12 May 2014 by Mel Russ Articles
The sound of steel striking steel catches my attention. It’s a steady beat that has echoed around the streets of Stamford for centuries. I am walking down the cobbled Barn Hill, one of the prettiest residential streets in the Jacobean-Georgian town, towards the Crown Hotel and Red Lion Square; I am looking forward to a beer under the summer sun but I can’t veer away from the noise.
Reaching All Saints churchyard I can see scaffolding erected against the north-west corner of the church where a mason is working on the crumbling stonework around the edge of a large stained glass window. First with a pneumatic hammer he loosens the large pieces of soft stone, then turns to a club hammer and chisel to clean out the broken stone, infill and debris. Watching I realise this same work has been going on for hundreds of years as wind, rain, ice and frost have eaten into the lovely golden yellow stone causing it to crumble.
Having lived in Stamford for almost a decade I was always amazed at how many orange Bowman Transit vans were parked around the town, recently voted as the best place to live in Britain by The Sunday Times newspaper, as stonemasons and conservationists faced the never-ending battle of keeping the elegant and historically important fabric of the buildings together. In my eyes nature was fighting the masons – the masons always won but at a cost.
Walking around the town after a day’s work I explored down the alleyways between the shops imagining how life would have been before the motor car – times when stagecoaches were the only way to travel in style between London and York.
Standing at the bottom of St Mary’s Hill today, and looking up at the church on the right, you can almost picture coaches pulled by teams of horses heading for The George hotel close to the River Welland – post horns blaring to warn staff that fresh horses and sustenance were required. It has been said that Stamford is the most perfectly preserved Georgian town in the country. This was obviously realised by the authorities who, under the Civic Amenities Act of 1967, ruled it to be the first conservation area in England and Wales, later designating the town an area of outstanding historic and architectural interest.
Tourists now flock to the town to wander the streets in amazement but very few miss the real trick of seeing the town in its true light, and that’s to stop walking and look up at the ancient and sometimes out of line and twisted Collyweston slate roofs, the attics, with ornate surrounds, the chimneys, the unseen beautiful under-crofts, and the church spires for which the town is rightly famous.
But despite the work of the town councillors and conservation lobbyists, some of the town has disappeared forever…unless you have true imagination and interest. Stand in the middle of the bus station and visualise the keep and outer walls of the town’s Norman castle, built in 1484, rising around you. It is a shame the ancient site was cleared; wouldn’t tourists have enjoyed walking around the castle walls gazing across the water meadows and admiring the many church spires?
The same fate happened to the Sheepmarket. The name now only exists in the guise of Sheepmarket St, which runs down to the square, now dominated by a totally out of character stone needle, which is out of step with the historic area. Sometimes you have to shake your head at the people who foster and support such projects!
Ambling along Bath Row, which runs parallel with the millstream you pass what originally looked like warehouses, they give a small clue to some of the Lincolnshire town’s wealth. Still heading for the bridge you eventually come to St Mary’s Passage, which leads back onto St Mary’s Hill. Turn right, head for the bridge and cross over so you can enjoy the view downstream.
On the left you will note yet another building that looks like a warehouse, which backs onto Wharf Road, which may be a clue to the areas bustling commercial past. Now a coffee shop and antiques emporium, these buildings stored the town’s wealth because before the river started to silt up, and probably right back to Roman times, cargo ships and barges would navigate the waterway taking local produce including valuable woven cloth called haberget down river to the North Sea where it would be shipped throughout Europe. Imports would come in the same way bringing goods from the Low Countries, Germany, France, Portugal and Spain.
The cloth trade brought immense wealth to the Stamford merchants until the trade moved into East Anglia during the 15th century. One philanthropic merchant who left his mark on the town was William Browne who funded the magnificent almshouses and hospital in Broad Street, which are claimed to be one of the best medieval almshouses in the country.
Counting the amount of churches there are in Stamford, 17 in all, you realise how Christian the citizens of the town must have been in the past. This is in stark contrast with the darker side of town, where North Street, Chapel Yard, Newgate and East Street marked where all the lower class taverns and ladies of the night plied their trade over 200 years ago. A vast slum-clearing programme wiped it all away at the turn of the century.
Standing on high ground at Wothorpe, which is built to the south of the town, and looking north across the meadows you can fully take in the majesty of Stamford’s position and admire the church spires. You can also clearly see Rutland Terrace, a wonderful row of grand Georgian houses, the brewery chimney, and a rare mix of houses built through the centuries.
Before saying goodbye to Stamford it would be ungracious not to mention the Cecil family, who gained favour and power during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. William Cecil became her secretary of state and amassed great riches, enough cash in fact to build the grand Burghley House just outside the town, and now ranked as one of the finest examples of Tudor architecture in the realm.
Much has been missed or omitted from our fleeting tour because of the lack of space but we know the town’s history goes back over 1000 years. We also know the Romans settled close by and we know that Stamford and the Welland was the southern frontier of the Danes who pillaged, settled and became farmers throughout Lincolnshire.
Luckily Stamford escaped virtually untouched from the ravages of the English Civil War. But one long battle still continues – replacing and maintaining the stone fabric of this unique market town so that today we can still walk around and admire the grandeur.