This feature is brought to you by the Magna Carta – indirectly, at least.
2015 marks 800 years since the signing of the first Magna Carta (Great Charter) in Runnymede, England. While it was retracted and reinstated by various monarchs a number of times in the following years, the document has become an international icon of liberty across the world, and it’s responsible for a number of the freedoms we enjoy today, including the internet (and therefore this feature), and of course, in most cases, unimpeded travel.
“If you visit only a single Magna Carta exhibition this year, make it this one”
The charter is often seen as the beginning of modern democracy, and although celebrations for the anniversary are taking place across the UK in 2015, if you visit one Magna Carta exhibition this year, make it the Lincoln Castle Revealed project.
Ten years, hundreds of pairs of hands and £22 million later, and Lincoln Castle is now a world-class exhibition centre with the 1215 Magna Carta at its heart. The city received its own copy of the charter when the document was originally signed by King John and it has lived a fairly humble existence in a cabinet at the city’s striking Gothic cathedral ever since. Now in its new home at Lincoln Castle, this animal skin document is getting five-star treatment with its own brand new temperature- and humidity-controlled vault.
Marvel at the beginning of modern freedom
Before entering the vault itself, a 210-degree cinema shows short films that explore the history of the charter. Then, once inside, you can read (and touch) it in its entirety as the words are embossed on a wall near the entrance – today’s relevant clauses highlighted with gold.
But it’s not all about the charter. Its arrival provided the perfect opportunity to make-public areas of the castle that had previously never been open. Millions of pounds have been spent on archaeological digs, restoration of the prison and the creation of a 360-degree wall walk that affords excellent views of the cathedral, the charming old town and Lincolnshire’s flat patchwork of green fields.
Step back in time at a Victorian prison with new technology
But while the main focus of the Revealed project is to look back through history, the exhibitions use state-of-the-art modern technology to help conjure up an absorbing picture of the past.
The castle’s church-like Victorian prison – the only surviving Pentonville-style jail in the country – has a peculiar air of serenity and menace: as light floods through the enormous window, a soundscape of echoing footsteps and groaning inmates reverberates off the whitewashed walls. There’s interactivity around every corner of the exhibition, with touch-screen tabletops, tablet computers and the opportunity for kids to don prisoner costume as they explore the different cells that show the emotive video stories of a few of the inmates. With over 10,000 diary entries from the prison’s staff and debtors, they’ve succeeded in creating a truly immersive and relatable experience.
An unexpected discovery
When the team involved in building the brand new vault began digging, they found something a little unexpected, and a simple archaeological dig turned into a full-scale operation to remove a Saxon sarcophagus buried three metres underground.
This exciting discovery, along with Roman, medieval and Victorian finds, gives away more about city’s past inhabitants and is now on display in the prison. DNA testing and forensic facial reconstruction of the skeleton is being done in at Leicester and Dundee university research centres.
What began as a re-homing of one of the most poignant documents in British history and the restoration of a crumbling castle has resulted in a remarkably detailed presentation of Lincoln’s human story.
Need to know
Where to stay: in the centre of the old town on Steep Hill, The Rest boutique hotel (from £89 per night, bed and breakfast) is the perfect base for exploring Lincoln’s past.
Where to eat: for delicious dishes made with local produce head to the Wig and Mitre pub – a small and creaky labyrinth of dining rooms and bars set in a gorgeous old townhouse with huge railway-sleeper beams and original exposed brick.
Lincoln Castle: all-inclusive entry to the castle is £12 for adults and £7.20 for children (under 5s go free).