Lost histories of Britain

Forgotten tales from every corner of this island

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August 6, 2020

If you’re driving through Lincolnshire from the South-East, chances are you’re just passing through. Perhaps you’re heading to the nature reserves further north for a spot of scenic tourism, or to the east coast for a day at the beach. As you bomb up the A1’s ancient carriageway (parts of it are 10,000 years old), leaving behind commuter-belt Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire for the thinner air of Lincolnshire, the landscape gets emptier, petrol gets cheaper and roadside cafes get more eccentric. Settlements get sparser, too. Lincolnshire is the second-largest English county, but one of the least populous: 42nd out of 48 in terms of people per square mile.

You keep going, finally outside London’s blast radius, free from its cultural and economic gravity but not yet into the post-industrial North. Names on the motorway signs reek of Middle England. Grantham, birthplace of Margaret Thatcher and the Dambusters. Melton Mowbray, birthplace of the pork pie. This part of the world is about as Brexity as it gets: in 2016, in some parts of Lincolnshire, 75% voted to leave the European Union.

If you’re more comfortable in the post-Blair Britain of social liberalism, buy-to-let portfolios, Eurostar minibreaks and ironic bunting, you probably don’t want to stop in Lincolnshire. You should stop in Lincolnshire.

Pull in at Stamford, a town preserved to an almost surreal degree from the depredations of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries thanks to its near-feudal relationship to the nearby stately home, Burghley House. This colossal sixteenth-century ‘prodigy house’ was constructed by William Cecil, Lord High Treasurer to Elizabeth I. Today it’s still owned by the Cecils (confusingly, the Marquess and Marchioness of Exeter), though the family themselves now mostly live in British Columbia.

Burghley House has featured in more than one period drama. Credit: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Down the road, Stamford itself is almost wholly seventeenth- and eighteenth-century in its architecture, and permanently besieged by people filming the type of BBC costume drama that can’t decide between nostalgia and trying to cancel the past on the grounds of being old-fashioned.

BBC Costume Drama History, roughly speaking, covers an era that began with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and lasted until the sexual one began (as Philip Larkin put it) in 1963. After 1963, Britain modernised, with a capital M, and since then anyone who demurs has been increasingly shoved to the margins. You’d be forgiven for thinking we had no history at all before the BBC Costume Era (BCE). But in fact the BCE is barely the tip of a huge, mostly submerged iceberg of Britain’s past, the vast majority of which lies under dark waters, in a time where people spoke strangely and really didn’t think like us at all.

Stamford in the BBC Costume Era was pretty dull, largely ignoring the Industrial Revolution and earning its keep mostly from North-South coaching traffic, farming and a malting business. Its more violent, colourful and contentious formative years lie further back.

The town gets its name from its position on the Roman-built Ermine Street. This ancient road, now mostly over-written by the A1, in those days crossed the river Welland in a gravelly water-meadow, giving it the name ‘stone-ford’. After the Romans left in around 400AD, Stamford persisted as a small settlement known for glazed pottery but not much else. The Vikings changed all that.

When the Viking chief Ragnar Lodbrok was captured by King Aella of Northumbria in 865, legend has it that Aella executed Ragnar by throwing him into a snakepit. Whether this happened or not, Ragnar was definitely killed: his sons Hvitserk, Ubba, Bjorn Ironside and the superbly named Ivar the Boneless were so infuriated that they recruited an enormous band of Scandinavian warriors, known in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 865 as the ‘Great Heathen Army’. This horde piled into longboats and headed south from Scandinavia to wreak revenge on the soft Saxon southerners.

Unwisely, the then king of East Anglia, Edmund the Martyr, gave Ragnar’s sons and their army food and horses in exchange for agreeing not to attack his kingdom. This pusillanimous move did him no good in the long run: having conquered York in 866, Ubba and Ivar the Boneless returned to East Anglia, where in 869 they killed Edmund for refusing to renounce Christianity. By then the Northmen had a firm foothold in England, and in 874 they consolidated their political power across the East and Midlands.

The Great Heathen Army was always a coalition force, and the region was divided between their various factions. Stamford became a fortified Danish ‘burh’ — one of the Five Boroughs of the Danelaw — that is, the castle stronghold of a Danish horde who henceforth ruled the defeated Anglo-Saxon peasantry in the area according to Danish law and custom.

Stamford’s new Danish rulers built their burh on the north side of the Welland. Thanks to its position at the foot of Danish Mercia, it was of strategic military importance, and Danish Stamford remained a political hub in the East of England until 918. At that point, it fell to two of Alfred’s children, the formidable warrior queen Aethelflaed of Mercia and Edward of Wessex.

Rather than trying to rule Danish Stamford, Edward established his own parallel burh on the south side of the Welland, with Danes and Saxons facing one another across the water. One gets a sense that the atmosphere was probably somewhat bad-tempered to begin with. The antipathy must have waned over time, though, because by the Norman Conquest some 150 years later Stamford was booming. Its twin boroughs over-spilled their bounds on both sides of the river, suburbs spread out along approach roads and iron-smelting thrived in what’s now St George’s Street. It became, in its way, a happy story of integration.

It didn’t last. There’s no record of the Norman defeat of Stamford’s existing population, but it can’t have taken long. In 1070, a mere four years after the Battle of Hastings, the Norman abbot of Peterborough took refuge at Stamford with 160 men when pursued by Hereward the Wake’s anti-Norman insurgency.

But Stamford’s brief prominence as a site of strategic military importance, for invaders first from the North and then from the South, gave way to an increasingly respectable-but-marginal status once invaders stopped coming. Out of the Five Boroughs of the Danelaw, Stamford was the only one not to become a county town, and it flourished instead as a coaching stop, and a centre for the wool trade — an industry so fundamental to the medieval English economy that it funded the Hundred Years’ War.

Grown prosperous on the proceeds, in the Middle Ages Stamford was one of the biggest towns in England, with a castle, 14 churches and even (briefly) a breakaway university founded in 1333 by dissidents from Merton and Brasenose colleges in Oxford. In the 1840s, though, Stamford made a decision to side-line itself. Faced with the prospect of a railway hub, the people said thanks but no thanks. In this they were supported by then 3rd Marquess of Exeter, another William Cecil, who didn’t like the idea of his pretty town being ruined by the march of progress. The hub station was instead built in Peterborough.

Then in the 1960s Stamford retreated still further, with the construction of an A1 bypass. In doing so, it reached the end of the BBC Costume Era, having politely opted out of the March of Progress. From a pro-development point of view, this was the wrong choice. Stamford and Peterborough both had between 4000 and 5000 inhabitants at the start of the nineteenth century. Today, the population of Peterborough is around 200,000, while Stamford houses barely a tenth of that.

From a cultural and aesthetic point of view though, you can argue the toss. Peterborough today is a mess of ring roads, racism and ugly buildings, voted worst place to live in Britain for the second year running in 2020 and notable chiefly for being home to the UK Passport Office and a particularly unattractive multi-storey car park. Stamford, on the other hand, is quietly prosperous, with a thriving Civic Society association and an Urban Group dedicated to keeping the town clean, litter-free and friendly.

Perhaps shaped by its convulsive foundation in successive waves of invasion, Stamford’s bone-deep conservatism has, finally, become the town’s main stock-in-trade: in 1967, it became England’s first conservation area. Today Stamford covers barely more than two square miles, and yet it contains 446 listed buildings — a conservation density whose gravity pulls in tourists, down-sizers, retirees and restaurateurs as well as BBC location crews.

As the story we’ve been telling ourselves about modernity and progress starts to look increasingly rickety, it’s worth wondering whether Stamford was right to opt out. We might yet discover that larger but uglier — more atomised and therefore less liveable — urban areas could learn a thing or two from this prosperous small town about getting the balance right between economic development and grassroots civic life.

That’s if we get things right, and our small country can hold its communities together. If we don’t, we may yet find ourselves facing the more distant ghosts of Stamford’s past: the vengeful raiders, bull-runners, market-day massacres, religious schism, invasions and counter-invasions of those darker and stranger days before England’s BBC Costume era. I catch myself sometimes wondering how many of those older shadows are truly gone, and how many are just sleeping.