Cornhill Vaults

by Steve Renshaw

The Cornhill Vaults – a name that still sends shivers down the spine of Lincoln drinkers, even though it’s now ten years since it closed. When I moved to Lincoln in 2007, people talked about the Vaults so much that it took some time for me to realise that it no longer existed.

A quick web search reveals the depth of feeling for the old place. There are Facebook groups dedicated to the pub and plenty of comments on message boards, such as “a belter of a place”, “One of the best meeting places in Lincoln” and “The Vaults rocked!” Add to that, reports of occasional hauntings, and you begin to understand the iconic status.

The subterranean tunnels that made up the Vaults were constructed as a grain store beneath the Corn Exchange, which was opened in 1848. In 1976, they were converted into a pub by Ruddles Brewery. The tenants were Valerie and the late Michael Hope, who went on to own the Wig & Mitre on Steep Hill. In 1977, Ruddles decided to off-load their tied estate and sold the lease of the Vaults to Samuel Smith’s Brewery. In November 1979, Anna – now landlady at the Strugglers Inn – was installed as co-manager of the Vaults and stayed until it closed. In addition to the beers from Ruddles and, subsequently, Sam Smith’s, many ex-regulars will remember the Merrydown cider.

A major feature of the Vaults was the live music – in the ‘80s, there were bands playing every night. Cornhill Vaults Live 86 was an all-day charity event with bands playing in the pub and in City Square. Although it was a great success, it was never repeated. Anna explains, “Even though there was no trouble, the police were very edgy throughout the day and wouldn’t let us do it again.”

When the Lincolnshire Co-op, the freehold owner, decided to redevelop the Corn Exchange site and close the Vaults, regulars campaigned hard to reverse the decision. However, there was no going back, and the doors finally closed in January 2002.

Although I can’t have a drink in the Vaults, I can try one of the beers they served, as we do have a Sam Smith’s pub in the city. Sam Smith’s is Yorkshire’s oldest brewery – their Old Brewery in Tadcaster was established in 1758. The unique business model means that their pubs only stock Samuel Smith’s products – this and the absence of TV and music keeps prices very low.

Many of their pubs have historic architectural features or interiors, for example the gas-lit White Horse (Nellies) in Beverley, while others have been sympathetically renovated. Widow Cullen’s Well on Steep Hill falls into the latter category. Traditional structural and finishing materials were used in the excellent restoration of the 16th Century, in-filled timber-framed building.

And what about the beer? Old Brewery Bitter (4.0% ABV) is now Sam Smith’s only cask ale, and it is still distributed in traditional wooden casks. My pint had a thick, creamy head, typical of a traditional Yorkshire bitter. As soon as I picked it up, I could tell it was too cold and I wasn’t surprised that my first mouthful was disappointing. Very little flavour came through and it seemed rather watery. However, having left it for some time to warm up to a reasonable cellar temperature, I was pleasantly surprised. The initial taste is quite sweet with malt coming through and an edge of bitterness to finish. Not a classic but a perfectly quaffable, session ale.

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