Quaint and well-preserved, Stamford remains relatively untouched by the trappings of modern-day living
If you’re ever asked to describe an ideal, quintessentially English town, then you could do far worse than use Stamford as a reference point. Located on the cusp of Lincolnshire and Rutland and surrounded by unspoilt countryside, here cobbled streets are flanked by beautiful Georgian buildings which lead to meandering, medieval lanes and picturesque squares.
For the food-lover keen to spend a few rejuvenating days embracing rural life while savouring local produce and delicious meals along the way, this historic little pocket of England is the perfect escape.
Quaint, well-preserved Stamford remains relatively untouched by the trappings of modern-day living; ubiquitous chain stores have yet to make their presence truly felt, but the area is still thriving. In the centre of town independent traders and craftspeople – artists and cobblers, cheese producers and potters, dress makers and deli-owners – occupy many of the honey-hued stone buildings. Come Friday morning, the pedestrianised streets are alive with a vibrant, bustling array of market stalls selling locally grown fruit and vegetables, homemade cakes and preserves, fresh fish and meat, flowers and plants.
Even if you’re primarily here on an eating tour, it’s well worth entering the town by foot from the High Street St Martin’s end and popping into St Antique Centre for a browse through their well-curated collection of mostly 19th and 20th century items. From there, make your way across the pretty bridge under which the lazy River Welland flows and dedicate a few unhurried hours to the art of pottering. Stamford is an easy place to while away time: pop into shops and galleries, marvel at the architecture and embrace the genial pace of life.
A mid-morning coffee or tea break is a must on this sort of trip, so it’s only right that you pay a visit to The Fine Food Store on St Mary’s Street. The owners of this small, welcoming café pride themselves on using regional produce which they put to very good use in hearty breakfasts (if you’ve never sampled the delights of a full English, this is an excellent place to do so), wholesome sandwiches, interesting salads and homemade quiches. It is the selection of cakes and sweets that are the real standout though: tall, pale-golden Victoria sponges filled with cream and fruit, brownies as dense, squidgy and chocolately as they should be, proper scones and delicate tarts presented with finesse.
The award-winning Tobie Norris public house is a fantastic choice for lunch or an evening meal. This medieval building dates back to 1820 and has been carefully restored with charming results and a clear nod to its period history. A patchwork warren of cosy rooms spread out over three floors and feature stripped back stone walls, exposed beams, pleasingly worn armchairs, squidgy leather blanquettes and proper fire places. There’s also a small but attractive outdoor terrace for warmer days. The food is great too: modern-rustic fare that goes beyond traditional pub grub with interesting nibbles (the Yorkshire pudding with dipping gravy is a must-sample), sharing boards and more substantial mains, the highlight of which are their specialty stone-baked pizzas – roasted duck with mozzarella and spring onions on a hoisin sauce base might not sound like it will work, but it really does.
For the true Stamford experience, there is only one place to lay heads made weary by eating and exploring. The George is an old coaching inn so rooted in English tradition that you cannot fail to be seduced by the romance of it all. Don’t stay here if minimalist décor and super fast WiFi top your list of requirements, but if you’re after character in abundance, a sense of history and old-fashioned, understated grandeur combined with a warm welcome, then you will sleep happy.
Given the nature of this adventure, it would be remiss not to enjoy a meal in the sumptuously carpeted, oak paneled dining room. After all, the hotel has been serving hungry travellers for over a thousand years. Fittingly the menu pays homage to British classics and the Sunday roasts are quite rightly famed in the area. Even if you don’t happen to visit at the weekend, you’ll still spot a trolley loaded with an elaborate dome covering a whole side of sirloin being paraded through the restaurant, ready to be carved tableside and served with all the trimmings. In a similar vein, they also maintain the much-loved tradition of the pudding trolley and the contents of which prove difficult to resist even for those previously claiming to be full. After all that the knowledge that a comfortable bed is only a few steps away is a rather gratifying one.
Whilst in Stamford, it’s well worth exploring nearby Burghley House, a 16th century stately home that was built for William Cecil, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s chief advisors. The house itself boasts beautifully restored staterooms and bedrooms, as well as an impressive private art collection, but for many it’s the bucolic surrounding gardens and parkland laid out by Lancelot “Capability” Brown in the 18th Century that are the real appeal. Enjoy a bracing stomp around the vast deer garden and take in the great lake, then slow your pace to a stroll and wander through the Sculpture Garden, where an impressive range of shrubs and trees hide contemporary permeant sculptures and seasonal exhibits. If you’ve got young children in tow (or are simply young at heart), the historical Garden of Surprises with its mirrored mazes, swiveling busts and water fountains all inspired by Elizabethan trick gardens is a must-visit, particularly on a warm day.
Just 20-minutes or so drive from Stamford is Rutland Water, a large, stunningly beautiful reservoir surrounded by rolling countryside, small rural villages and two charming, timeless towns by the names of Oakham and Uppingham. Pitch up here for the day and you’ll find plenty to keep you occupied. Rutland Cycling offers hire options for every type of cycling enthusiast: mountain bikes, easy riders, tandems and even buggies for younger children. Bike the entire lakeside circuit including the jutting Hambleton Peninsula and you should clock up almost 25 miles in the saddle, but fear not there are also more gentle three, eight and seventeen-mile options. And even more importantly, you’ll discover plenty of picnic spots, ice cream shops and country inns when you need to refuel. The Finch’s Arms in Hambleton is particularly lovely; cosy and tastefully decorated, with the choice to eat in the main light-filled restaurant or more casual pub area.
Should you prefer to spend your time actually out on the lake, head to Rutland Watersports Centre on the north shore where you can hire canoes, paddle crafts, rowing boats, and paddle boards. Or for a more genial approach, hop aboard the Rutland Belle and enjoy a leisurely cruise instead. The peaceful nature reserve is renowned for its excellent bird watching and the lake itself is thought to offer some of the best trout fishing in the UK – rent equipment and boats from Rutland Water Fishing Lodge.
If you fancy staying a little longer in this area, Hambleton Hall a luxurious, converted country house dating back to 1881, is a lovely place to spend a night or two. Perched on a hill and set in lush grounds, Hambleton offers sumptuous rooms, fabulous views and an award-winning on-site restaurant, which has held a Michelin star for over twenty years. For something a little more affordable, but extremely comfortable nonetheless, Barnsdale Lodge is located just a few minutes from the shores of Rutland Water and has forty-six individually decorated bedrooms, as well as a collection of self-catering ‘retreat’ lodges. The hotel is well known for its afternoon teas and also has a popular in-house restaurant and a pretty courtyard for al fresco pre-dinner drinks (when the weather permits).
While you’re in the area, set your culinary compass in the direction of Melton Mowbray, a small market town only a short train ride or drive away. Melton may not be quite as aesthetically pleasing as Stamford or Rutland, but it would be remiss for a food lover to spend time in the region without stopping off here.
Recognised as the UK’s Rural Capital of Food, the town is fiercely proud of its regional produce and is perhaps most famous for its hand-raised, hot water pies. In 2009, following a ten-year campaign, they were awarded Protected Geographical Status, meaning that only Melton Mowbray-based producers who follow traditional recipes and cooking methods are allowed to sell the pies by their official name. Located on the high street, Dickenson & Morris of Melton Mowbray have been in the business since the 1850s and their shoppe is a go-to destination for pie-lovers, attracting some 250,000 visitors of year – the majority of whom purchase a pie to take away with them.
It’s not only pies that command legendary status here though. Rich, creamy Stilton cheese is another historic local specialty thought to date back to the 1730s. Stilton has a fabulous smooth and creamy yet crumbly texture, but what sets it apart from other cheeses is the marbled mass of thin blue veins that weave their way out from the centre and give it a distinctive, slightly acidic, pleasingly salty tang.
Much like Melton Mowbray pies, Stilton can only be produced locally and is an EU Protected Food Name with its own Certification Trade Mark. As a result, only the wheels of cheese made from the milk of cows belonging to six designated dairies located within the three counties of Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire can be sold as true Stilton. To better acquaint yourself with the delicacy (and it really is a delicacy), head to The Melton Cheeseboard on Windsor Street, where despite stocking over 150 different cheeses, Stilton sourced from nearby Long Clawson and Cropwell Bishop dairies is the standout. While you’re there, it makes sense to try (and buy) their six-month aged Red Leicester too.
For a real taste of all the edible delights that the town has to offer, the annual Melton Mowbray Food Festival takes place each year in early October. Held undercover in the historic yet still fully operational livestock market, the event sees a long list of both large and small scale exhibitors selling their wares, as well as cooking demonstrations, interactive tasting sessions and a whole hosts of hot food stands and food trucks.
The best way to end any holiday – be it mini break or month long trip – is surely with a spot of full on relaxation and this visit should no different. Ragdale Hall Health Hydro and Thermal Spa has a reputation as one of the best in the UK and is a mere fifteen minutes from Melton Mowbray. The moment you make your way up the sweeping driveway and into the sprawling Victorian building which houses the spa a sense of all encompassing calm descends. By the time you’ve donned a fluffy white robe (worn at all times during a visit here), you’ll be well on the way to relaxation nirvana.
One of many winning things about this place is that despite its relatively large size, a visit here still feels like an entirely personalised, tailor-made one. This is due in part to the facilities, which are genuinely superb. A signature thermal spa area is made up of twelve different heat and water experiences, including temperature-controlled indoor and outdoor relaxation pools, va olcanic salt bath, various saunas and steam rooms and an utterly enchanting, silent, candle-lit room filled with gently lapping water.
If you can summon the energy, there’s also a 25 metre main pool, separate exercise pool with daily classes and the option to play tennis, boules, pitch ‘n’ putt and croquet. You could also go for a cycle, hit the gym or simply stride out into the surrounding countryside. Alternatively, there are various relaxation rooms and designated quiet areas with comfortable beds and cushion-covered loungers perfect for reclining in with a good book or enjoying an altogether indulgent daytime snooze.
In terms of substance, at Ragdale Hall they take a pleasingly un-sanctimonious approach to food. The buffet-style lunch is open to all guests and is served in the dining room. While it certainly has a healthy slant, the focus is not on retreat-style deprivation, but instead on tasty, wholesome eating with a hint of indulgence. If you stay for the evening, the set three course menu changes daily and is similarly well balanced, with a nice mix of both light and more hearty dishes.
Whether you visit for the day or spend the night, Ragdale Hall provides a lesson in embracing the slow life and is the ideal way to conclude a trip to this rather special part of the UK.
St Martin’s Antique Centre
The George of Stamford
The Melton Cheeseboard
Melton Mowbray Food Festival
WORDS BY SARAH PRICE