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Why Stamford's offer of historical pubs should be on your agenda

The Bar Man, by Jeff Hoyle, Friday, August 16, 2019

August usually means the start of a new football season and the chance to explore exotic places such as Scunthorpe – but this year, for reasons that are too depressing to relate, my team did not have a game, so instead we went to Stamford for a tour of historical pubs organised by the Pub History Society.

I have passed through on a few occasions, but never really had a look around this marvellous Georgian town. It may not have the magnificent crescents that you will see in Bath, but much of the architecture is comparable, especially given the wonderful honey colouring of the local Barnack stone.

The most noticeable pub is the George with its gallows sign which traverses the former Great North Road. It was once the scene of 44 daily coach departures and, with its London and York rooms, must have been a hive of activity.

Caring for the horses and guests would have needed an army of servants, and it was only one of several similar establishments in town.

We saw the remains of an even larger coaching inn, and those of a hotel which once occupied much of the current town centre, and while much of the detail fades from the memory, I have a strong appreciation of the impact of the railways in changing the very essence of towns such as Stamford.

Over the space of a few years, the whole infrastructure of the coach network became redundant. Stamford did not even gain the compensation of much increased activity from the rail network, which chose nearby Peterborough as its major junction.

The High Street at Stamford
The High Street at Stamford

In Lynn the coming of the railways also heralded a decline in coaching and the disappearance of establishments such as the Crown Hotel, now the site of a car park on Chapel Street.

Back in Stamford, we did venture into a couple of pubs. The Bull and Swan, opposite the George, was the home of a drinking club founded in 1684 by the 5th Earl of Exeter and called ‘The Honourable Order of Little Bedlam’.

Portraits were painted of all members and reproductions hang on the wall, along with their nicknames. The 20 members all took the names of animals, with the chairman being the Lion. Not sure which one was the Guinea Pig.

Our other port of call was the Tobie Norris, which dates back even further, to the 12th century. There is a warren of small rooms and upstairs you can see the wooden roof which looks even more unstable than ours did before the remedial work last month. Two real gems and well worth a look, even without sampling their excellent beer.

Our guide for the day was Steve, landlord of the Frothblowers in Peterborough, a micropub which we had coincidentally visited a couple of weeks earlier. Steve was telling us how he had been donated a unicorn snow globe, which had been kidnapped by customers of his brother’s micropub south of the river called the Wonky Donkey.

In retaliation a crack crew of frothblowers donned their black balaclavas and raided their rivals’ bar, liberating the Wonky Donkey itself. The situation resolved itself with an exchange of trophies on a bridge over the river in homage to the scene in ‘Bridge of Spies’.

Who can believe that grown adults, some of retirement age, can indulge in such antics? What would the Earl of Exeter and the Guinea Pig think of such pranks?

Or will a future tour go looking for the scene of the exchange? Steve – creating history as well as explaining it.

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