Driving into Stamford is always a pleasure. One turns into St Martins High Street, on the old Great North Road, and there it is, laid out before one with the gallows beam across the road by the George. One of the last in the country to remain, gallow beams used to be a common sight outside coaching inns and were used more as a warning to highway men than as actual gallows. No one danced their last on the current one as it was replaced in the 1980s!
The George of Stamford is a historic coaching inn but it is also a lot more than that. It has charm, friendliness and a quirky originality that sets it apart from the herd. This was to be our base for our exploration of the country houses around Stamford.
As soon as we had gathered as a group and introduced ourselves we boarded the coach and headed off to Kirby Hall. For the first time ever for me the sun shone on a visit to Kirby. It was even more stunning than ever. As we approached through the fields, trying to ignore the looming landscape of stands to one side that delineate the nearby Rockingham speed track, the Hall put on its greatest charm. As a nearly completely ruined house, Kirby can be grey and grim and somewhat depressing as the wind howls through the rooms. On our visit it glowed golden in the sunshine and a light breeze frisked about playfully pretending it was incapable of anything more. We were welcomed by a peacock and two hens but moved quickly on to view the house with our very competent and amusing tour lecturer, Peter Smith, in charge.
Kirby is now a shrine to the interpretation of its own ruins and is filled with boards and displays explaining how it was decorated and how the decoration was accomplished throughout its history. Some of the rooms have been redecorated to help those of the sluggish imagination but already those rooms are deteriorating rapidly, as though the Hall is determined to remain a ruin.
Next we went to nearby Deene Park and had extremely large slices of delicious home-made cakes in the old kitchen served with individual sized teapots for our refreshment. Then we were taken around the home of Mr and Mrs Brudenell by one of their house guides. The main things we remembered afterwards were: the wonderful hammer roof in what was the original Great Hall of the house; the head of the horse Cecil who rode into the battle of Waterloo with Lord Cardigan on his back, which is displayed in a glass cabinet; the portrait of Lord Cardigan’s much younger and very beautiful wife riding side saddle on a horse – very appropriate as she was Adeline Horsey de Horsey; the Kings Bedroom where Henry VII is said to have slept – with wonderful hand carved linen-fold panelling and an en suite bathroom in the adjoining tower with what must have the best view from a loo in the land; the recently restored bed and hangings and wonderful needlework pictures and tapestry chairs collected by Mrs Brudenell; the picturesque courtyard with no fewer than three sun dials; and finally, the new parterre garden with its teapot topiary which has finally grown into itself and looked wonderful in its spring dress.
Then we were taken by the highways and byways back home to the George Hotel for an exquisitely cooked dinner before falling replete into a very comfortable bed.
The following morning we set off on foot to explore the architecture and hear about the history of Stamford itself. We visited three of the surviving six churches left of the sixteen medieval churches there used to be in Stamford, including a wonderful tour by the only male resident of Brown’s Hospital. A fourteenth century foundation that is still used to house the elderly – although they no longer have to wear a uniform or sleep in cubicles in the hall. We were informed with a wonderful wry humour that originally there were only two female residents allowed and then only on the understanding that they worked and did the sewing and laundry for the men! Our lovely guide intimated that the situation was now completely reversed and he was the only one that did any work being responsible for the beautiful garden in the central courtyard.
After a lunch in and around Stamford we got on the coach and went to the hauntingly sad ruin of Apethorpe. Another very grand Elizabethan/Jacobean house Apethorpe only fairly recently fell into ruin. But then,having been exceptionally compulsorily purchased to save it, the Government handed it over to English Heritage to do the work. They have for many years been working on it to repair the roofs and restore the historical elements that make the house so important. A succession of former owners having ripped out the heart of the building (it was even used as a borstal for many years) it is now hard to see how it was ever a living house. But after walking through the procession of state rooms with wonderful strap work ceilings but little else and hearing the history of its beginnings we became absorbed with it, spending a fair while in the long gallery with restored panelling and floor but bereft of any of the portraits that would have been set into the panelling. The highlight of the visit should have been a walk on the roof on one of the rare surviving roof walks in the country. However, it is now without the far reaching views the Mildmays would have enjoyed as they welcomed Queen Elizabeth I to visit them, and perhaps watched the hunt in comfort and safety, owing to a high hedge planted to obscure the view to the adjoining property. As we left we all counted up our pocket money but realised we were still a bit short of the £2.5 million required to make an offer for it – never mind having to find the probable £25 million or so that it would take to make it habitable. Before leaving Apethorpe we visited the Kings Head for afternoon tea and more wonderful homemade cake to fortify us for a visit to Fotheringhay. The scene of so much distant history, it is now but a fragment of what must have been a glorious Royal burial site.
The next day found us at Drayton House, an overlooked gem. Our guide was Bruce Bailey, the archivist at Drayton who lives on the premises and has lived there for years. If that wasn’t enough of a qualification he has also just completed updating the Northampton edition of Pevsner’s Great Buildings of England. He gave us an informative and lively tour of a house laden with flowers left from a family wedding the previous weekend, which underlined the fact that Drayton is very much a family house and a stately home second.
After a visit to see the family tombs in the church in Lowick we had a refined helping of fish and chips in the Snooty Fox pub in Lowick followed by some very tasty strawberries and cream. We then set out for Milton Hall near Peterborough. Milton Hall is another family home that just happens to be huge and architecturally important. Less cosy (cosy?!!) than Drayton it is still filled with family photos and ephemera as a reminder of the fact. Our guide was the under land agent, William Craven, whose relaxed and cheery charm and quiver full of facts and figures was astonishing. Once again we were swept along with the tales of the family and its history, of the house and the vagaries of its fortunes. Apparently Daphne Dumaurier was a frequent visitor when a child and the gruesome housekeeper in her novel Rebecca may well have been based on the fearful house keeper at Milton who lasted until she was over ninety and is still remembered.
The last morning found us at the pinnacle in Stamford’s crown, Burghley. Built by Queen Elizabeth I’s right hand man, Robert Cecil, the house he made is still visible under the changes which occurred over the years, as are the changes that had to made when the architect got his calculations wrong and the windows in the Great Hall began to fail. After a tour of the state rooms we were very lucky to be shown around the private apartments by the curator of the collection who has recently retired as House Manager in overall charge of the Burghley enterprise. His knowledge of the house and its collection is second to none and all was imparted with charisma and ready wit. We also met the charming lady of the house with her working cocker spaniel. Frankly I’m not sure which was afforded the greater attention – well, actually I do, and I do hope Mrs Roc was not too offended by her dog being monopolised by the group.
Eventually, with a head full of new knowledge, a heart full of impressions and a list of interesting new friends, we had a final lunch – and piece of cake – before returning to the George, each to go their separate ways.