Sir Ian McKellen has an identity problem. Although he signed the restaurant visitor's book "Gandalf from Lord of the Rings", it was Gollum he was channelling, because at this speciality pie shop in Lincoln, he perversely chose the poached salmon - not just once, but twice. And this is a man who claims to be an honorary Kiwi!

It's a disgrace; and also more than a little sad, because when I went inside Brown's Pie Shop and got outside one of their wild rabbit and cider pies, I found he missed a real treat. Tender meat, creamy sauce, golden pastry that splinters into a thousand buttery flakes ... my mouth is watering now.

Brown's is world famous in Lincoln, but Lincoln isn't very famous at all - which is perhaps its greatest attraction. Unlike England's other ancient chocolate-box towns, this one isn't overrun by coach-loads of shutter-snapping tourists.

"We're off the beaten track," local man Brian explained.

"You have to make a bit of an effort to come to Lincoln: it's not on the way to anywhere else."

Across the county's flat and fertile fields, the triple towers of the cathedral stand impressively high. Built, and re-built, on a grand scale from the 11th century onwards, it's not only vast, but beautiful: delicately carved local limestone inside and out is set off by glorious stained-glass windows, and elegant rib arches support a ceiling that soars above the spacious interior.

There are all sorts of curiosities to discover in here: a two-tier tomb showing a bishop in his finery above and the stark cadaver he became underneath; deep grooves worn in the stone by the toes of centuries of pilgrims kneeling at St Hugh's shrine; the tiny Lincoln Imp frozen in the stonework of the Angel Choir, briefly lit by a 20p coin in a slot.

Even more unusual is the memorial to Bomber Command: there were RAF airfields all around Lincoln during the war, and the cathedral was an easily spotted and welcome landmark for the Lancasters returning from raids over Germany. In the Airmen's Chapel there's a New Zealand window in black and white showing an aerial view of the cathedral below the New Zealand coat of arms; it commemorates the 200 Kiwi flight crew who, along with Australians, Canadians, Rhodesians and Poles, never returned to base.

The nearby castle was built by William the Conqueror but the main focus these days is the prison inside where those busy Victorians tried out their theory that total isolation was the way to rehabilitate criminals. The chapel with compartments like upright coffins is especially chilling, and the sloping seats for the women show an inspired kind of sadism.

William Marwood, however, broke the mould - by breaking people's necks. His invention here of the long drop for hangings meant the end of agonising deaths by suffocation, and the 180 men and women he dispatched met rapid ends: no doubt a great comfort to them all.

It's a relief to return to the sunshine and explore the narrow cobbled lanes of the old town. Lincoln tumbles over the edge of an escarpment to the river below, and Steep Hill is well named. Lined by stone and timbered buildings, this street tips down past pubs and cafes, bookshops and boutiques, and levels out at High Bridge where a half-timbered tea shop is built on the bridge itself.

"Where are you going?" asks the writing on the bridge over the River Witham, and on the downstream side, "Where have you been?"

The answer to both should be "Lincoln".

Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies from Auckland to London daily. If booking before 15 December, special 2010 Earlybird airfares are available starting from $2099 plus taxes of $225 for departures through to 30 June 2010.

Lincoln can be reached by train from London. I stayed at the Tower Hotel but Ian McKellen and Tom Hanks slept at the White Hart Hotel.

Further information: Don't miss Brown's Pie Shop.

For tours of Lincoln with guides like Brian Taylor see

Besides the town itself, there is a lot to enjoy in the surrounding countryside: go to and for more information.

Pamela Wade went to Lincoln with assistance from VisitBritain and Cathay Pacific.