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Destination: England

A Victorian Holiday

In Lincoln, ghosts of Christmas past set tone for a Dickens of a celebration

December 15, 1996|HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP | Drohojowska-Philp is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

LINCOLN, England — Blame it on Charles Dickens. I'm a sucker for Christmas. From the glittering pine tree towering over beribboned gift boxes to the sticky cliche, "God bless us every one," my expectations are based upon a holiday defined by Dickens and other excessive Victorians.

The problem? I live in Los Angeles and, for 11 months of the year, I believe it to be the promised land. But when the twinkly lights of reindeer leaping across Rodeo Drive have to fight to be seen against the searing December sunshine and not a single caroler has warbled "Jingle Bells" at my front door, I yearn for a chilly, piney, snowy clime. Better yet, I need to go to the source of Christmas mythology: England.

From Heathrow to Harrods, London overflows with seasonal spirit, not to mention spirits. But a little of that goes a long way, and after a few days there last December, I was eager for a more intimate experience. So it was that I traveled with my English husband, David, to visit my in-laws in the town of Lincoln. Situated in the East Midlands, 135 miles north of London, this ancient city can trace its history back 20 centuries and still drags its feet at change.

The cobblestone streets of Lincoln were festooned with strands of simple white Christmas lights. The shops, mostly stone buildings dating from the Middle Ages, modestly displayed a few holiday items in their windows. Pheasants and ducks brought in by local hunters hung in the window of the butcher shop. Plum puddings and fresh confections beckoned from the bakery. It snowed a little and was quiet. I felt as though I'd been airlifted into a Currier and Ives etching.

Yet, Lincoln is not an artificially enhanced Disneyesque experience. Well-preserved though this hoary city may be, there is little pandering to heritage. No signs proclaim "Ye Olde Pub," or even "Ye Olde Starbucks." Understated and dignified, life in the city is centered around the famous Lincoln Cathedral, which has been offering Christmas services for 900 years.

What distinguishes Lincoln from any number of other charming cities in England is that it is not a hamlet in aspic but a moderately large city with plenty to avail a visitor's curiosity. Yet, it is largely undiscovered by American tourists.

Because I arrived for Christmas week, I missed their biggest tourist event--the annual Christmas Market, which draws visitors from all over Europe and the Far East. Held during the first weekend of December (Dec. 4 to 7 next year) it features 200 decorated stalls on the castle grounds offering arts and crafts, comestibles and grog, with the sellers dressed in Victorian costume. There are performances by choirs, carolers and thespians, with revelry spilling into the streets late into the night and culminating with a major recital by the Lincoln Cathedral Choral Society.

The cathedral is considered one of the finest medieval buildings in Europe and the primary reason tourists come to this picturesque city throughout the year. It was built after the Norman Conquest on the top of Lincoln's tallest hill, opposite the castle built in 1068 for William the Conqueror.

During the 12th century, a fire and then an earthquake motivated rebuilding using Romanesque and ornate Early English Gothic embellishments, the addition of sculptural friezes, pointed arches, rib vaults and stained-glass windows. The bishop responsible was canonized St. Hugh in 1220 and his shrine is in the cathedral. He brought one of four copies of the Magna Carta to Lincoln in 1215, and it is on view at the castle. (Not to be confused with the Magna Carta pub on Castle Square.)

More than an architectural monument to be ticked off a list for sightseers, Lincoln Cathedral serves as the very center of the community with an ambitious program of musical events and services. I went for Evensong, the evening prayer service that is partially sung, and sat with the regular parishioners in the 14th century carved oak stalls, the uplifting atmosphere augmented by lacy stone spires and candle-lighted chandeliers. A dozen young choirboys dressed in crisp white surplices, hair combed, cheeks flushed pink against their pale skin, lifted their voices in a magical unity, their songs floating through the chilly air, echoing against the old stone walls and stained-glass windows. "World Without End." Amen.

The acoustics of Lincoln Cathedral are so highly regarded that its choral society has been recorded singing Christmas hymns, and CDs and tapes are for sale in the gift shop.

*

Atop one pillar in the cathedral, there lurks the scandalous Lincoln imp, an obviously pagan bit of stonework hidden among the carved acanthus leaves, a relic of Anglo-Saxon workers leaving behind evidence of their own animistic faith. Another bit of history lies in the graffiti carved into the wall by soldiers who used the church as a stable during the 17th century civil war. My husband quipped, "You see, even our graffiti is older than your entire country!"

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