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Words: Melanie Burton
Photography: Mick Fox and Eyerise Photography. Painting by David Work
Featured in the October 2012 issue

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Lying on the main north-south route from London, the quaint Lincolnshire town has always played an important part in the life of the nation.

It was the first town throughout England and Wales ever to be designated as a conservation area and one of the most complete dinosaur skeletons ever found in the UK was discovered nearly forty-five years ago in the village of Great Casterton, just three miles outside of the town.

Royalty and nobility used it as a stop-off point on their travels and with its abundance of historical and architecturally important buildings, there is no wonder that travellers near and far still visit Stamford as they did centuries ago.
It seems that the town hasn’t lost its charm despite the recession, with an increased number of visitors already this year. On 30th September it will be welcoming more to its French Market and there are further community events on the cards, notably the Stamford Christmas Festival.

Stamford events project manager, Ali Hawley-Smith is behind the ‘France At Home’ event and she is also organising the Christmas Festival on behalf of its host, Stamford Town Council.

It takes place on Sunday, 9th December, and is already proving to be popular with nearly two-thirds of the stalls and spaces snapped up.

“There is room for 200 and already 140 are taken which is a good uptake. We are still looking for potential sponsors because it is a community event and self-funding and it offers an opportunity for businesses to advertise themselves to a wider audience,” she said.

Volunteers are also needed to help at the one-day event which last year attracted more than 20,000 visitors to the town.

“Stalls and spaces are selling out fast. Visitor numbers to this event have increased by 100 per cent since it was founded in 2009, and along with it the popularity to trade, resulting in high demand from traders,” said Ali.

“The idea is that it is a local event supported locally and we are predicting 20,000 plus people will come to it again this year. That will help the local economy by them spending in the town.”

If you haven’t yet booked your space or are interested in sponsorship or volunteering just contact Ali at info@alishouseofstring.co.uk.

Generally Stamford seems to be holding its own in today’s tough economic climate.

“The year has been very successful. The French Market is something new. There used to be one years ago and I hope to do the same with other European markets throughout next year,” added Ali.

The message is the same from Stamford Chamber of Trade and Commerce which actively represents the interests of the business community in Stamford and its catchment area.

In partnership with Stamford Town Partnership, Stamford Town Council and South Kesteven District Council, it is working to build the town’s prosperity by generating trade and tourism, helping to improve the environment and local amenities and marketing the town regionally and nationally.

It is determined to play its part in improving the economy and services in sympathy with Stamford’s heritage.

President, Tim Lee of management consultant Wilson Lee and Partners (WLP) said the town is positive about the future.

“The general health of the town is good. We are quietly upbeat. We haven’t lost a lot of infrastructure and we are waiting for things to improve and I think that they are starting to do that.”

The Chamber carries out regular surveys to monitor the number of visitors to the town and this year the news so far is good.

“Footfall figures show no decline in visitors. In fact there is a slight increase this year. But although there are more people coming to the town, they may be spending less money,” said Mr Lee.

Stamford has always been a destination where visitors can enjoy a blend of shopping and sightseeing and spend time at an event or a theatrical performance.

On the shopping front, people will find a unique mix of niche stores in addition to the big-name stores, giving them an opportunity to find something a little bit different and there are interesting pubs and restaurants too.

Mr Lee said there is a good turnover of shops in the High Street. If one closes, it is soon replaced by another.

“Stamford is still a popular place for businesses which are relocating.  More of our independent businesses are seeing an increase in trade. Cafes and restaurants are doing well, but boutiques are not. But we don’t have a High Street with boarded-up shop units.”

One burning issue in the town is the possibility of a residents’ parking scheme being introduced after Lincolnshire County Council takes over parking enforcement powers from the police at the end of November.The Chamber fears it will cause a fair amount of controversy in the town and could have an adverse impact on visitor numbers.

South Kesteven District Council has carried out consultations with townsfolk to see if there is a demand for a scheme and residents’ groups, the police, Lincolnshire County Council Highways, town councils and other key partners have also been asked for their views.

SKDC Leader, Linda Neal said the council has been working with specialists to look at resident parking.

“They have been looking at defined scheme areas and the opportunities for on-street parking schemes. Once we have this feedback, and find out if there is more than fifty per cent backing for each of the schemes, we will send all the results to the county council.”

But the Chamber is far from happy about the situation.

Mr Lee said: “We will have wardens reinstated at the end of November and that is going to create issues around parking availability. There isn’t any enforcement at the moment so people park where they like.”

He said there are one or two free spaces in the town but if they are handed over lock, stock and barrel for residents’ parking there will be an issue for visitors.

“It’s going to be a deterrent and bad for business. The Chamber wants to keep and preserve as many spaces as possible,” added Mr Lee.

Visitor numbers are boosted by a number of attractions in the surrounding area, especially Burghley House and its estate – one of the largest and grandest houses of the first Elizabethan Age.

Built and mostly designed by William Cecil, Lord High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth 1 between 1555 and 1587, it plays host to a variety of events from the world-renowned Burghley Horse Trials to the lesser-known, but highly popular, Pumpkin Trail around the Sculpture Garden. It takes place from Saturday, 20th October to Sunday, 28th October.

During October the state rooms are also transformed with beautiful floral displays created by local flower societies, offering a new perspective on England’s greatest Elizabethan House.

Each room will inspire the floral arrangement with societies taking their inspiration from the painted ceilings, seventeenth century art or the original purpose of a room.

Burghley Flower Festival takes place from Saturday, 6th October to Sunday, 14th October.

The house has also been used as the location for many high-profile films. Its virtually unaltered Elizabethan facades and a variety of historic interiors make it an ideal location for historical and period movies.

Films and programmes made at Burghley include ‘The Da Vinci Code’, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Elizabeth: The Golden Age’.

THE GEORGE HOTEL
For centuries The George Hotel has been a stopping-off point for travellers visiting Stamford from near and far.

Today is no exception. People from all over the world now enjoy its hospitality, so much so that it has won a host of awards already this year.

TripAdvisor, one of the top travel websites, awarded it a Certificate of Excellence 2012 based on reviews posted by members of the public who have stayed there.

To qualify, businesses must maintain an average rating of four or higher out of a possible five, as reviewed by travellers on TripAdvisor. Additional criteria include the volume of reviews and how recently they have been submitted.

The George has also recently been recognised by The Good Pub Guide, who awarded the hotel’s York Bar the accolade ‘County dining pub of the year’ winner 2013.

On top of that, its wine list was selected as the Winner of the Condé Nast Johansens Champagne Taittinger Wine List Award 2012 in the Hotels and Spas category and was also chosen as the Overall Winner of the Champagne Taittinger Wine List Award 2012.

General manager, Chris Pitman said: “These awards are a superb achievement for the hotel. We are very proud and delighted to have been recognised for all of our hard work.”

The beautiful sixteenth-century coaching inn, with its log fires, oak panelled restaurant, a walled monastery garden and cobbled courtyard decorated with hanging baskets, is steeped in history, just like Stamford itself.

It is situated on The Great North Road, once the main route out of London, which has always been one of the most famous highways in the world.

Along it travelled Phoenician traders, Ancient Britons and the legions of Rome. Later, marauding bands of Saxons and Danes and Norman armies trod its length.

More recently, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, The George was frequented by royalty and nobility. King Charles I passed the night of 15th March 1641, when on his way to Grantham, and again on Sunday, 23rd August 1645, when travelling from Newark to Huntingdon.

And Sir Walter Scott was also a frequent visitor, even writing that the view of Stamford from St Martin’s was ‘the finest twixt Edinburgh and London’. 

The exact age of The George is unknown, but historians have referred to it as: ‘A very ancient hostelry, once belonging to the Abbots of Croyland.’

Consequently, it is possible that it was standing in 947AD and was included with much of Stamford Baron in a gift made by Turkotul, chancellor King Edred, to the Abbey of Croyland.

During the eighteenth century the great turnpike roads of England were being built and fast stagecoaches were replacing lumbering wagons. For a time The George became famous across the UK and beyond.

No fewer than forty coaches, ‘twenty up and twenty down’, passed through Stamford every day. Although there were other coaching inns in the town,  The George was ranked the best.

TOWN IS OUTSTANDING
Stamford was the first conservation area to be designated in England and Wales under the Civic Amenities Act 1967. Since then, the whole of the old town and St Martin’s has been made an area of outstanding architectural and historic interest that is of national importance.

It has been hosting an annual fair since the Middle Ages, which is even mentioned in Shakespeare’s ‘Henry IV, part 2’ play.

The mid-Lent fair is thought to be the largest street fair in Lincolnshire and one of the largest in the country,  so entertainment has played a major part in the fabric of the town for centuries.

No wonder then that Stamford has a reputable amateur dramatics fraternity and famous sons that include author Colin Dexter, who penned the ‘Inspector Morse’ series of books, and orchestra conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent who was renowned for his conducting of Gilbert and Sullivan operas for the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company.

Now one of the town’s theatre companies is preparing to celebrate its 70th anniversary in early 2013.

Stamford Shoestring Theatre Company is the resident rep company at the Stamford Arts Centre. It began life as the Stamford Music and Drama Club in the spring of 1943 when it performed ‘Man of Destiny’ at Stamford High School.

Shoestring finally established a permanent home in 1978 at the delightful Georgian Stamford Theatre (built between 1766 and 1768) where it remains to this day as Stamford Arts Centre’s resident company with 120 active members.

As a highlight of its 70th year, the company has been invited to perform at the Minack Theatre, Cornwall’s world famous open-air theatre, for a fifth time. It will present a new play called ‘Anne Boleyn’.

But everyone is currently busy rehearsing for their Christmas production – ‘Men Should Weep’ by Ena Lamont Stewart.

CORN EXCHANGE
Another town building with a history stretching back to the 1800s is Stamford Corn Exchange.

Now home to the Stamford Corn Exchange Theatre Company, it was originally built in 1859 and soon became a popular venue for celebrations and dinners.

It has also been a cinema, an auction room and an antiques centre as well as hosting the odd stage production.

But in 2000, the Antique Centre closed and the lease was taken up by the ‘Corn Exchange Theatre Company’ (CETC), a newly-formed charitable company, with a view to redeveloping the uses of the building and encouraging and supporting the arts in Stamford.

Today it is a 399-seat theatre, which has been built within the shell of the original Corn Exchange Hall, which was refurbished almost entirely by volunteers, and which is run throughout the year by volunteers.

The venue has just applied to become a licensed venue for wedding ceremonies and civil partnerships and has a refurbished lounge offering pre-show dinners and Burghley weekend light meals.

Company general manager, Judith Mackie said: “We have had many requests over the past few years for themed weddings in the theatre and we thought it was time to expand the use of the theatre and the lounge bar area to accommodate private events.

“This will also mean that we can offer ceremonies for naming, renewal of vows, non-standard citizenship, memorial ceremonies and civil funerals. Private events will include anniversary parties, special birthdays and children’s parties.”

The company has just released its new autumn / winter programme and artists such as Ralph McTell, Colin Fry and Joe Brown are due to return to the Corn Exchange.

New highlights this year are folk legends Show of Hands with Miranda Sykes, Wilko Johnson, the ‘Vampires Rock’ cult show with Steve Steinman and ‘The Rat Pack Las Vegas Show’.

Instead of the usual two ballet shows this year the theatre has gone for a totally different offering with the ‘Celtic Dreams – A taste of Ireland’ spectacular.

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