diamond geezer

 Sunday, October 03, 2021

Gadabout: GRANTHAM

Grantham is a market town straddling the Great North Road, the East Coast mainline and an unspectacular stretch of the River Witham. Numerically it's 100 miles from London with a population of 45,000. Administratively it's in the South Kesteven district of Lincolnshire, as is the rather wow-er Stamford which I visited a couple of weeks back. Retrospectively it's seen a fair few historic figures pass through and dispatched Sir Isaac Newton and Margaret Thatcher into the world. Touristically maybe don't bother, but I did anyway and passed a few interesting hours.
[10 photos] [visit Grantham] [map]

Best start with the parish church, because at 84 metres its spire is the sixth tallest in the country and unmissable across the town. This Norman place of worship is named after St Wulfram, a 7th century French archbishop whose arm was once housed in the crypt. It's very much a building that impresses, perhaps all the more so if you walk in through the front door and see a giant illuminated Earth rotating in the nave. This is Luke Jerram's Gaia, a touring globe which has turned up this weekend as part of the Metanoia Climate Festival, complete with haybales underneath so visitors can look up and ponder. I avoided ticketed entrance by turning up the day before, so enjoyed much the best view. But because volunteers were busy shifting display boards I think I missed two of the finest features, namely the chained library above the south porch and the medieval woodwork in the crypt. If church architecture is your thing, St Wulfrum's is the best reason to come to Grantham.

The other good reason is Sir Isaac Newton, local lad and global game-changer. He was born at Woolsthorpe Manor a few miles to the south, but was educated here in Grantham at The King's School. Boys have studied on the same site since the 1520s, and the Old School building where Isaac was taught (pre-calculus) mathematics still stands across the road from the church. A blue plaque marks the spot, while another on the High Street recalls his schoolday lodgings in an apothecary's house. Newton's chief civic commemoration is a bronze statue outside the Guildhall, unveiled in 1858. Margaret Thatcher's statue is due to be erected on a neighbouring lawn, possibly imminently, so I'm glad I got in before another scientist soured the view.

Grantham's obsession with Sir Isaac extends far and wide. One of the most obvious manifestations is the Sir Isaac Newton Shopping Centre, a morose mall anchored around a Morrisons supermarket. It looked a lot brighter in the early 1980s when all the units were full, but even Poundland have recently departed and now the apple-themed clock looks down on retail deadspace. Apples are very much the go-to symbolism for artists attempting to visualise the great man's oeuvre, hence another fruity appearance in Wyndham Park supported by a wooden hand. Artist Paul Lewthwaite took a more scientific approach in the Market Place with his Orrery depicting Earth, the Moon and Venus lined up with the Sun, aka the Market Cross. And yes, the nightclub immediately behind is called Gravity, should you ever want to feel the force on a night out.

As a town on the main road north, Grantham was once home to several coaching inns. One of these, the Angel & Royal, is the oldest building in town and one of the world's oldest hotels. It started out in 1203 as a hostel built by the Knights Templar, and monarchs who've stayed here since include King John, Edward III, Richard III, Charles I and George IV. The entrance from the High Street is through plate glass swing doors set into a medieval archway, beyond which a long courtyard opens out with hotel rooms to both sides and four converted stables at the far end. Genteel residents are encouraged to drop in for coffee, a bistro meal or Sunday lunch.

The George Inn, much loved by Dickens, has not fared so well. At the end of the 1980s everything behind its Georgian frontage was knocked down and replaced by a shopping mall within a glass atrium, described on an information board as "a bustling and thriving community of stylish shops". Alas the 2021 reality is a deadzone of mostly vacant units with minimal footfall and a lone escalator waiting to carry almost nobody up to nowhere much. Surviving businesses include Tropicana Tan and the Juice-E-Vaporium, plus a jobseekers drop-in, but the general ambience is of a temple to Thatcherite optimism laid low by downtrodden economic reality.

Grantham has several interesting pubs, not least The Beehive, outside which is an actual beehive supported in a tree. It's said to be the only living inn sign in the country, and I can confirm sight of several buzzy occupants flying in and out. For many years the town boasted several 'blue' pubs, including the Blue Bull, Blue Ram, Blue Pig and Blue Man. These were renamed in the 19th century as part of an election campaign by the Duke of Rutland to encourage his Whig supporters to drink in "blue" hostelries. Since the Blue Bull closed in 2015 the Blue Pig has been the last colourful survivor, and is one of the town's handful of Tudor buildings to boot.

What I had intended to do is trek two miles out of town to visit Belton House, a National Trust property once owned by the Blue Pig's political nemesis. Fortunately just before I started up Manthorpe Road I checked my membership card and unfortunately discovered it expired in April, because during lockdown I'd failed to stick the new one in my wallet. Instead I sighed and invoked my back-up plan which was to climb Hart's Hill instead. I traipsed out to the last bungalows on the eastern edge of town, beyond which a scrappy path rose through scrub to a brambly outcrop from which the entirety of Grantham could be surveyed. My brief battle against the force of gravity had yielded impressive results.

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