Age-old streets of golden stone
Pale golden Georgian houses shimmer as Christmas arrives in Stamford, where heritage and architecture are devotedly preserved
Aglimmering layer of snow lies over Stamford, the chimneys and turrets of its irregular skyline jutting into a winter sky. The pale golden limestone of which most of this market town, tucked in the south-west corner of Lincolnshire, is built stands warmly against the crisp white. Muddled lines of footprints run along the High Street, and the scent of mulled wine emanates from an open window. Nearby, church bells begin to chime. Christmas is on its way. Stamford is one of the best-preserved Georgian towns in the country, home to more than 600 Grade II listed buildings, 100 of which are also Grade II*, and eight ancient monuments. The whole town is protected as a Conservation Area, the first in the UK to be designated as such. It has escaped the vagaries of war, industrialisation and modernisation, retaining its Georgian architecture and medieval street pattern, while continuing to thrive. As the festivities fast approach, visitors and locals throng its streets, and families toast one another in the warm confines of its traditional pubs. Entering the town from the north, High Street St Martin’s sweeps downhill to a triple-arched Georgian bridge crossing the River Welland. This has been an important crossing point on the main north-south route along the country for more than 1,000 years, the name Stamford originating from a corruption of the Saxon ‘stony ford’. Neolithic remains, turned up in local quarries, however, suggest that this route has been in use for far longer. The earliest crossing point has been located approximately 208 yards (190m) upstream of the bridge, leading down from Wothorpe Road to Water Meadows. Here, a natural branching and shallowing of the river meant it could be reliably crossed for most of the year. The route was later changed to run in accordance with the Roman road, Ermine Street, and from then until 1961, Stamford lay on the Great North Road, the main travelling road between London and Edinburgh. For much of that time, it was one of the busiest coaching routes in the country, providing the town with a source of ongoing revenue, of which innkeepers were quick to take advantage. “Four horses pulling a full carriage could do 20 to 25 miles in a day, so you had coaching stops all the way up,” says Blue Badge tour guide, Jill Collinge, who has worked in the area giving talks and leading walks for 37 years. “At one time, there were more than 95 pubs and taverns in the town, to provide for the coaching trade.” One of the most famous is The George of Stamford, on High Street St Martin’s, just a few steps south of the river and its historic crossing. A bottle-green sign hangs from a gallows spanning the road, declaring the name in clear white lettering.
The hotel has long been a landmark as well as a place of welcome respite. “In the 18th century, The George became the great coaching inn on the Great North Road, with stabling outside for 86 pairs of horses,” says Jill. “It’s more than a thousand years old, and in the basement, you can see remains of the old building.” Two religious houses once stood on either side of the inn, which have both now been incorporated into the main building. On the south side was the house of the Holy Sepulchre, a hospital of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem. Here, pilgrims journeying south to visit the
“Black are my steps on silver sod; Thick blows my frosty breath abroad; And tree and house, and hill and lake, Are frosted like a wedding cake” Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘Winter-Time’
Sepulchre of Christ in Jerusalem, and the knights who accompanied them for protection, were offered lodging and entertainment. Small details, such as triple trefoils adorning the garden gateways, can still be observed. Much of this part of the building, however, was destroyed by Lancastrian forces during the War of the Roses. Stamford, because of its allegiance to the Dukes of York, was taken in 1460 and many of its buildings destroyed. By this time, the three buildings had all passed into single ownership to become part of the single entity as it exists today. During the 18th century, as the coaching roads became busier, the front of the inn was rebuilt to the current design. A private dining room and a bar still bear their historic names, the York Room and the London Room were once waiting rooms for people travelling north or south. “We know there was an inn called The George here in 1140. Before that, inns didn’t have names, but we also know that there was one here in 940,” says hotel owner, Lawrence Hoskins. “From the middle of the 15th century, it was owned by the Burghley estate, but it has been privately owned by us since 1971. It’s run like an inn used to be run, with the food and drink being the most important side.” Roast beef has been served from a silver service in the Oak Room restaurant in the same way for the last 35 years. “We’ve had the same butcher for all that time. He knows exactly what we want, and he supplies it,” says Lawrence.
In December, traditional Christmas decorations are strung lavishly and the fire crackles throughout the day. Interconnected rooms belie the inn’s past as separate buildings and The Garden Room restaurant occupies an old courtyard. Here, an intricate botanical mural has been painted freehand directly onto the wall by contemporary Leicestershire artist, Jennifer Bell.
Symbols of wealth
When the A1 bypass was opened in 1961, traffic was drawn out of Stamford’s streets but the town continues to attract guests. The now much quieter High Street crosses the river to head uphill towards the medieval heart of Stamford. Fine Georgian buildings stand on either side, housing independent shops, cafés and bars. As the narrow road angles sharply to the left and right, three churches in close proximity are passed: St Mary’s first, with its tall, elegant spire; St John’s; and then All Saints’, one of Stamford’s oldest, making up one side of the town square. Two more, St Martin’s, further south, and St George’s, tucked away in quiet streets amid a small grassy yard, make up the five medieval churches for which Stamford has become renowned. “The wealthy wool merchants would vie with each other to see who had the most money, by building churches,” says tour guide Jill. “So, at one point, there were 14 parishes and 14 churches. Five remain today.” A sixth still stands on the High Street, but has been converted into shops, while a seventh is part of a school. All Saints’ Church is the oldest of the five and was mentioned in the Domesday Book, though none of the original building survives. The nave dates from the 13th
St Mary’s Church, seen here from the millstream looking towards Bath Row, is one of the most prominent churches in Stamford.
The present bridge over the River Welland was completed by Edward Browning in 1849, on the site of an earlier medieval bridge.
The George ‘gallows’, erected in the 18th century as a warning to the ever-present threat of highwaymen such as Dick Turpin.
Tour guide Jill Collinge.
Mistletoe greets visitors to the courtyard at The George, which is dressed for Christmas and lined with twinkling trees. Walking down Ironmonger Street towards the High Street and St Michael’s church, now housing shops and a bank.
Head chef Paul Reseigh and hotel owner Lawrence Hoskins discuss the menu.
St George’s Church, claimed to be the original church of the Order of the Garter. Benefactor William Bruges, First Garter King of Arms, was buried here in 1450.