrian areas and watching the boats, the people, and the swans while catching glimpses of the cathedral towers that emerge from the hill above the city.
From Brayford, one can take a boat tour on Cathedral City Cruises or the Brayford Belle, navigating Roman-built canals as well as the river itself. The wharf services barges, canal boats, yachts and motor boats, and an occasional historic vessel—vessels bearing grain and coal no longer berth here. The waterfront also provides a suitable backdrop for any number of local events and festivals, a few of which we’ve attended.
The Witham passes through the southern part of Lincoln, flowing west to east toward the North Sea. It passes through the historic city center, just beyond where the medieval city wall once stood. Key attractions include pedestrian zones along the river, the City Square, the Empowerment sculpture, the medieval High Bridge straddled by a 16th-century half-timbered building, and the ‘Glory Hole’—the space under the bridge as defined by the arch. The river crosses the High Street just south of the Stonebow and Guildhall, surviving remnants of the medieval town wall, and is thus flows through the city’s principal shopping district.
The High Bridge has several claims to fame. Built in the 12th century, it is believed to be the oldest bridge still in use in the UK. It is a simply built stone structure, handsome to the eye—and it forms a relatively narrow arch over the Witham. Steps on both sides of the bridge lead down to the riverbank, and there is a broad pedestrian ramp leading to the southeast bank. Although the arch is narrow, the width of the bridge is enough to support the building that straddles it, with shops still in use on two levels. Benches on the bridge’s east side look down the river toward the Empowerment sculpture, a modern metal design completed in 2002 and depicting two human figures reaching out to embrace across the water. The overall appearance is one of aged gentility, a thoroughly British scene that includes just a touch of modernity.
For us, High Street has provided many happy hours of browsing in Marks & Spencer, the Edinburgh Woollen Mill Shop, and Waterstone’s book shop—to name but a few of the local businesses. We’ve taken tea at the High Bridge Café, and we’ve walked along the river at most times of the day and night. We’ve participated in an end-of-season welcome for the local football club in front of the Stonebow, and we’ve shopped for handcrafted keepsakes at a summer market in the City Square. For all this and much more, the Witham waterfront offers us its magic and we gladly accept.