Forget Peterborough, the town-to-visit is Stamford ten miles to the northwest. It got lucky when the Great North Road became a turnpike because it was one day's stagecoach ride from London. It lost out later when the local landowner refused access to the Great Northern Railway so Peterborough won that instead. The resulting economic slump froze the town in a splendid Georgian bubble, to the extent that many now deem it one of the most desirable places to live in the country. They are not wrong.[12 photos][visitStamford]
Picture a market town rising above river meadows with streets of limestone houses and soaring spires. Imagine somewhere the Germans mostly ignored and modern redevelopment completely passed by, but where you can still buy pretty much everything on the high street. That'd be Stamford, a charming throwback at Lincolnshire's southwestern tip, and very much beloved of makers of period drama. The BBC filmed Middlemarch here, Hollywood picked it for Pride and Prejudice and I spent a lot of time thinking "yes, if you blotted out those TV aerials that'd make a great backdrop for a crowd in bonnets". Equally Stamford's still very much a working town rather than a tourist-focused chocolate box, so is best experienced as a whole rather than in a single perfectly-framed photo. I never did manage to take one of those.
Barn Hill is one of the finest backstreets in almost-central Stamford, tipping irregularly down towards the parish church. It boasts a blue plaque to a disgraced antiquarian, a massive Georgian townhouse, a lot of cobbles and (potentially) a number of tourists consulting a map to discover what every building is. More typical are the narrow lanes like Blackfriars Street lined by humbler but no less attractive cottages, where hundreds of Stamfordians are privileged to live. Parking might be an impossibility, but imagine living in a house with a circular medieval chimney and having a limestone-fronted M&S Food Hall at the top of the road.
Only the High Street is pedestrianised - elsewhere you'll share the street with traffic threading through the back lanes towards the single bridge over the River Welland. These other roads host a number of small shops, including such staples as countryside outfitters, cookware emporia and (as seen on Mortimer and Whitehouse Gone Fishing) local cheesemongers. Those in the know frequent the alleyways off the main drag for their lunchtime sandwiches or take afternoon tea in a former coaching inn. I gazed in nostalgic wonder at the custard tarts, iced buns and cream horns in the window at Asker's Bakery. I could not resist a succulent Melton Mowbray pork pie from Nelsons Butchers. I feel obliged to point out that Robert Humm & Co Transport Booksellers are down to their last few copies of The Melton To Oakham Canal.
The town was once wealthy enough to boast seventeen medieval churches, of which five remain, hence the regularly-punctured skyline. On most days you can go inside most of them, even the one that's no longer used for worship because it's run by the Churches Conservation Trust. That'll be St John the Baptist, which was also my favourite because of the brightly painted angels with outstretched wings arrayed across the 15th century roof timbers. The south wall has a plaque commemorating Sir Malcolm Sargent who was a chorister (and learned to play the organ) here. Of the others All Saints is the largest and oldest, St Mary's verges on the Catholic, St Martin's is the odd one out south of the river and St George's is currently inaccessible because the guys from Rutland Scaffolding have been erecting out front.
The churches are the closest thing Stamford has to a visitor attraction, other than the town itself. You'd expect at least a museum but 'Discover Stamford' was closed in 2011 and a slimmed-down selection of exhibits relocated to the library (temporarily closed for roof repairs) and the town hall (essential visits only). Fret not, the town is essentially its own museum, especially if you pop into the Tourist Information Centre and grab the free trail leaflets which are impressively detailed enough to fill a few hours. I might otherwise have missed that the bus station used to be a castle, that 19 St George's Square is "arguably the finest house in Stamford" and that England's heaviest man is buried in St Martin's graveyard. That'd be Daniel Lambert, an uber-corpulent showman who died while visiting Stamford in 1809 and had to be buried within easy dragging distance.
In Remembrance of that Prodigy in Nature.
DANIEL LAMBERT, a Native of Leicester:
who was possessed of an exalted and convivial Mind
and in personal Greatness had no Competitor
He measured three Feet one Inch round the Leg
nine Feet four Inches round the Body
and weighed Fifty two Stone eleven Pounds!
Further treasures include an enormous medieval almshouse gifted to the town by a medieval wool merchant - that's Browne's Hospital - whose current inhabitants need to be active enough to tackle several sets of stone steps. Naturally there's a Corn Exchange, which'll be hosting an am dram version of Cats next weekend. The town once had an Eleanor Cross to mark the overnight resting place of Edward I's wife's dead body, but it crumbled long ago and has been replaced by a peculiar tall stone spike sculpted by Wolfgang Buttress. Stamford's bridge is a Victorian rebuild, but greatly enhanced by sloping Georgian streets climbing to either side. And although the Welland isn't much of a river its water meadows are splendid and much beloved by dogwalkers. Walk a little further than most to find the site of the ford where Ermine Street once crossed the river, now marked with a plaque commemorating Queen Boadicea's pursuit of the Ninth Roman Legion across the shallows.
A mile outside town, technically in the neighbouring county, is the most impressive building of all. This is Burghley House, an Elizabethan prodigy house knocked up by the all powerful Tudor courtier Sir William Cecil. It's over-turreted, over-chimneyed, over-roomed and enormously impressive, even from a distance. To reach it you walk first through an extensive landscape rippled by Capability Brown and grazed by sheep, then into a central deer park blessed with oak spinneys... or you drive in round the back and park near the gift shop. I recommend the walk. As time was short I got no further than the ha-ha, so sadly never quite reached the central lake, but was suitably delighted to be able to explore the parkland for free. Only the house and gardens are extra... but be warned they're closed for the next fortnight for filming, because Stamford's still very much that kind of town.