The Town of Stamford
We are lucky enough to live and garden in Stamford - the most complete stone town in England, with 600 listed buildings of mellow limestone within a single square mile and whole streets barely changed in centuries. Sir Walter Scott apparently doffed his hat to the view of St Mary's church, claiming it was the finest sight on the road from London to Edinburgh and in the 1950s the historian W G Hoskins wrote 'If there is a more beautiful town in the whole of England I have yet to see it.'(1)
The recorded history of Stamford goes back more than 1,000 years and over the centuries the town's fortunes have been decidedly mixed - long periods of prominence and prosperity, interspersed with equally long periods as a destitute backwater. Stamford
takes its name from the 'stoney ford' used by the Romans to cross the River Welland when building Ermine Street, the great highway linking London to Lincoln and York. It was to be another 800 years before the first settlement of any size emerged, but by the second half of the ninth century Stamford was one of the five controlling boroughs of The Danelaw. Danes and Saxons co-existed in the flourishing town, which had its own mint and was famed throughout Britain and Northern Europe for its wheel-thrown pottery, often with a distinctive yellow glaze.
Stamford continued to prosper under the Normans owing to its established trading routes, both with London via Ermine Street and with the towns of the East Midlands and the North Sea ports via the Welland. Its fame shifted from pottery to 'haberget', a particularly fine woollen cloth, worn by King John and his household and sought after by the European merchants who visited Stamford's internationally-renowned Lent fair, held beneath the walls of the Norman castle.
By the 13th century Stamford was one of the ten largest towns in England, with a population of about 5,000. It had fourteen parish churches (five of which survive), several monasteries, religious houses and hospitals and five vintners supplying fine wines, the last probably as good a measure of prosperity as any! Parliaments met in the town and visitors flocked to the jousting tournaments Richard I had sanctioned across the eight mile stretch between Stamford and the village of Wansford.
During the fifteenth century the hub of the wool trade switched from the Midlands to East Anglian towns like Lavenham and Sudbury and Stamford fell into a long period of decline, hastened by the Welland silting up and becoming unnavigable. What trade remained was concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy merchants like William Browne, who founded Browne's Hospital in Broad Street, the grandest of Stamford's 'callises' or almshouses, which survives intact, complete with its beautiful medieval stained glass. Browne and his fellow merchants helped rebuild and restore many of the town's churches, including St John's, St Martin's and All Saints - all superb examples of Perpendicular Gothic architecture.
Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s came as a harsh blow at a time when a growing number of residents was reliant on the town's religious foundations for food and sometimes for shelter. By 1602 Stamford was so poverty-stricken it was exempted from paying tax. The population fell to only 2,000 and was to be further decimated by waves of plague in the second half of the seventeenth century.
However, it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good, and whilst the ancient monasteries and friaries were being dismantled, across the river in the hamlet of Burghley, Queen Elizabeth's Secretary of State, William Cecil, was constructing one of Tudor England's most magnificent houses. He and his descendants, the Marquesses of Exeter, were to have an enormous impact on Stamford's future. Their elaborate tombs can be visited in St Martin's church.
A tradition of academic learning led to the town becoming a short-lived breakaway university from Oxford, the only reminder of which is a replica bronze door-knocker in St Paul's Street. The 'Brazenose' knocker was brought to Stamford from its namesake Oxford college in 1333 by a group of students and tutors intent on establishing a rival university. Their attempt failed after Oxford petitioned Edward III, who ordered a return. The original knocker remained until 1890, when it was given back to Brasenose College.
A surprising number of buildings survives from this period, including the early 12th century St Leonard's Priory, the 13th century arcades in All Saints' Church, fine 13th century stone-built hall houses and undercrofts, and the 14th century gateway to the Grey Friary. The Stamford skyline is still dominated by the magnificent 162 foot 14th century spire of St Mary's church, whose clock keeps the town to time, chiming out the quarter hour.
Although Oliver Cromwell lay siege to Burghley House and Charles I purportedly spent his last night of freedom in Barn Hill, Stamford escaped comparatively unscathed in the English Civil War. After the 1660 Restoration of the monarchy, engineering works reopened the Welland to barges, a brewing industry was established in the town and Stamford's economy slowly began to recover.
The eighteenth century saw a dramatic second flourishing of the town. Stamford's position midway between London and York on the Great North Road (which had superseded Ermine Street) made it an important stop-over for travellers using the much-improved stagecoaches. As many as forty coaches a day - 'twenty up and twenty down' - passed through the town, and medieval inns such as the George, the Bull, and the George and Angel (originally the beautifully-named Angel of the Hoope) were elevated into hostelries of national renown. The George's imposing 'gallows' sign served as a welcome to travellers and a warning to highwaymen. There was nothing whimsical about this reminder; brigands such as Dick Turpin and Claude Duval terrorised the roads and specifically targeted coaching inns. In its heyday The George was one of the busiest inns in England. To either side of its main entrance still sit doors marked 'London' and 'York', remnants of the stagecoach waiting rooms.
Prosperous professionals and merchants began settling in the town, commissioning many of the vernacular buildings we associate with Stamford today. These houses and streetscapes of outstanding beauty and quality have provided the setting for several period dramas, such as the BBC's Middlemarch and the 2005 film Pride and Prejudice. In 1722 Daniel Defoe wrote of Stamford 'It is very fair, well built and wealthy.'(2)
As fast as Stamford's fortunes rose with the stagecoach they fell again with the coming of the railway. Stage and mail coaches could not compete with the speed of rail travel and by the mid nineteenth century most coaches travelling to and from London had been withdrawn from service.
Intent on preserving the town's character, the Marquis of Exeter successfully argued against the proposed Great Northern Railway coming through the town (consequently, in 1844 Peterborough got the main line and the jobs that went with it) and refused to release land for industrial development or much-needed housing. The town was once again in decline. Employment opportunities were few and far between and serious overcrowding in the slum courts huddled behind grander buildings led to regular outbreaks of smallpox, typhoid and scarlet fever. Many Stamfordians were forced to move away and the
semi-feudal relationship between the Cecils of Burghley and the townspeople became increasingly fraught. It was only when the Stamford Enclosure Act came into force in 1875 that land was finally released to build housing to the north of the townand that agricultural and other engineering firms, such as Blackstone's, were established.
The heavy price our ancestors paid for the Cecil family's obstinance is, ironically, what enables us to enjoy Stamford's unspoilt beauty today. In 1967 it was the first town in the country to be created a conservation area and in 2013 The Sunday Times named Stamford as the best place to live in Britain, praising it for its outstanding architecture, transport links, family-friendly atmosphere and proximity to Rutland Water and other lovely countryside. Burghley House remains one of England's most impressive stately homes and each September hosts the internationally-renowned Burghley Horse Trials.
Looking across the Welland to Lord Burghley's Hospital © thisenglishlife via Instagram
SOURCES AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:
(1) East Midlands and the Peak © Geoffrey Grigson, Collins, 1951
(2) A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain: Letter VII by Daniel Defoe
(3) Lincolnshire (The Buildings of England) © Nikolaus Pevsner, Yale University Press, 1989
- The Book of Stamford by Alan Rogers, Barracuda Books Ltd, 1983
Copyright © Karen Meadows 2018