Chris and Sheila Collins live in a village just outside of Lincoln, in a house that feels as if it was built around them. Overflowing with objects that they’ve gathered together through the years, from chests full of archery trophies to grandfather clocks that tickle the ceiling, the house is their very own pebbledash castle on a moat of white gravel. Inside is their archive; a collection built up over almost fifteen years from the town’s Georgian prison, a record of precious wares and over one thousand Xeroxed documents that detail the lives of prisoners from centuries gone by.
“That’s a monkey puzzle tree,” Chris explains, as we bend around the side of the house. Unlocking the back door, he adds that Sheila is a member of the Monkey Puzzle Tree Appreciation Society. In any conversation with Chris, little facts like these are part of the furniture.
Until recently, Chris was the archivist of the historic Georgian and Victorian prisons that exist within Lincoln’s Norman castle walls. The role had given him unlimited and unregulated access to this jewel in the town’s crown. “We had free rein to discover things,” Chris explains. “Underneath the Victorian wing, there’s a sub-basement which is very rarely explored. It’s a haunt of bats and pigeons and there’s old World War One graffiti in there. It would have been a very evil place, but to us the castle was a calm place, a quiet place. A place of atmosphere.”
As volunteers for fourteen years, Chris and Sheila came to look after the prison as if it was their own. Sheila looked after the old women’s wing and Chris took the men’s. Whilst painting the Victorian stonework one night, Sheila took a shine to a stuffed lurcher that had been shoved into a corner. The dog had pined to death in the 1800s after its owner had been executed for shooting a gamekeeper. Chris and Sheila took it in, had it looked at and removed the sparkling white arsenic that had been used as an insecticide to preserve its coat of fur. They sealed it in a glass case and gave it pride of place in the garage amongst the replica longbows and stack of plastic animal figurines they've kept as targets for archery practice.
As much affection as they felt for things like the lurcher and as much happiness as they got from taking care of it all, the whole endeavour has a wistful quality. An undeniable longing emanates from the names of lost souls, listed in italicised handwriting in bulky documents that Chris lays out across the carpet. “There’s a story in my records of a girl of eight,” he explains, pointing a finger at a signature on a page. "I found her being tried and sentenced for stealing a pair of shoes.”
The castle, once host to Martin Clunes’ acid bath murderer in ITV’s A is for Acid (2002) is now a location for Downton Abbey. Chris’ days and nights leading paranormal ghost tours and ad hoc archery competitions are over. Whilst Lincoln may not be the most central point on the tourist trail -
“most people drive straight through” - the castle has become busier, more commercial and more neutral. There’s no room left for the couple to potter around.
Today, their relationship to Lincoln Castle endures in the endless reams of photocopies and the objects they rescued and rehomed, all of which begs the question: what will happen to the collection as time wears on? “It’s a record I’ve taken twelve years to compile,” Chris laments. “What will happen to it, nobody knows.” I notice that the stuffed lurcher has already vanished. “Yes, he was living here in our house, but eventually he was returned to the castle. Where he’s gone since then I don’t know. We know he was on Antiques Roadshow; we saw the episode.” I ask them what they made of it. “The person that took him on there took him out of his case,” Chris says smiling, or perhaps wincing.
“It had been sealed up to preserve him.