Saturday, 3 September 2011

Stamford, UK: A pleasant surprise

Recently I attended Birdfair, an annual birdwatching festival held at the Egleton Nature Preserve at Rutland Water. The purpose of the event is twofold: to provide people in the birdwatching industry/pastime a chance to commune with each other, and to raise money for the conservation efforts of BirdLife International. In my case, there were a third and fourth purpose for attending: acting as a volunteer at the event, and covering it from a journalistic perspective. My experiences there will appear in the future either in a magazine article or here on this blog. What I will talk about now, though, is my time in the Rutland Water vicinity.

As you might expect given its name, Rutland Water is in the extremely small (18 miles in length, 17 miles in width) county of Rutland, located pretty close to the center of England:

(Thanks to for the map.)

Next to Rutland is the county of Lincolnshire, home to the historic town of Stamford. This is where I stayed, in the Garden House Hotel:

Stamford has "a core" of 17th- and 18th-century stone buildings, old timber-framed buildings, and five parish churches. I had no idea when I booked my accommodation there, but the town has a reputation for being a "classically English" sort of place--the kind of place, for instance, that might be used as a backdrop for shooting the most recent version of "Pride and Prejudice," "The Da Vinci Code," "The Golden Bowl," and the 1994 BBC production of "Middlemarch."

(A hint of the timber frame that helps keep this old stone building upright.)
(A broad view of the timber-framed building where I took the above photo. To the right, just past the edge of the photo, is the back entrance to the Garden House Hotel.)
Unfortunately, the timing of my trip was such that I did not get to explore Stamford much at all. My longest and farthest foray occurred one evening after dinner, when I had to venture up to the High Street in order to locate an ATM (or, as they say in Britain, a cash point). In the dark, I walked past one massive stone church after another, one of which was surrounded by an ancient graveyard whose headstones nearly jutted into the sidewalk. I also crossed the Town Bridge running over the small River Welland. The waterway itself was not very impressive, but it led into a lovely little park situated near the train station. It looked like the center of town was filled with very swanky bars, restaurants, and shops, which didn't entirely surprise me given that I'd seen similarly swanky cars earlier on the road--including a Ferrari. Clearly it was a well-to-do area, despite the fact that most of the environs seemed to be devoted to farming.
(Agricultural field just outside the Egleton Nature Preserve. I also passed many fields where the bales were long, rectangular cubes, piled up like the walls of one of the three little pigs' houses.)

According to that most reliable of travel guides, Wikipedia, Stamford also boasts some ruins from a Norman castle that was built in the 11th century and toppled in the 15th. Just outside of town is an Elizabethan mansion called Burghley House. It was built by Sir William Cecil, the First Minister of Elizabeth I; he later became Lord Burghley, hence the name of his abode.

Although I did not spend much time in Stamford, I did traipse back and forth through the nearby town of Oakham several times. Oakham is the next nearest stop on the train line. Every morning I rode from Stamford to Oakham, then walked from Oakham to the nature preserve; every night I did the trip in reverse. It was easily a few miles between the train station and Rutland Water, so you can imagine how happy I was to get home and crash at the end of the day. In any case, there is not much to report about Oakham, except that it houses the Oakham Castle, which contains an enormous collection of ceremonial horseshoes hung upside-down in order to keep the Devil from sitting in the hollow. Oakham is also home to the All Saints Church, which is topped by a 14th-century spire set upon a building refurbished in the 19th century. It's a small, unassuming town that is, nevertheless, quite attractive and pleasant to walk through. Near the public toilets I spotted this building:

I was impressed by the embellishments at the top of the thatched roofing; I'd never seen that sort of detail before.

As I said, at the end of a long day full of walking and standing, it was nice to come back to my hotel and sit somewhere comfortable. It was especially pleasant to be seated for dinner--not only because of the view, but because of the food. The Garden House is so named because--surprise!--it is attached to quite a large garden; the tables of its restaurants are situated in an old conservatory which, I presume, once held either a muck room or a collection of indoor plants.

(A view of the garden from my table at dinner.)

 (A view towards the dining room from the garden.)

I chose to eat dinner in the hotel as much as possible, since it simplified my stay in Stamford. This turned out to be quite a good choice because the food was excellent. On my first night there, I had a scallop appetizer that was maybe the most photogenic dish I'd ever eaten; unfortunately, I did not have my camera with me. The perfectly-caramelized scallops were seated on top of a light layer of cauliflower puree, strewn with tiny salad leaves and flowers, accompanied by small piles of fruit salsa, then drizzled with pesto. I was given a complementary amuse-bouche of wild boar--which I had never eaten before--and then a palate-cleanser of homemade pineapple sorbet. The next night I ate Cornish hen, another dish that I'd never tried before. My favorite meal was my last--a starter of rocket salad with Parmesan shavings and aged balsamic, then a good old-fashioned turkey and mushroom pie with mashed potatoes on the side. Anyone who complains about British food isn't eating at the right places. My only complaint is that none of these meals left me any space for dessert.

After eating all that food, it was pleasant to have a stroll around the garden:

 (One of the many seating areas tucked into various corners of the garden. Had I been around during the day, I definitely would have sat there for lunch or tea.)

(The back entrance/exit; the garden is off to the left and the kitchen is off to the right. This arrangement seemed quite old-fashioned to me--I am wondering if it dates back to when scullery types were forced to maintain a physical separation from the inhabitants of the house.)

 (Dahlia from the garden. There were all sorts of flowers in bloom, as well as trees in fruit. There was one tree that produced something that looked like a cross between tiny, bluish plums and giant, hard blueberries. I have no idea what it was, but the fruits were all over the ground.)

One evening, I happened to be in the garden just as a flock of jackdaws flew over on their way to their evening roost. I quickly snapped a photo, though without a telephoto lens I knew I had no chance of capturing the birds in any great detail. As it turns out, though, I like the way they look in the distance behind the weather vane; sepia tones are so forgiving:

That's about all there is to say about my time in Rutland/Lincolnshire. I will probably go to Birdfair again next year and, when I do, I am likely to stay in Stamford again--possibly even at the Garden House Hotel, provided they still have those delicious scallops on their menu. If I do find myself in the area again, I hope to leave some extra time for sightseeing and photographing around Stamford, since I know that I only just began to sample all the charms it has to offer.