At the lush lawn of Stamford Meadows, the River Welland gently meanders below a panoramic key-cut skyline. Honey-coloured houses line cobbled roads along a winding, medieval street plan. The town still echoes with the clatter of horse-drawn carriages; historic Stamford is ideal for filming period dramas, including Middlemarch and Pride and Prejudice. ‘It’s a very pleasant place to live,’ says geographer and local business owner Jo Kemp, who created this viewpoint.
In 1967 Stamford became England’s first Conservation Area. Legends claim it was also the site of Britain’s first university, founded in 863 BC by the mythical King Bladud. Apparently, he also used magic powers to create the city of Bath to cure himself of leprosy. More reliable evidence of Stamford’s lost halls of academia dates from1333. Kemp explains, ‘Northern academics claimed they were being denied scholarships at Oxford’s Merton College in favour of southern colleagues. So, they set up a breakaway university in Stamford’.
On King Edward III’s orders, the rebels returned to Oxford within two years, their university unaccredited. Traces remained, however. Oxford University MA students had to swear an oath: ‘You will not read lectures, or hear them read, at Stamford, as in a University study, or college general.’ This was observed until 1827. By then Oxford University was world-famous and Stamford a coaching stop on the A1.
As Covid-19 vaccinations continue, it’s interesting to imagine a Sliding Doors scenario. In a parallel universe, people may be receiving a Stamford Vaccine, developed at the dreaming spires of Stamford University. This small Lincolnshire market town could instead be a bustling campus city, a seat of learning and earning on the East Coast Mainline.
A university may have raised Stamford’s profile but Kemp suggests the town enjoys its relative obscurity. ‘It’s a hidden gem. Stamford is stunningly beautiful but many people don’t know where it is, or that it even exists.’ The town’s confusing location helps keep it quiet. A three-mile walk around Stamford passes through four counties: Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, and Rutland.
Much of Stamford belongs to the estate of Burghley House, of Burghley Horse Trials fame. Burghley, nearby Cambridge, plus Stamford’s neighbour Peterborough, divert tourists and commuters. Surrounded by prominent targets, Stamford stays under the radar. Kemp previously worked for the National Union of Students and reflects, ‘Campus towns have a unique culture and vibrancy. Stamford’s looks and feel could be very different.’ Was Stamford’s lost university ultimately a gain? I wouldn’t swear an oath on that.