Why the Nazis had their eyes on the picture-perfect town of Stamford

Stamford, market Town
Stamford is home to quiet cobbled streets, picturesque architecture and independent establishments - Stone/Getty

“Stamford? Is that a university in the States? Do you mean Stamford Bridge?” None of my well-travelled friends had even heard of Stamford, Lincolnshire. Truth be told, nor had I until recently.

The “hidden gem” is a cliché of travel writing. However, after many years of exploring the UK, I propose that this small market town truly deserves the epithet.

The architecture is all buttery stone due to being of the same Jurassic limestone as Bath and York. Stamford was the first conservation area in England thanks to the pioneering work of one Dr Kenneth Fennell in the 1960s. With over 600 listed buildings in a compact area, the town – more like a living museum – is easily walkable. The illusion of being in a fantasy world is exacerbated by school pupils wafting around in long coats as if they’re at Hogwarts. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see one flying past on a broomstick. These are students of fee-paying Stamford Schools, which owns various Georgian buildings.

In one quiet cobbled street I had my first sighting of what appeared to be a tourist. A young woman was taking selfies in front of grand properties. She wasn’t recreating a scene from Middlemarch or Pride and Prejudice – both of which were filmed here – however, but a local fashion influencer (@rosieannbutcher) posing for Instagram. “There are so many amazing backdrops,” said Rosie Butcher, who, with partner and baby, recently moved back to Stamford, her childhood home.

The historic English market town of Stamford in Lincolnshire
Many buildings are built from the same Jurassic limestone as Bath and York - Getty/iStock

Unlike other honeystone honeypots where you can barely move for tourists wielding selfie-sticks, in Stamford the only visitors I met were from nearby, treating themselves to a night or two away in their closest market town.

Adding to the mystery of why this place is so underappreciated is the fact that poets and writers have praised its charms for centuries. John Betjeman called it “England’s most attractive town”. Sir Walter Scott apparently said it was the finest sight on the road between London and Edinburgh.

“It’s not just Georgian though,” said my guide, Nicola Sandall, on a walking tour. “There are medieval buildings too.” Dressed all in pink, she was a flurry of information and quirky stories – about how Stamford was spared destruction by Oliver Cromwell because his friend, Lady Frances Wingfield, lived here.

During the Second World War, Goering and Goebbels both had their eyes on Stamford’s main property – a splendid 16th-century stately home, Burghley House – as their future residence once Germany won the war, and so commanded the Luftwaffe to steer clear, said Sandall. Not that the town escaped unscathed. “One bomb was dropped but didn’t detonate. It rolled through a house where the family was having breakfast. They all survived and the bomb ended up in the garden,” she said as we crossed the River Welland, passing a watchmaker.

Burghley House in Stamford
During the Second World War, Goering and Goebbels both had their eyes on 16th-century stately home Burghley House - David Rose for the Telegraph

In ancient times, Stamford was an important crossing point of the Welland on the route of the Roman Road, Ermine Street, between London and York. Further commerce and wealth came from wool. When this trade waned, perhaps due to the river silting up and impeding navigation, “religion took over,” said Sandall. There were 14 churches, a priory and almshouses. Today, seven churches remain. In St Martin’s are the elaborate graves of William Cecil and family, owners of Burghley House. He was Lord High Treasurer to Elizabeth I and could easily have requested to be buried in Westminster Abbey – but preferred it here.

Stamford’s heyday came in the 1800s when it was a fashionable staging post on the Great North Road, linking London and Edinburgh. “It was two days’ coach journey from here to London and also two days’ from here to York,” said Sandall, pointing out the York Bar and London Room, in the foyer of The George of Stamford Hotel. “Passengers would wait for their coaches in those rooms: history in plain sight. In the 1800s, when the railways came, the main route bypassed Stamford – it only has a branch line – so the town didn’t really grow beyond the 19th century, maintaining its historic charm,” she says.

An active Civic Society continues the work of Dr Fennell. There are strict rules about shop frontages and colour schemes. This made national headlines recently when one shop owner – a former participant of BBC’s The Apprentice – was reprimanded for painting woodwork on her boutique yellow.

The town’s one downside is traffic jams. If you can, leave the car behind. The little train station is only a five-minute walk from the nearest hotel: The William Cecil, which, all Farrow & Ball colours and wood panelling, is just a 10-minute walk from the pedestrianised high street.

William Cecil hotel Stamford
Stamford's William Cecil hotel is all Farrow & Ball colours and wood panelling

You might even decide you wish to stay permanently. In The Bull & Swan, where, incidentally, Sir Isaac Newton used to socialise, I met a couple scouting for a property, relocating from Surrey. “It’s such a pretty town, like a miniature Bath without crowds,” said Lucy. “And there’s an arts centre, cinema and theatre.”

Stamford, with a population of just over 20,000, has appeared in national newspapers’ “Best place to live” lists. Yours for £700,000 is a new-build “Georgian-style” townhouse on Kettering Road. Not everyone approves. “I don’t care for pseudo ‘Georgian’ architecture,” said Ursula Jones, outspoken chair of Stamford Civic Society who lives nearby. “Build new, and sympathetically – but it shouldn’t pretend to be something it isn’t,” she said, scathing of a new development likened to Poundbury, the King’s pet project.

Needing something authentic, Jones and I walked to her favourite pub, The Tobie Norris, in a building that dates from the 13th century. Three floors of beams, wonky steps and eccentric decor, it was once the home and foundry of bell makers, the Tobie Norris family. More recently it was an RAF club but for nearly 20 years it has been a real ale inn. “It’s always busy with locals at weekends,” said Jones. “You have to book a table.” We were there on a Monday in February and the place was so quiet we could have had a room to ourselves. Stamford rings my bell. A gem, hiding in plain sight.

How to do it

Book a 90-minute guided walking tour with the Mayor’s Guides (01780 729076). The Mid-Lent Fair (featuring fairground rides) will bring noise and crowds to Stamford from March 11-16 (you may wish to avoid). Friday is market day.

Burghley House reopens on March 16. The William Cecil has a Sunday offer during March with a three-course dinner, a bottle of wine and B&B from £150pp (thewilliamcecil.co.uk). For more information see visitlincolnshire.com.