A CAREFULLY CONSIDERED LANDSCAPE
Approximately 1½ miles from the centre of Stamford, in rolling parkland coated in shimmering white, glows Burghley House. During the winter months, the house is closed, except for four days at the beginning of December when the annual Christmas Fair and fundraising Angel Fair are held. At this time, the Chestnut Courtyard, Brewhouse and The Orangery restaurant are opened, and the exterior of the house can be seen at closer quarters. The parkland, however, is open all year, from dawn until dusk, and is home to a large herd of fallow deer. Extensive walks can be taken around the landscaped grounds, admiring the ornate architecture of this 16th century house.. Much of the parkland was designed by the renowned 18th century landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. “On the ride to Burghley, he would have reveals, so that if you were coming down between trees you might suddenly get a glimpse of the house and then lose it again,” explains house manager, Phillip Gompertz. While Capability Brown left the most enduring legacy on the grounds, the influence of his 17th century predecessors, George London and Henry Wise, of The Brompton Nurseries, can be seen in places. The pair were commissioned by John Cecil, 5th Earl of Exeter to create avenues of lime and sweet chestnut to complement the house’s formal gardens. The design remains, though the trees are being replaced over the course of 20 years as they reach the end of their natural lives. “All these areas close to the house would have originally been Tudor formal gardens,” says Philip. “Capability Brown came along in the 1750s and was at Burghley for approximately 23 years, which he regards as his longest commission. His thoughts were about changing landscape and countryside to organised natural settings. He would never have a bare crest of hill, for example.”
Glimpses of beauty
Many of the formal gardens were taken out and a more naturalistic setting created, which was both easier to maintain and good for hunting. Though it appears natural now, all elements of the grounds were carefully considered. “The avenue planting is designed to complement Stamford and the spires,” says Phillip. “Look down an avenue that goes straight towards St Mary’s Church in the middle of Stamford and it’s centred on that spire. A lot of stately homes have some sort of architectural feature creating a folly at the end of an avenue: we have the spire of Stamford.” On a walk around the grounds, the towers and chimneys of the town come in and out of view, gathered into a perfect setting, framed by mature trees and silhouetted against a pale sky. “Of course, he would have planted these trees when they were small, so he would never have seen it,” says Philip. “However, he had the vision to see what it was going to be like in 100 or 200 years’ time.”
century and the rest of the church around it from the 15th century. Though its position makes it one of the most noticeable churches in the town, St Mary’s is often considered the most beautiful and has been referred to as Stamford’s showpiece. The octagonal sides of its 14th century broach spire taper to a point almost as tall as the tower on which it stands. It is richly decorated with lancets and niches containing the original statues. One of the best views is perhaps to be enjoyed from near St Martin’s, a 15th century church established 300 years earlier in 1146. Writer Sir Walter Scott declared that the view of Stamford from here was “the finest twixt Edinburgh and London”. Inside, the church houses the Burghley tombs, including that of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, Lord Treasurer and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. It was for him that Burghley House, the Elizabethan manor home standing within two miles of the town centre, was built.
Not content with building or restoring churches, wealthy medieval traders also set up a number of bedehouses. “It was believed that if they did enough good deeds for their fellow man, their souls would be assured a place in heaven,” says Jill. “So, they built almshouses for the poor. Browne’s Hospital is absolutely beautiful and the best example.” Founded in 1485 by wealthy wool merchant, William Browne, the hospital is still in use today and home to 13 residents. It was originally built to provide a home and place of worship for 10 poor, elderly
men and two women. The cloisters and chapel can still be visited, and the cottages surrounding a small courtyard garden can be seen from a covered walkway. “This was an agricultural area with a lot of people living and working on the land, and those people would lose their homes when they grew old,” explains curator David Wallington. William Browne had already completed a major rebuild of All Saints’ Church and been Mayor of Stamford six times, so he and his wife decided to set up this almshouse. The men were accommodated in the Common Room, which is panelled with dark wood. Each had a window, a stool, a wooden chair, a bed, a uniform and received an allowance of approximately 5 pence per week. Residents recited The Lord’s Prayer and Magnificat five times before bed and The Apostles’ Creed once and were required to know each by heart. At the end of the room, an enormous set of wooden doors open to a compact but beautiful chapel, with a ceiling twice as high as that of the Common Room. Light from windows reaching almost the full height of the room, spills in. “The glory of this chapel is the glass,” says David. “It is the original stained glass
“Stamford is as fine a built town all of stone as may be seen”
Celia Fiennes, 1697
and 550 years old. Unfortunately, over the first three centuries, it wasn’t well maintained and was falling out by the beginning of the 19th century.” In 1967, the glass was removed and cleaned, with as much as possible of the original arrangement being restored and replaced. “Much glass of that period and earlier was smashed, either at the Reformation or in the Civil War, so we’re lucky that, because it was in a private building rather than in a church, it survived.” Another unusual feature of the chapel are its misericord seats: small folding shelves which offered some support to the weary. “During medieval services, you were not supposed to sit down,” says David. “So there was a bench to fold down and perch on. Very often, you will find that if you lift the seat there are fabulous carvings beneath. It’s quite ornate for something that is basically hidden.” One of these shows a sculpted lion’s head, another a mermaid combing her long hair, said to be tempting sailors to their doom.
Time stands still
Outside, downy flakes have begun to drift languorously through the air, settling on window panes and biscuit-coloured walls. Close by, a narrow cobbled street, Barn Hill, takes on the look of a typical Dickensian Christmas. Usually a quiet pedestrianised street, it has been used as a location in a number of TV period dramas, including Middlemarch and the 2005 film, Pride and Prejudice. “It is one of the most attractive streets and easy to imagine you’re back in the 18th century,” says Jill. “There’s a Georgian house with a lovely feature. Steps go up from the left and right to the front door, and at the top of the steps is a gate. When the lady of the house came out in her finery, she could step through the gate straight into the carriage without dirtying her dress on the road below.” Though characterised with typical Georgian symmetry and proportion, it was very much the fashion to express oneself in the building of a new home. “Those with a bit of money in the new middle classes wanted to emulate the wealthy,” explains Jill. “At the front of the house, they would have the most expensive dressed limestone, with the cheaper rubble stone limestone at the sides. Unlike the more elegant houses, where the front door leads to a beautiful hall and grand staircase, here you would
have entered straight into the living accommodation. But that didn’t matter so long as the neighbours were impressed.”
History at its centre
Red Lion Square is an ancient market place in the centre of town, surrounded by historic buildings, including one which is thought to have been a late medieval wool hall. The square is dressed for the festive season, and a striking Christmas tree stands at its centre, in front of a stone building dating back to the late 18th century, which houses three shops. One of these is owned by Nelson’s butchers, who acquired the business back in 1924, but the shop’s history as a butcher’s goes back to at least 1826.
Most of Stamford’s Georgian houses are built from local Lincolnshire limestone, and many are tiled with brindled, often mossy, Collyweston stone slate. Mined from a village of the same name four miles to the south-west, the traditional slate has a singular appearance and traditionally took several years to be made. ‘Logs’ of the sandy Jurassic limestone were hauled out from beneath the ground while still damp and laid on a bed of shale so that cold air could circulate. The freeze-thaw process of several frosts caused the stone to split into thin plates, and these could then be cut and used as tiles. Excellent examples of this can be found along All Saints’ Street, just a few yards from Red Lion Square. One of the best examples is the Melbourne Bros’ All Saints Brewery. This is a working Victorian brewery, its tall red brick chimney visible throughout the town. It was established in 1825 and produced beer until 1974, after which the brewhouse was turned into a museum. General manager Dan Bourner lives and works at its pub, which has now been set to use producing beer once more. “In 1997, they decided to start brewing here again using all the original methods and equipment,” he says. “We still use the steam engine to power everything. It’s all done in the original way, as it was in 1825. We brew the fruit beers that we sell here.” In the pub itself, higgledy-piggledy stairs lead up to the main bar, off into several small snugs and a larger dining room. “We like people to discover it for themselves,” says Dan. “Sometimes people from Stamford ask how long we’ve been open, and I say ‘about 20 years’.” Outside, sun has broken through the pale cloud, reflecting off the freshly lain snow. Christmas draws another day closer in this town where the past is cherished for its timeless beauty. “The poet, John Betjeman described it as the most attractive town,” enthuses Jill. “And when the sun is shining on the stone, it looks absolutely beautiful.”
The winter sun creates a golden glow on magnificent Tudor mansion Burghley House, its grounds blanketed by snow.
Burghley House manager, Philip Gompertz.
Capability Brown designed the gardens at Burghley to give views over Stamford’s spires.
Although largely restored during the late 19th century, Browne’s retains some original glazing.
The Victorian cottages around Browne’s Hospital courtyard garden, seen through the arches of a walkway, were updated in 1963 to one-bedroomed flats.
Curator David Wallington in the chapel.
A model of a patient’s individual quarters at Browne’s Hospital.
Light streams through a stunning stained glass window, which almost fills one side of the hospital chapel.
The former Gothic-style public bath house, dating from 1823, is now a private residence.
Softly-coloured house frontages, with a variety of bay and arched windows and porch styles, make an impression along the sloping streets.
All Saints Brewery, a restored Victorian steam brewery, with its distinctive tower.
General manager Dan Bourner in the brewery behind the pub building.