Known as “The Bath of the North”, Stamford in Lincolnshire is a very beautiful town that lies at the axis of four counties, on the Great North Road, now the A1, along which marched the Roman army. These days there is a different sort of invasion in Stamford, that of tourists and visitors coming to enjoy the 17thand 18thCentury stone and timber architecture, the film set beauty of every lane, the chic boutiques that line its thoroughfares and the wonderful countryside around Rutland, Northamptonshire, Lincolnshire and Leicestershire. And there is one iconic institution, right in Stamford’s heart, that has been welcoming guests for about one thousand years: The George coaching inn, hostelry to King Charles I, King William III, The King of Denmark, Sir Walter Scott and the Duke of Cumberland as well as members of today’s royal family.
On the site of The George there once existed a hospital of the Knights of St.John of Jerusalem, and all pilgrims of the Holy Sepulchre were entertained here. There are still the remains of the ancient hospital in the crypt of what is now the bar and in a vaulted passage leading to the garden. Do make sure you ask at Reception for the hotel’s history sheets, they are fascinating. In the dark red entrance hall there is a portrait of Daniel Lambert, The George’s greediest customer, who died, aged 39 in 1809, weighing 52 stone 11 lbs. The food here is really very good and the portions very generous so do beware: look at his walking stick, and let that be a lesson to you before you order dinner.
As soon as you arrive you know you have entered into a world that you never would have thought still existed: a hotel porter carries your bags up to your room; they ring you from reception after five minutes of you entering your bedroom to ensure that you like it and are comfortable; the finger sandwiches you order with your tea have all crusts removed and are served on doyleys; your bed is turned down for the night by invisible chambermaids; fresh mineral water is added to your tray as soon as you drink from it; there are reams of Conqueror paper in your drawers, in case you need to write a letter, or your memoirs, and a wooden clothes brush hangs in your wardrobe.
If you belong to a generation born post-1950’s you will most probably not recognise any of these services, for we now inhabit a different world. At The George the clock stopped in an era when chivalry at the door, tea at four o’clock, candles on the dinner table, fresh flowers on the sideboard and The Daily Telegraph in the reading room were the everyday staples of genteel English life. Colonel Mustard is in the drawing room waiting for Miss. Scarlet, with a chilled Negroni, a copy of Private Eye and the key to the cigar humidor.
The hotel’s style is reassuringly and unapologetically old fashioned and traditional. More is more here, and less is unheard of. My bedroom was a Scottish symphony of heather purple and moorland green tartan, gold damask curtains, claret velvet bedspread and 1970’s pot plants. This is not a chic boutique hotel, Kelly Hoppenised into a taupe choma with white floors and minimal accessories. There are paintings and prints on every wall of The George, dark oak furniture, swirly carpets and an entire plantation of potted orchids dotted on every shelf, every window sill and every dressing table. The Garden Room restaurant is dark green, with gilded mirrors and a conservatory phalanx of climbing evergreen plants, leading to a buffet bar where you help yourself to cold salads, seafood, breakfasts and drinks.
Everyone should, at least once in their life, dine in the oak panelled dining room at The George. It is an unmissable event, and should be placed on the core curriculum of hospitality industry training. You enter a room that has soaring ceilings, cathedral like windows, formal place settings and flower arrangements that would not look out of place at Claridges. A small, personal army of uniformed staff guide you to your seat, flick your linen napkin open, bring you warm bread rolls and sparkling water even before you have had time to put your spectacles on to read the very long Menu and even longer wine list. My waitress, wearing Mary Jane shoes, a black skirt, white shirt and name label, told me how she is still in awe of this room, after many years of working here.
At The George they love their fish: the Head Chef, Paul Reseigh, must carry out frequent raids at Billingsgate and the Shetlands Islands, to source the lobster, oyster, langoustine, king prawn, crab and clam offerings on the Menus of both the garden Room and this restaurant. The meat comes from the same Leicester butcher they have been using for 25 years, and it is from there they source the remarkable Limousin sirloin of beef that is wheeled around the room in a domed trolley, carved and layered with aplomb and sobriety next to pillowy Yorkshire puddings. It is a sight to behold.
From duck spring roll, to potted ham hock, grilled Dover sole, stuffed Woodbridge duck, pan fried calves liver and Scottish smoked salmon, there are very few iconic dishes which are not on the menu. Even the cheese course takes no prisoners: Lincolnshire Poacher, Colston Bassett, Brie de Meaux, Swaledale and Cote Hill Blue served with a local plum loaf.
The Hungarian wine waiter will help you through the classical and new world wine list and make suitable suggestions with respect to your orders. He is extremely knowledgeable and charming, and so engrossed you will be in conversation with him that you need to ensure you do not miss the clinking sounds of the pudding trolley as it manoeuvres its stately way round the room. The waitress will point at each dish like an air hostess showing duty free: tiramisu, chocolate profiteroles, meringue pavlovas to the left, summer fruit salad, orange crème caramel, pear and almond tart and raspberry jellies to the right. As old fashioned as this method of presentation may seem, it bears great commercial sense: studies have shown that one of the best ways of selling puddings in restaurants is to show them off to the customers who, having just read sweet words on a Menu may never have felt enticed to order anything more after their main course.
The dining room is full, and the clientele consists of residents in the hotel and local visitors: The George has many loyal customers who come here time and time again. The family to the left of me, mother, father and two sons, have come to dinner to celebrate the fact that eldest son, Matthew, has graduated from Leicester University in Medicine. They ask me what I am writing in my notebook, and why I am taking so many photographs. When they discover that I am reviewing the hotel, the smiles drop and the father becomes very defensive. “We’ve been coming here for years, it’s our treat for big occasions and birthdays. You must never say anything bad about The George. Everything here is wonderful.” And who could argue?
The waitress crumbs your table down with a clean napkin and crumb tray, when it gets cold in the garden room the manager comes to switch on the heater, chamomile teas are topped up with hot water, tea lights are lit in storm lanterns and enquiries are made to your wellbeing: “Is everything alright Madam? Did you enjoy your dinner Madam?” You are transported to the colonial era with every step back to your room, passing prints of old English roses and birds, potted palms and ferns in Victorian ceramic jardinieres.
The George is a very large hotel, with 47 rooms and many different reception rooms, yet from the outside you would never be able to imagine it is quite so enormous. For total peace and quiet you will have to book one of the rooms that face the lawn gardens, which are decoratively and immaculately laid out in streams of pink pelargoniums, white roses and topiary balls. In the car park there is a fruiting 350 year old mulberry tree, and one of the chefs, John, took me to see it, giving me a detailed tour of the garden. The rooms facing the garden restaurant itself are a bit noisier, and there are often events such as weddings or conferences. The ladies at reception are extremely efficient at getting your booking just right, so make sure you ask for what you need: if you are not happy, you only have yourself to blame for not asking.
For breakfast, Whitby kippers, locally made pork sausages, lamb’s kidneys and Scottish porridge are all on the Menu, served piping hot with teas, coffees and toasts, or maybe Madam prefers the innumerable bowls of fruits salads, cereals, brans, mueslis and dried and fresh fruit from the buffet?
The prices are not cheap, but there are very good offers and discounts if you book midweek or stay more than one night. Make sure you do not miss a trip to Burghley House, the grandest Elizabethan house you are ever likely to see, with grounds landscaped by Capability Brown.
On the news wars are raging near and far, the Financial Times headlines omens of economic apocalypse and the radio augurs inclement weather for the foreseeable future. In the warm, soporific quiet of The George nothing awful could ever happen, you are so cossetted into a gentle, comforting world where your every need is catered to. It is a great shame that this type of coaching inn is now nearly extinct in Britain: any hotelier would be proud and honoured to be the owner of The George. It hits every nail on the head.
The George of Stamford
Lincolnshire PE9 2LB
Telephone: 01780 750750
E-mial: [email protected]