Lincoln Staircases

The greatest staircase joy, though, is in knowing that, even if one uses them for many decades, one’s own feet pass lightly by. We all love our favourite bits of Lincoln, but they aren’t ours. They have been, are, and always will be for the others we may never know.

In Praise of Staircases

I could just hear it – ‘McCullough has been asked to choose his favourite bit of the College. Cue something from the Chapel.’ What would it be – my favourite stall-end statues (Moses and Aaron), the Jacobean pulpit, the Van Linge glass? None of those seemed quite right, partly due to the pressure of being original, but also because they’ve received quite a bit of (deserved) coverage over recent years. But they also didn’t resonate with me for the present purpose. What part of Lincoln’s fabric will I carry the memory of most fondly, long after I’ve left? I avoided as long as I could the answer that always pressed on my mind: my staircase.

Much of this has to do with the familiarity born of monotonous repetition going up and down Staircase 8 – morning arrival, then down and back for Morning Prayer, 10.30 coffee, lunch, and departure. Some nights there is bouncing down, gown sleeves trailing, for dinner at high table, and then negotiating the ascent more carefully after it. So I know each of the fifteen steps to my room intimately – the stains and dips where the feet fall, the angle of the turn half-way up, the reassuring solidity of the brass screws that fix the treads. I also love the landing - not so much for its charming little window, but for the recess next to it that is still lined with cracked white Victorian tiles and houses a redundant gas jet, a remnant of the Fellows’ daring decision in the 1840s to start illuminating the College with something other than lamps and candles. My distinguished predecessor in 8/2, Prof Gill, remembers that in his early days, next to it was a drop-down shelf, upon which a scout would deposit his lunch (cold mackerel and a leaf of lettuce). Those were the days before the decadence of a hot lunch in the SCR. I mourn the disappearance of the tray, but am grateful for the lunches.

The greatest aesthetic pleasure of our old staircases though is the wood. Is there anything more beautiful than unfinished oak, bleached with age and wet mops to the ghostly beauty of a silver gelatine print? In some, like mine, the monochrome interplay of surface and form is intensified by the ivory-coloured walls. But we also have variety. Staircase 3 has the flourish of its Jacobean turned banisters, with its stairs ever-so-slightly widening at the bottom in a modest gesture toward the importance of the Old SCR below and what was then the Library above. There is even evidence that someone before me shared my reverence for where many generations’ feet have trod – the lips of the steps in Staircase 2, evidently worn entirely away, have been frankly but respectfully repaired by inserting narrow new oak lips for the treads (with more of those honest brass screws), leaving the sound parts of the old boards intact.

The greatest staircase joy, though, is in knowing that, even if one uses them for many decades, one’s own feet pass lightly by. We all love our favourite bits of Lincoln, but they aren’t ours. They have been, are, and always will be for the others we may never know.

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