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Lincolnshire/ on the map
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The Independent Online
AN ECONOMIC survey published last week caused something to happen that happens very rarely. The county of Lincolnshire - which is on the East Coast of England and mostly given over to vegetables - had a moment of national visibility. The Lost County was briefly found.

On Monday, figures were published showing that Lincolnshire had the highest proportion of profit-making businesses of any county in the United Kingdom. In Lincolnshire, it was said, 86.6 per cent of companies had made a profit in the financial year ending April 1994. And, in a table of British towns and cities arranged the same way, Lincoln came ninth, while Boston (also in Lincolnshire) came third, and Grimsby (a Humberside city that thinks it is in Lincolnshire) came first.

This was interesting news to people in the rest of Britain, who now found themselves able - perhaps for the first time - to put a name to the large, flat space between Yorkshire and Norfolk. Lincolnshire is the fourth-largest county in Britain, but it is also one of the least known, despite the fact that Tennyson was born here, as well as members of the pop group Swing Out Sister.

Last week, a woman called Karen Cumberlidge, who works in the tourist information office at Skegness, on the coast, told me that people are inclined to think her town is in Scotland - "because of the Ness". A young Lincoln man in an old Lincoln pub said: "When I'm on holiday and people say `Where do you come from?' I say `I'm from Lincoln', and they say `Where's that?' And then the easiest thing to say is `It's near Nottingham'. I end up making it sound like a suburb of Nottingham. It's nowhere near Nottingham. It's nothing like Nottingham."

Another man, in Louth, told a very similar story: "I start talking about Robin Hood," he said, with both annoyance and a kind of relief in his voice.

A tour of Lincolnshire, then, is a tour of a place rather sparsely covered with people who are not sure whether to relish or to scorn the way in which their county is generally ignored by the rest of Britain. There is a fair amount of complaint about national weather forecasts ("Have you ever heard them mention here? Ever?"), and some slight shame that they cannot rustle up a stereotype to give to the world.

But there is delight in the peace and quiet, the "sense of community" and the relatively low crime rate. There is talk of front doors left unlocked. "We haven't got the rot," said one man in Lincoln. "Now there's this survey, and the companies will come in, and the question is, will we get the rot?"

You can see why the county has been left alone. To the north is the Humber, to the south the Fens; to the west is the Trent and to the east the North Sea. This has always been a rather inaccessible place, surrounded by water. Today, it remains bypassed. It does not have an inch of motorway, and it has very few dual carriageways. To get to Lincolnshire you must leave the motorway and turn on to something that will soon become very narrow and quite muddy. When you find yourself behind a cabbage-bearing truck in the middle of nowhere, you are getting close - and it will only be a matter of a few more hours.

Last week it was snowing in Lincolnshire, and on the side of the road there were hand-painted signs urging one to buy a fish - or pointing towards, say, a "Museum of Drainage". The view was exhilaratingly empty. The sky was huge, ocean-going.

On a computer database of recent British newspapers, there are only 33 stories that include both the words "Lincolnshire" and "excitement", against 251 for Kent and 91 for Norfolk. Of the 33, one concerned a dog boiling to death in a car, and another had the headline: "Bouncy Castles Claiming Thousands of Casualties a Year". But this is a county of quiet pleasures: potatoes, beans, sprouts, daffodils. Roads follow drainage ditches mile after mile, and then turn a right angle for no apparent reason.

The towns are handsome and redbricked. But they show few signs of economic good-cheer: boarded-up fronts, too many charity shops, a ram-raided Curry's. The first Lincolnshire man I spoke to was on the point of being made redundant from his job with the council. Eighty-six per cent of Lincolnshire companies may be in profit (food processing and packaging, sharp little engineering and printing firms), but that tells us little about general economic health or employment levels. An observation widely made is that Lincolnshire companies are profiting from strikingly low wages.

In an amusement arcade called Lucky Strike in Skegness - or "Skeg" - three teenage girls idled away their Thursday afternoon; 200 fruit machines made noise around them. They smoked cigarettes and drank tea, and spoke mostly with fondness of their town, which dies each winter. One of the girls, who was 17, had just been offered £1.70 an hour - "to work in a shop that sells crap. And she said it's £2 when you're 18." There is no work here in the winter, and in the summer 13 and 14-year-olds are paid 80p an hour in cafs and chip shops. One of the three girls said: "Skeg is like a flower. It opens in the summer and closes in the winter," - and that shut her friends up

Just three miles south of Skegness is the Gibraltar Point National Nature Reserve: dunes, saltmarshes, flowers that open in summer and close in winter. A warden was monitoring the comings and goings of birds, and he had the patience to explain things simply. "You see those reasonably long- legged things . . . "

The view was for miles, across the Wash. The sun was setting. And a flock of oyster catchers set off for some other county.