A1-The Great North Road

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Stamford

The bridge over the Welland blends gently into the townscape taking the Great North Road into Lincolnshire.

W. G. Hoskins wrote, If there is a more beautiful town in the whole of England I have yet to see it. The view of Stamford from the water-meadows on a fine June evening, about a quarter to half a mile upstream, is one of the finest sights that England has to show. The western sunlight catches the grey limestone walls and turns them to gold. It falls on towers and spires and flowing water, on the warm brown roofs of Collyweston slates, and on the dark mass of the Burghley woods behind. The hipped and mansard roofs of the town rise from the edge of the river above the flashing willows, tier upon tier, to the spire of All Saints, and the towers of St Martin's, St John's, and St Michael's, and, above them all, to the noble tower and spire of St Mary's, the central jewel in the crown of Stamford...

Evidently the Romans missed a good spot.

John Betjeman, writing in 1956, described Stamford as …the best town we have… but added, In the main streets roaring with lorries and coaches almost as big as houses, heedless of the beauty of the place and merely looking on it as a twisty inconvenience on that ghastly A1 route from London, I found it a difficult job to cross from one narrow pavement to a shop on the other.  Stamford of all towns in England deserves to be spared through traffic, for the sake of its commercial prosperity and its unique beauty.

Four years later, in 1960, Betjeman must have been relieved to learn of the opening of the bypass to the west of the town, though if he thought the A1 ghastly in 1956 what would he make of it today?  Curiously, in Lang's National Road Book from 1937, the Stamford entry has this note: A by-pass to miss Stamford is in course of construction.  It will leave the main road at Burghley gates, run W. of the town and rejoin the road at Scotgate.  It will be a great relief to traffic.  100 years ago, owing to a serious accident to one of the mail coaches, the Postmaster-General threatened to take another route to avoid Stamford, unless the dangers could be minimized. But nothing was done till the motor-car made the need imperative.  Well, it seems Lang was a little quick off the mark since war intervened and the planned bypass construction was delayed for more than 20 years.  And now?  Well, the old route of the Great North Road through the town is probably busier now with local traffic than it was in Betjeman's day though the main shopping street has been pedestrianized and with so many features quintessentially English it is a must on may tourist's itinerary.  Stamford probably has the highest density of pre-1800 buildings on the Great North Road.

Lang was on surer ground with his description of the the Burghley gatehouse: The great gateway was built by the road in 1801 and indicates a feature of the times, to split the lodgekeeper's residence in two parts, so that the gateway should look imposing.  What the lodge-keeper's wife thought of it is not recorded!

Stamford must have been quite important by the 9th century when it was a borough of Danelaw. It was one of the first towns to produce glazed wheel-thrown pottery since Roman times and developed a wool industry under the Normans.  A woven cloth called haberget was made here. Trade prospered via the Great North Road and the River Welland and by the 13th century Stamford was one of the 10 largest towns in England.

But the wool trade went to East Anglia and later to Yorkshire and the descendants of a local lad, William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s secretary of state, kept Stamford under feudal control down the centuries, (allegedly) rigging parliamentary elections in favour of the Tories.  They opposed the enclosure of the town’s fields, preventing expansion and later prevented the Great Northern Railway reaching the town.  Instead its route was pushed eastwards through a little village called Peterborough, with Stamford left fossilized in the 18th century.  And very well it looks for it.  The coaching trade was the lifeblood of the town.  Half way between London and York all the North Road traffic stopped here.  A pub-crawl round the 30 hostelries is our legacy.  Although the railway stopped the coaching trade, a deal done between the Cecils and the Midland Railway, had the narrow medieval road bridge rebuilt at the railway’s expense.  If you’re into trains don’t miss the bookshop at Stamford station.  It’s the best.  Burghley House, Cecil’s Tudor palace, is probably worth a little diversion too.  Turn right as you come into the south of Stamford before crossing the bridge.

 

 

Ogilby's 1675 map shows the Roman road as a still viable alternative to the main road through the town, but by 1776 Armstrong's map, while marking the Roman line, does not show it as a usable road. 

Opinions vary as to the re-alignment of the road across the Welland.  Belloc talks of the re-growth of forest obstructing the Roman line: The Great North Road making for Stamford is a broad, unmistakable way...It approaches a small patch of wood on a hill and disappears.  It remains lost for a mile after its destruction by the wood...That is because the upkeep through the wood became too difficult in the Dark Ages, and men turned the obstacle by developing a new road round it.

 

Bird suggests that the collapse of Roman bridges may have blocked rivers causing artificial marshes.  Of Stamford, he says: Here the Great North Road, the Roman Ermine Street, crossed the Welland about a mile and a half to the west of the present crossing, but the spread of marsh land, following the blocking of the stream, made a wide diversion necessary, and the Great North Road swings away from the original Roman Route nearly three miles south of the town which grew up around the new crossing-place. 

 

Taylor sees the situation differently again. At the end of the Roman period, the Ermine Street was probably made unusable by the collapse of the bridge.  The earliest Saxon settlement in the area seems to have been a little downstream at a point where the river was flowing in a series of shallow channels which could be forded easily.  Taylor notes that when the Danes gained control of the area late in the 9th century they built their fort on the tactically superior site to the east of the Saxon settlement on a terrace overlooking the river crossing and village.  In 918 the English retook the area and a fort was built south of the river.  The two forts grew into a combined town with a bridge over the Welland at a point where the river was narrower.  Thus the road migrated a little further downstream again, as we can see from Taylor's map.

The Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments report discussed the possible routes across the river:

The most suitable site for a ford is probably a few yards upstream from the medieval bridge.  Here the flood-plain is just wide enough for the river to follow a shallow course, and the approach on either side is an easy descent.  At this point the river and mill-stream are now crossed by the George and Lammas bridges respectively.  Both foot-bridges, now rebuilt, are recorded in the 17th century but are of earlier origin.  They are linked by a modern causeway following the line of an early pathway, the maintenance of which had long been the concern the council.  The medieval North Road S. of St. Martin's is aligned on this crossing; just S. of the occupied area it bends to the E. but the alignment, after a gap, is picked up and continued to the crossing by Wothorpe Road.  On the N. side the route would have continued along Castle Dyke and then climbed onto the limestone plateau through the valley along the modern Scotgate, ultimately joining Ermine Street just S. of Casterton.  The George and Lammas Bridges, therefore, mark what is on topographical evidence the most probable position of the first Saxon river-crossing. 

Taylor also points out that the diversions from this Saxon route eventually led to the sharp road bends in the town which, in turn, led to the 1960 construction of a by-pass when the increase in traffic threatened to choke the town, as we learned from Betjeman.  The river is now not quite as Taylor drew it, the northern branch leaving the main stream further upstream so the Roman line crosses two watercourses. The northern channel, which carries only a little of the water, is crossed by a stone bridge leading to a lane called Waterfurlong, running from the water some 220 yards, a furlong, up the slope to the A6121, which it crosses, to continue as Roman Bank.  These two roads are in precise alignment with Ermine Street as it approaches Great Casterton to the north, leaving little room for doubt as to the Roman crossing point of the Welland.

The origins of the Norman castle, probably in about 1068, and the effects of the Norman conquest on Stamford are discussed by David Roffe and Christine Mahany in their paper, Stamford and the Norman Conquest.

Ermine Street crosses the northern branch of the Welland and then climbs up Waterfurlong

 

The crop mark in this air photo shows the line of Ermine Street heading north-west from Stamford to meet the Great North Road.  This has since been destroyed by housing development that now covers almost the whole area of the picture. The view, looking north-west, is centered on OS grid reference TF 015075.  (Photo from CUAP in Adeane)

There are developments afoot to the south of Stamford where the A1 Stamford bypass leaves the old course of the Great North Road, now the B1081, at a junction known as Carpenter's Lodge.  The Highway Agency is constructing a grade separated junction here.  It will involve elevating the end of the B1081 so that traffic can bridge the A1.  I hope the lovely old boundary wall of Burghley Park doesn't suffer.  On the west side, Racecourse road (there used to be a racecourse with a grandstand here) would be blocked off.  I wonder why the junction is called Carpenter's Lodge.  The lodge is a little south-east of the roundabout guarding a back entrance to Burghley Park.  I supposed a carpenter lived there.

In 1790, John Byng, whilst staying at Wansford, took an evening out, riding up the North Road to Stamford:

After dinner I resolv’d to be gay; and tho in London I would not go two yards to see a play, yet for exercise and variety I rode six miles to Stamford on that account.  After putting up my horse I perambulated the town and, at seven o’clock entering the playhouse, was shown into a side box (being too genteel).  The next boxes were soon occupy’d by some old acquaintance, their daughters etc., who reside in this neighbourhood; and I received many kind invitations to return with them.  (But lack-a-day, I should then have given up my supper and my bed at the Haycock Inn!!!)  The bill of fare too long by half; but every performer must add more, and more, to tempt the half-price comers; three acts were enough for me, and they lasted till nine, o'clock .

Times move on and Stamford is now a Fair Trade Town.

On up the road.  To Great Casterton.

 

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