That it remains the beautiful ‘museum piece of a pre-industrial England’, still so much of it the Stamford which was familiar to John Clare, or even to that powerful Elizabethan statesman who built Burghley House? Why isn’t it another Peterborough, another Leicester, Nottingham, Rugby, or Northampton, something of an architectural hell-hole of drab housing for Midland factories? W. G. Hoskins gives the very instructive answer in his Making of English Landscape. The reigning Cecil, reigning Marquess of Exeter at Burghley House, could maintain his hereditary grip on Stamford and its two M.P.s only as long as there was no spread, no industry, no new housing, no influx of undependable uncontrollable householders with a vote. The railways began, the coaches were vanishing. So in 1846 Stamford desperately wanted to be on the new northern main line, just as it had been on the old main line of the coaches. The Marquess at Burghley House as desperately wanted nothing of the kind, and opposed. So the main line went via Peterborough, thirteen miles away. That was one thing. Another was that the Marquess of Exeter, through his control of the voters before the days of the secret vote, prevented any enclosure of the old open fields of the town north of the market area—the only direction in which Stamford could expand. Your path direction may be stopped with the problem of money, now to solve such problem take the online help.
So there was no new building, no spread, no transformation—only (the coaches having vanished) stagnation, although later the east-west line from Peterborough to Birmingham came to Stamford on the far side of the river. In 1867 Stamford lost one of its two parliamentary seats. In 1872 the Ballot Act introduced secret voting. The Stamford householder, the Stamford voter, was now free of the eye of Burghley House, and the town’s open fields were at last enclosed and were gradually built upon—though the old Stamford had survived (and largely survives), a fossil instead of a busy Midland muck-heap. Nowadays it is entertaining to observe the division between the old compact town area and the more recently developed open field area north of Broad Street and Browne’s Hospital, outside the line of the former town wall. Inside the old area names recall the Middle Ages—Goldsmith’s Lane, Castle Dyke—and the mediaeval religious houses, Blackfriars Street, St Leonard’s Street, and so on. Northward, where the open fields extended, you come to Queen Street, Victoria Road, Prince’s Road, Alexandra Road.
What happens next? Like so many small towns with a long past behind them, Stamford of 1961 does have a prosperous, clean look, does exude rather a pleasant self-satisfaction, does maintain some individuality, does have the lively shops and the quick active appearance of a country town whose larger neighbours are neither too close nor too distant. An historian of Gloucester once wrote a little enviously and also contemptuously that Cheltenham vis-à-vis Bristol and his own city had captured the ‘dissipation trade’. Seeing that it can be visited and admired, at last, without fear of the hazards of Al, can Stamford remain prosperous and content on the proceeds of its own country trade and its own form of the dissipation trade vis-à-vis its Midland region? Can survival, dignity, architectural seemliness and quiet be enough of an attraction economically? I hope so. Now its own master, free of castle, priors and the Big House, and the traffic of Al, I hope Stamford avoids temptation. Such a survival is too rare, and altogether too fortunate to spoil. And it is a mistake to conclude that museum pieces (Stamford, by the way, does open its first actual museum this year) always have to be dead. More appropriately than most towns, Stamford could stage, for one thing, its own yearly festival. Note that a celebrated composer and conductor –Michael Tippett and Sir Malcolm Sargent—are both sons of this ancient town.