Perhaps one of the most interesting historical sights of Lincoln is one that may not even be noticed on a journey down the High Street, except for the brief bump in the road: the High Bridge. While not a particularly impressive structure to look at initially, its history and importance within the exciting, edge-of-your-seat world of English bridges is unquestionable.
A bridge on the site has probably existed since at least the 2nd Century A.D. when the Romans established a colonia on the site of modern Lincoln. The present bridge, however, is a much later addition, having been constructed in stone c.1160 (replacing an earlier wooden structure). The fact that the original Norman construction is still standing (minus some 19th century restoration) is of particular note, as it is likely one of (if not the) oldest standing bridges in the country.
Another interesting record held by the High Bridge can easily be seen on its western side. The large Tudor buildings (presently Stokes cafe and a pasty shop) that line the road were built in the 16th century, and as such makes the High Bridge the oldest bridge in England with buildings still on it, and the only one to have buildings older than the 17th century.
Buildings on bridges were common in the medieval and Tudor period (the most famous example being old London Bridge), but few have survived. Lincoln’s is now one of only three in England, the others being in Frome and Bath, though those pale in comparison to ours in terms of age.
While the old houses still remain on the western side of the bridge, the eastern side appears desolate, with only a few benches lining its side. The layout of the seating area (and indeed its raised position), however, helps to betray its previous occupants.
Some seventy-odd years after its probable construction, in c. 1235, the ford to the east of the bridge was covered over and topped with a chapel dedicated to the recently martyred Thomas Beckett, a popular figure of worship and reverence in the period. This small chapel survived upon the bridge for an exceptionally long period, some 500 years, not being removed until 1762.
In its place was put a large (and heavy!) water conduit, in the form on an Egyptian obelisk. This conduit served as a source for locals to retrieve drinkable water for daily use and existed on the bridge until just before the start of the World War II, when concerns about the impact of its weight on the bridge forced its removal.
While the conduit may have vanished from the bridge, however, it has not disappeared from the landscape of Lincoln: a replica was reconstructed in 1996 and placed in St. Mark’s Square. Another example of such a conduit can also be seen further south on the High Street, just outside of St. Mary Le Wigford church.
Perhaps the most notable part of the High Bridge, however, is the famed ‘Glory Hole,’ a name that seems to be the source of endless amusement for new residents and visitors to the city. This tiny gap under the bridge was obviously created when the bridge was reconstructed in stone in the 12th century, but it was exacerbated in the 16th with the construction of the Tudor buildings on the western edge of the bridge. This has resulted in several issues which directly affect not only travellers on the Witham, but also citizens of the city.
First amongst these is the difficulty in navigating the tight passage for any boater. The second is the problem of flooding. During periods of heavy rain fall, the narrowness of the passage can cause the river to burst its banks and flood the surrounding city streets and pavements (some consolation exists, however, as the problems of navigating through the hole are alleviated, as it becomes inaccessible to boats). This problem has been somewhat relieved by re-dredging of the Sincil Dyke in the 19th century, though the problem still exists today and most likely will for the foreseeable future.
The passage itself was not always known locally as the ‘Glory Hole’. In the middle ages, it was often referred to as the ‘Murder Hole,’ as according to local tales whenever a body was thrown into the Witham, it would often be washed ashore either under, or near, the bridge. The name was changed to ‘Glory Hole’ to remove any connection to the grizzly nature of death and bloated corpses. The original term ‘Glory Hole,’ moreover, does not share the same meaning it is saddled with today (get your minds out of the gutter!). Rather, it was a slang term used to refer to the halo often represented over the heads of the saints and Christ.
Even the northern part of the bridge has some unique features, such as the vaulted storeroom under the bridge. These were most likely added when the water conduit was installed late in the 18th century and provided the buildings on and adjacent to the bridge direct access to the water for receiving and shipping goods. These have since been sealed, though they still remain in place.
So next time you take a stroll along the High Street and come towards the bridge, spare a moment to think of its great history and to imagine not only the great structures that once existed upon it (and in some places still do), but also the countless feet which have crossed over it since its construction some 900 years ago: the feet of artisans, students, entertainers, bishops, knights and even kings.