People have lived along the River Witham where the city of Lincoln now stands at least since the Iron Age. It was its status as a provincial Roman town, however, that gave Lincoln its start as a historical community. The 9th Legion established the frontier fortress of Lindum on Castle Hill during the 1st century A.D. The fortress then became the town of Colonia Domitiana Lindensium when it became a place of civilian settlement, and that name was soon shortened to Lindum Colonia. Ultimately, it became the provincial capital of Flavia Caesariensis, which was organized early in the 4th century.
Lindum Colonia flourished into the 5th century A.D. Its walls protected a community involved in trade and agriculture, relying on a network of natural waterways and Roman-built roads and canals to facilitate transformation. It boasted fountains and temples, a sophisticated sewage system, an aqueduct, its own forum, a bath complex—all the amenities required as a center of Roman civilization. As the Empire declined, so did Lindum Colonia, though its walls remained a place of refuge from Viking raids and other forms of early medieval violence.
When Himself and Yours Truly first visited Lincoln near the turn of the 21st century, we were surprised by all the reminders of the Roman presence. We saw remnants of the Roman city wall in the back gardens of houses along East Bight and Church Lane. We found what amounts to a bas relief of the forum in the Bailgate. The head of a Roman well has also been exposed in the Bail, now covered with glass and illuminated from below. The grounds of the Lincoln Hotel include an excavated portion of the north tower of the Roman wall’s east gate. And up and down the hill leading from Brayford Pool to the Bail can be found traces of the baths, the south gate, the path taken by the Roman road, and the wall surrounding the lower city.
But by far the highlight of the surviving Roman relics in Lincoln is the Newport Arch, which was part of the the north gate of the Roman town wall. The inner arch of the gate is still intact and spans a narrow street—the only Roman-era gate in the UK that is still open to vehicular traffic. It stands as a reminder of the ancient route through Lindum Colonia that led from Londinium (London) to Eboracum (York).
In an absolutely relative sense, the Newport Arch isn’t particularly beautiful or impressive. At first glance, it is an old stone arch, clearly disconnected from something bigger. Even this fragment of the gate was once much larger than it is now because the current roadbed is about 8 feet above the original. As it is, the arch is about 16 feet high and 17½ feet wide—enough for one lane of traffic—all within a structure about 32 feet wide. A second smaller arch for pedestrian traffic also survives on the east side of the structure, though the opening is only about 7 feet wide and 5 feet high (about 10 feet above the original Roman surface).
Himself and Yours Truly searched out the Newport Arch on our first visit to Lincoln in 1999 and have been back several times, as it in on the path to one of our favored pubs. Each visit gives us a greater appreciation for this enduring monument. It embodies 18 centuries of sturdy survival, despite constant use and no doubt frequent assaults of one kind or another. And while it is not exactly beautiful, it is graceful in a practical sense. The stonework is deceptively simple, and bits of foliage have taken root here and there on its surface, softening the harshness of its lines. In the final analysis, at least for me, it is the age and persistence of the arch that makes it impressive—a structure that has served Roman legionnaires, Viking marauders, Norman conquerors, and 21st-century tourists carrying cell phones and digital cameras.