Bridging the River Welland where Lincolnshire, Rutland and Northamptonshire all meet, Stamford, like Bruges, owes its time-warped beauty to the severing of a transport artery at exactly, from our perspective, the right time.
On the Great North Road between London and York, the town developed in the 18th century into a bustling hub of coaching inns and the social pursuits in which their patrons indulged. The grandest of these inns, the George, still puts up guests in its 16th-century rooms, its ‘gallows’ sign straddling High Street St Martin’s to welcome the traveller and warn the highwayman.
The decision taken in 1852 to route the new railway line north through Peterborough rather than Stamford killed the coaching trade overnight. However, it also halted development
in the town and left Stamford with a charming, compact centre in stone that today boasts more than 600 listed buildings.
Most of these buildings are Georgian, befitting Stamford’s period in the sun. The elegant Rutland Terrace in St Peter’s Street suggests Regency Cheltenham in miniature, while Barn Hill, cobbled and peaceful, could easily be in Durham. But Stamford abounds with remains that speak of its past from before its great coaching days. Some are strictly utilitarian; around the corner from Rutland Terrace, the stern St Peter’s Bastion stands as the largest remaining section of the town’s medieval defensive wall.
Others served, and serve still, a gentler purpose, like the 15th-century Browne’s Hospital in Broad Street, the grandest of Stamford’s almshouses, or ‘callises’ in local dialect, which is still occupied by residents and open to the public. But Stamford’s real pre-Georgian glories are its churches, of which there are an impressive plenitude.
The 162-foot, 14th-century spire of St Mary’s forms the focus of the skyline, while the fine ceiling of St John the Baptist, decorated along the nave with carved wooden angels, will crick the necks of visitors who venture inside. Less refined but denser with objects of interest is the interior of St Martin’s, crammed with ornate and often delicate monuments to members of the Cecil family, local aristocrats who defeated the railway and whose magnificent Elizabethan home of Burghley House lies just outside the town. St George’s and All Saints’, the latter at its best when seen framed against higgledy-piggledy Georgian houses from the top of Barn Hill, are also worth investigating.
Arguably Stamford’s most intriguing attraction, however, is an unobtrusive bronze door-knocker in St Paul’s Street. This is the ‘Brazenose’ knocker, brought to Stamford from its namesake Oxford college in 1333 by a group of students intent on establishing a rival university. Their attempt failed; Oxford petitioned Edward III and he ordered a return, leaving Stamford to remain a backwater until its brief flowering centuries later.
The knocker hung on more tenaciously, being returned only in 1890, and it is a replica that now graces the remains of the abortive college. But when one considers that Stamford’s essential charm lies in its out-of-the-way nature, it is perhaps something of a blessing that the students’ efforts never came to fruition.
Don’t miss: the house in Barn Hill, marked by a plaque, that is purportedly where Charles I spent his last night as a free man.