S is for Stamford
In 2013 The Sunday Times rated Stamford as the best place to live in England and I see no reason to argue.
Film crews have long known about Stamford. For years it has been the go to location for any director tasked with bringing George Eliot or Jane Austen to life. Take out the modern street fittings, the cars and the tarmac and there isn’t a great deal needed to turn St George’s Square back to the 1830s Middlemarch (Coventry) or Meryton (Hertford) of forty years earlier. Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFaddyan donned period costume to critical yawns in 2005. Juliet Aubrey and Rufus Sewell strolled the same streets to considerably greater effect in 1994.
The secret lies in centuries of putting up magnificent buildings and the common sense (not shared by all English towns) of not knocking them down again. Antiquity doesn’t confer grace and dignity of itself but it adds greatly to the beautiful and the charming. The charm is enhanced by the local stone. It was impossible to transport the weight of stone required for this town in the eighteenth century. If there hadn’t been a ready supply of high quality brownish cream limestone at nearby Little Casterton then there wouldn’t have been a Stamford. Everything connects. The finest buildings today are situated approximately where the finest quarries are. The finest quarries are situated where the calmest lagoons were in the prehistoric seas. Lagoons where the skeletons of millions of sea creatures settled, fragmented and later compressed into limestone. It occurs from Dorset through to Lincolnshire in a great band, varying in texture and colour, and everywhere it outcrops, a fine house or town stands as a monument. Portland stone has been used in many of London’s finest buildings, Bath is built out of Limestone, as is Chatsworth. Lincolnshire perhaps has the finest examples. As well as Stamford, this stone also built Lincoln Cathedral – once the tallest man-made structure on the planet and still one of the most remarkable.
Many towns have an attractive street or square. Stamford stands out by the sheer extent of its magnificent stone buildings. There are over six hundred buildings listed for their architectural importance. The entire town is a work of art and the fact isn’t lost on the people who live here. Is it entirely an accident? Is it all down to the discovery of quarriable stone? Or, are there other reasons why such a town should have grown on the banks of the otherwise, very pretty but, hardly noteworthy River Welland.
It grew as a crossing place on the river. First on Ermine Street, the Roman road that ran from Londinium (London) to Eboracum (York) and later on The Great North Road (the modern day A1). The river was navigable and with the advent of canals, Stamford enjoyed a period as an inland port. The railway arrived in the middle of the nineteenth century and played its part. None of these are remarkable. Hundreds of towns have been on important communication routes and hundreds were linked by canal, rail or river. Yet there is only one Stamford.
Two events played a big part in the raising of the town to special status. William Cecil built Burghley House a mile to the south (across the county boundary in Cambridgeshire). William Cecil was the most powerful man in England during the reign of Elizabeth I. His presence carried considerable status. The house he had built is a heck of a house. Thousands of people visit each year and thousands more come for the annual horse trials which over the years have been won by such equestrian athletes as Miss Anneli Drummond-Hay, Miss Lucinda Prior-Palmer and Mr William Fox-Pitt. Occasionally the event is won by ordinary people without double-barrelled surnames. In 1973 it was won by Captain Mark Phillips and in 1971 by his wife to be …Princess Anne.
In the fourteenth century scholars from Brasenose College Oxford became disaffected by events at that university and attempted to establish a rival seat of learning in Stamford. Their near success can be measured by the strenuous efforts by both Oxford and Cambridge and an act of parliament to prevent Stamford in Lincolnshire having a major university. There is no institute of higher education in the town to this day which seems wrong. It is an ideal location for a significant academic institution.
I arrive happy from a few hours birdwatching on nearby Rutland Water (Stamford is only just in Lincolnshire: it borders Rutland, Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire (and, prior to 1974, Huntingdonshire)). I’m in the mood for strolling and a cream tea. The weather is ideal for late summer and the youth of the town are out and about celebrating their examination results on GCSE day. In the town they gather in small groups and give out an occasional whoop of joy. Down by the river they gather in small groups and smoke, giving furtive glances over their shoulders at anyone walking past.
Cars seem out of place in towns like this but are obviously not out of the financial reach of the local citizenry. Most of the cars that pass me are from the upper price range. Parts of the town have been pedestrianised and I can see no good reason why a few more roads can’t follow suit. It is a good place to wander and a bad place to drive.
Shops seem to be able to manage without acres of plate glass and gaudy plastic signs. Even some national chains, that are guilty of defacing other high streets with ugly shopfronts, are restrained in Stamford. There are some that still deserve a visit from the local office of standards but it passes as a rather attractive shopping centre. There are enough independent shops to make it worth the visit but not enough, providing the staples, to be able to manage without the major retailers.
It’s well blessed with five outstanding churches. The sort of churches you don’t need a religious faith to visit. They enhance the skyline (one of the best in the country, especially if viewed from the Meadows by the river) and each carries a history worth exploring.
The main thoroughfares are all lined with properties of note (not all are Regency or Georgian) but it is the cobbled side streets that most fascinate me. Not only are there many architectural gems in these backwaters but there is a calm and a sense of peace that suits the age of the buildings. Aficionados of porches and porticoes will have a field day. Regrettably there are some plastic windows but many houses maintain the wooden sash windows that add so much to the appearance of the buildings.
This is very much a tourist town and there are plenty of hotels. The George is the most celebrated, and the one with the longest history. In fact it could make a case for having the most involved history of any inn in England. It’s well over a thousand years old (though you’d have to get down to foundation level to find anything remaining from its earliest periods). It’s a fine looking building set off by a wooden sign crossing the street and panelled waiting rooms for passengers wishing to take the stage coach. There are separate waiting rooms for York and London bound passengers.
The town, surprisingly, boasts only a handful of famous people. Sir Malcolm Sargent was one of the better known orchestral conductors of the post war years (among those who have knowledge of such things) and the amiable novelist and former teacher Colin Dexter were both Stamford born. In stretching it’s links with the celebrity world the local tourist office includes Daniel Lambert whose renown is of being Britain’s fattest man (or was; we live in an age where such records could fall on a daily basis). He measure 9 feet 3 inches around his middle but his link with Stamford is that he happened to be staying in the town (at The George) when he died. His demise ended his two and a half day love affair with the place. If you really want to make the most of this connection you can view his walking stick; and who wouldn’t want to?
The town has had a succession of employers but none on whom the town became dependent. It was largely by-passed by the Industrial Revolution but has lived and prospered doing what it does best. And that is being handsome.
When Queen Eleanor died near Lincoln in 1290, Edward I honoured her by bringing her body back to London and having a cross built at each place where her body rested for the night. Charing Cross in central London is the most famous (and one of the last surviving) of these. Other were at Lincoln, Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Hardingstone, Stoney Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St Albans, Waltham and Cheapside. A carved rose from the original Stamford cross is in the local museum. The town has recently erected a pointy thing to commemorate the spot. It could double as a baton to commemorate Sir Malcolm Sargent. I hope they build a statue of a pint,a pen and a crossword puzzle to Colin Dexter in due course.
Stamford is different to everywhere else. It’s easy to get to and it is worth a visit. The individual buildings are impressive in themselves but collectively they are magnificent. Whether it is Britain’s best town is a subjective judgement. I enjoyed my visit enormously as I always do. Living here would be a different matter. But one I’d be prepared to give some thought to. Maybe I’ll be like Queen Eleanor. I’ll pass through in style and remember it fondly.