A town sculpted from pale limestone, Stamford became the first designated conservation area in all of England and Wales back in 1967. Stamford doesn’t have a dominant monument that you have to see as a priority, but rather there’s a whole streetscape of stone-built townhouses, churches, almshouses, cottages and imposing civic buildings to take in.
Up to the 19th century Stamford was a stop on the coaching highway the Great North Road, and there are lots of houses and pubs that are converted coaching inns from that time.
In Stamford you’ll get to know some historical personalities like William Cecil, the chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. Burghley House, his resplendent mansion, is just outside the town, and his magnificent tomb can be found at St Martin’s Church.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Stamford:
1. Historic TownCentre
There are 600 listed buildings in Stamford, mostly from the 17th and 18th century and built with the town’s signature limestone.
One older landmark is the 14th-century Brasenose Gate, built when students and tutors from Oxford’s Brasenose and Merton Colleges set up a breakaway college before being ordered to return by Edward III. On West Street stands the last remainder of Stamford’s town walls, at the Grade I-listed St Peter’s Bastion.
Remember also to take a wander up the charming Barn Hill, where the house with fluted columns on its porch was home in the 18th century to William Stukeley, a polymath who made the first archaeological investigations of Stonehenge.
Picnicking at the picturesque Town Meadows you can look across to Lord Burghley’s Hospital, an almshouse dating back to the 1170s and formally endowed by William Cecil in 1597.
2. Burghley House
Commissioned by William Cecil, this spellbinding Elizabethan Prodigy House has been home to the Cecil family ever since.
The exterior’s splendid stonemasonry, designed to make an impression on the queen, has changed little since the 16th century, while most of the interiors were last reworked at the end of the 18th century.
The house is open Sunday to Thursday from March to the end of October when you’ll be wonderstruck by the finery of 18 state apartments, all enriched with 17th-century painting.
The Hell Staircase is a treat, with Baroque ceiling paintings by Antonio Verrio from 1697, while the chapel has a substantial altarpiece by Veronese and his workshop.
There are also contemporary portraits of members of the Cecil family, along with Oliver Cromwell, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
3. Burghley Park
Most of what greets you at Burghley Park today, like the stately avenues, the lake and its Lion Bridge, is the work of the famed Capability Brown.
The 26-acre lake was designed like a meandering river after Brown found a seam of watertight blue clay on the grounds.
One of the many pleasures of the estate is gazing over Stamford’s stone built townscape to the northwest, and open-air classical concerts are staged in the most scenic parts of the estate in the summer.
The whimsical Garden of Surprises is a revival of Burghley House’s original 16th-century garden and has a mirrored maze and basins with water jets for children in summer.
And finally, in the formal South Gardens seek out the mature oak and lime trees planted by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert respectively in 1844.
4. Browne’s Hospital
This almshouse in the centre of Stamford was founded in 1485 by the rich local wool merchant, William Browne.
As was common at the time, the ten poor men and two poor women given shelter at the hospital were required to attend the chapel twice a day to pray for the founder’s soul.
Browne’s Hospital is a functioning almshouse, but on weekends you can pop in to see the enchanting cloister garden, walled by Perpendicular Gothic arches, pinnacles and battlements.
A leaflet detailing the history of the almshouse can be bought for 50p, but to preserve the peace for the residents, the oldest parts of Browne’s Hospital like the chapel can only be visited by phoning ahead.
You’ll be shown the Common Room and chantry chapel with splendid stained glass, as well as the Audit Room (also with fine stained glass), the Confrater’s Room and an ante-room that has a small exhibition about the hospital.
5. All Saints’ Church
The Browne Family also left their mark on the church just down the hill.
William Browne was responsible for the steeple at the end of the 15th century, following on from an expansion by his father John.
As you might guess there are plenty of monuments for three generations of the Browne family inside All Saints’, with fine 15th-century brasses for William, his father John the Younger and his father John the Elder, as well as their wives Margaret x2 and Margery.
Check out the intricate carpentry of the “angel roofs” in the chancel and south chapel, as well as the 13th-century nave arcades, as well as the piscina in the east wall of the south chapel, from the same period.
6. Stamford Arts Centre
The best place to catch live entertainment in Stamford is also a beautiful landmark.
On St George’s Square this hall, built with rusticated stone walls, was completed in 1768 as Stamford’s Assembly Rooms.
The 166-seat theatre inside had been run down for a century before reopening in 1978, and now serving as a multi-disciplinary arts venue.
You can watch plays produced by the resident Shoestring Theatre Company, as well as films from new blockbusters to international arthouse cinema.
The ballroom here hosts a classical music season from October to May, alongside dance performances and a huge range of workshops.
There are also constant temporary exhibitions at the arts centre, never lasting for more than three weeks at a time.
7. St Leonard’s Priory
Take a walk along Priory Road, heading east from the town centre, and pretty soon you’ll come to an extraordinary Norman ruin.
The story of St Leonard’s Priory begins in the middle of the 7th century, but that early monastery was destroyed in the Danish Invasion.
In 1082, the Bishop of Durham chose this site for a priory, serving as a cell of Durham Cathedral.
Like all priories, St Leonard’s was dissolved in the reign of Henry VIII in the 16th century, and was partially demolished.
What survives is an enigmatic fragment, in the form of the transitional west front and the nave’s north arcade.
The facade has three closed-off portals that have Romanesque round-headed arches with zigzag moulding, and there are seven more round-headed arches above.
In the gable at the top is a striking vesica piscis, an almond-shaped opening.
8. Stamford Town Hall
One of Stamford’s rich ensemble of Georgian monuments, the town hall was built to purpose in 1779, and construction was partly funded by the Cecil family.
Looking up from the pavement on St Mary’s Hill you can admire the cartouche sporting Stamford’s coat of arms.
Something unusual about the building is that its northern elevation, visible on St Mary’s Place, is almost identical to the western one on St Mary’s Hill.
Guided tours are given on Fridays, and these are worth it if you have some time to spare.
You’ll be shown the Council Chamber and the Mayor’s Parlour, containing the civic plate, town charters and regalia dating back as far as the 1400s.
The Court Room was a former magistrates’ court, while the Phillips Room holds the town’s library and the Malcom Sargent Room contains artefacts relating to the eponymous composer who was a long-term resident of Stamford.
9. St Martin’s Church
South of the River Welland, St Martin’s Church is in a quarter of Stamford that belonged to the county of Northamptonshire until the late 19th century.
The church is a solemn Perpendicular Gothic building dating from a complete reconstruction in the 15th century.
The reason you have to visit is to see the Renaissance family tombs of the Cecil family, which are in the north “Cecil Chapel”. William Cecil’s (d. 1598) tomb is as grand as you’d hope for such a distinguished figure in Elizabethan society.
His effigy reclines under a twin-arched canopy supported by marble columns.
Cecil’s mother and father, Richard (d. 1552) and Jane (d. 1578) face each other praying under a decorative marble cornice.
Both tombs were designed by Cornelius Cure who also produced the monument for Mary, Queen of Scots at Westminster Abbey.
10. Stamford Library Heritage Display
As the town museum closed in 2010, the library is somewhere to come for a bit of context about Stamford.
This exhibition opened in 2012 and has a mixture of interpretation boards and interactive displays shedding light on different aspects of the town’s history.
You can learn about Stamford’s wool trade, and its links to the Great North Road, the main highway between London and Scotland before the railways.
Honouring Stamford’s woollen past is a six-metre tapestry woven in 2000 illustrating landmarks in the town’s past.
You can also a grab a map for one of Stamford’s five different themed trails.
11. Tolethorpe Hall
In the outlying village of Little Casterton, Tolethorpe Hall a country house and garden owned by the Stamford Shakespeare Company.
In the summer season people make a bee-line for the open-air theatre for performances of two of Shakespeare’s works, as well as a play by one other important playwright.
In store for the 2019 season are Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night and Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit.
The property has been a country house since the Norman Conquest.
The merchant Browne family resided at Tolethorpe Hall from the start of the 16th century through to 1839. Before the performance you can take a picnic on the lawns and visit the formal gardens, which are unchanged since they were reworked in a Jacobean Revival style in the 19th century.
12. Barnack Hills & Holes National Nature Reserve
Further on from Burghley Park is a strange pitted grassy landscape, spreading out over 57 acres and conserved as a National Nature Reserve.
These mounds are limestone rubble left over from a quarry that was first exploited by the Romans more than 1,500 years ago.
The stone quarried at this very place was used for Ely and Peterborough Cathedral.
The grassland now covering the quarry is valuable in its own way, as it represents half of all the limestone grassland to be found in the county of Cambridgeshire.
In summer the grass is carpeted with wildflowers, among them some rare orchids like the bee orchid, pyramid orchid, frog orchid, man orchid and early-purple orchid.
13. Aqua Park Rutland
For a real change of pace, the UK’s largest floating waterpark is under 15 minutes by car at the Rutland Water Reservoir.
Suitable for everyone over the age of eight, Aqua Park Rutland is a course of inflatable climbing walls, balance bars, blast bags, rollers, trampolines and the tallest slides in the country.
You’ll be wearing a buoyancy vest the whole time and will take a 10-minute safety briefing at the start of your hour-long session.
It can be tiring just getting from one end of the 100 x 80 metre course to the other, but if you’re a competitive type you can try racing your friends.
Kids aged six and seven can take part in special children’s sessions.
14. Stamford Market
An outdoor market will always look at home on Stamford’s venerable streets.
The main weekly market takes place on Fridays on Broad Street and Ironmonger Street, and continues to prosper, with more than 90 traders.
The stalls are all set up by 08:30 and the market closes at around 16:00. The range of goods sold at Stamford Market is massive, but for a snapshot you can buy fresh meat, bread and cakes, fruit and vegetables, cut flowers, jams and chutney, beauty products, rugs, jewellery, clothes, household items, antiques, garden accessories and crockery.
15. St Martin’s Antiques Centre
On your visit across the river to St Martin’s Church you could make a detour to this antiques centre, which is a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of exquisite things from the Georgian Period to the 20th century.
This is the largest antiques centre in the region, with more than 70 dealers selling furniture, lighting, rugs, weapons, jewellery, toys, dolls, clothes, ceramics, glassware and silverware.
Items range from £5 to £5,000 so serious collectors and everyday shoppers can lose an hour or two perusing the range.