Age-old streets of golden stone

Pale golden Geor­gian houses shim­mer as Christ­mas ar­rives in Stam­ford, where her­itage and ar­chi­tec­ture are de­vot­edly pre­served

Landscape (UK) - - Contents -

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.

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