Serenity of bedlam

Burghley House, Stamford, Linconshire. Photo: Robin Weaver
Burghley House, Stamford, Linconshire. Photo: Robin Weaver
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After Heaven and Hell there is the Garden of Surprises. Helen Werin visits Burghley House

The night before we’ve dined in Bedlam; we’ve just glided through Heaven and descended, rather swiftly, through the gaping mouth of Hell. Now we’re in Paradise. At least that’s where our 10-year-old, Sophie, thinks she is.

We’re actually at Burghley House, at Stamford in Lincolnshire. We’ve left the fabulous three-dimensional effects of The Heaven Room and The Hell Staircase inside this palatial Elizabethan prodigy house for the Gardens of Surprise. The gardens are more of a shock because I’ve come without my raincoat or, indeed, a change of clothes. The surprises, you see, are of the cold and wet variety. No, not the weather, but a series of unexpected water curtains, suddenly spurting fountains and splashing water features in spooky grottoes.

It’s hard enough trying to drag Sophie away from paddling pools and hidden pipes spraying passers-by, but it’s almost impossible to leave without risking a soaking. The final hurdle to all this fun is another water curtain at the exit. This my husband studies for a full 15 minutes, trying to work out its programme, before an amused regular discloses that the water surprise is triggered by a pressure pad.

Stamford comes as a surprise because I’d been expecting hordes of tourists as befits a place oft-called “the finest stone town in England”. It was the first in the UK to be made a conservation town and has more than 600 listed buildings. Away from the pedestrianised High Street, it’s remarkably quiet.

As clichéd as its sounds, it really does retain an old world charm. Its mostly Georgian buildings are built of a creamy coloured limestone with roofs of Collyweston slate from the nearby village of the same name.

Being a small town, it’s very easy to explore on foot in a couple of hours. Medieval alleyways lead off the High Street, named after the crafts once plied here. There’s Cheyne Lane (iron workers) and Goldsmith’s and Silver Lane. They lead us to Broad Street and the feeling that we’ve suddenly been transported to the Cotswolds. There is an explanation for this. Stamford sits on the same limestone ridge as runs through Gloucestershire and on up to the Yorkshire coast.

In St Martin’s Church, with its beautiful stained glass, we admire the ornate tomb of William Cecil, who built Burghley House. In the churchyard behind lies Daniel Lambert, the largest man in England, who weighed 52st and had a waist of 9ft 4in. Lambert died aged 39 in 1809, collapsing in a local pub after appearing as a curiosity peepshow at the Stamford races. His tombstone reads: “In personal greatness he had no competitor.”

Beside the river Welland is a row of 16th century almshouses, built by Lord Burghley for 13 poor men. These men were given half a crown (12.5p) a week and a new suit of clothes at Whitsun. That’s when they got their annual bath. Incredibly, the charity is still in existence today, as is that of medieval Browne’s Hospital on Broad Street. The impoverished folk who lived in Browne’s almshouses had to attend chapel three times a day to pray for the soul of their benefactor, a wool merchant described as being of “wonderful richness”. Nowadays there is just one service a week, at which anyone is welcome.

Part of the building is also open to the public on summer weekends, including the chapel with its magnificent 15th century stained glass. We got a sample of this glass in the entrance to the eerily quiet courtyards. Apparently its yellow shade can be attributed to the use of urine as a colourant.

Our hotel, The Bull and Swan, is on the other side of the Welland and it takes a couple of attempts to find its entrance. Part of the quirky charm of this 17th century former coaching inn is its rather higgledy-piggledy layout. Our room is The Ram, the pseudonym of Sir Thomas Barker, Sheriff of Rutland around 1670. Like all the rooms it is named after members of an exclusive drinking club called The Honourable Order of Little Bedlam, which met at Burghley House. The dining room is also named after this club. The Ram is right on the Great North Road, a lot more peaceful now than in the 18th century when Stamford boasted 95 taverns associated with the coaching trade on the main route north.

Back at Burghley House it’s the hand of the temperamental Antonio Verrio which inspires such awe. From our first peek at the astonishing scale of his work in the Jewel Closet, to his Feast Of The Gods in the fourth George Room through to the incredible finale of The Heaven Room and The Hell Staircase, it’s exciting, mesmerising and disturbing.

We’d entered Burghley via the cathedral-like kitchen, its vaulted ceiling designed to reflect great power and wealth. We were wowed by the Bow Room, its walls entirely covered with illusionist paintings by Louis Laguerre, giving it the interior of an Italian palazzo. We followed in the footsteps of Queen Victoria in the cavernous Great Hall, where, under its 60 feet high ceiling, she would have been entertained by the Band of the Coldstream Guards.

It’s no wonder Hermann Goering, the Nazi commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, had his eye on Burghley. As an avid art collector, he aimed to adopt it as his residence when the Germans conquered Britain. Fortunately, they failed.

Getting there

The Bull and Swan at Burghley, St Martins, Stamford, PE9 2LJ. 01780 766412.

Burghley House, Stamford, PE9 3JY. 01780 752451.

For guided walks of Stamford with Blue Badge guide Jill Collinge: 01780 410780.