If there is something familiar about the English market town of Stamford, even to those who have never visited, then we have to thank the likes of Tom Hanks, Keira Knightley, Uma Thurman and Dame Judi Dench. Hollywood A-listers make frequent appearances in this small, unassuming part of eastern England – they visit not to live or holiday but to work.
Stamford’s townscape, dominated by 15 historic churches, a series of ornate streets and glorious houses built from local stone and timber between the 16th and 18th centuries, is behind its claim to fame: the backdrop to a string of recent TV and cinema dramas. It started with a BBC production of Middlemarch back in 1994. The production used scores of the town’s houses, shops and streets. The series was seen worldwide in the years that followed and prompted a global frenzy to visit the place where George Eliot’s rich characters were brought to life.
Since 2000 parts of movies such as The Golden Bowl, The Da Vinci Code, Elizabeth: The Golden Age and The Young Victoria, have been filmed either in the town or at nearby country estates and stately homes. Production crews love Stamford’s well-preserved beauty.
The town escaped English civil war damage during the 17th century and was largely untouched by the industrial revolution 100 years later. Wealthy professionals moved in throughout this time thanks to good road links to London and built and maintained the Georgian houses that line the streets to this day.
The attention of film crews has added more than a little stardust to the lives of local residents such as Henry Browne, a professional polo player whose home and polo livery are in Stamford.
“I was an extra, playing Keira Knightley’s footman, in the 2005 movie version of Pride and Prejudice. I held her chair for her while she sat down,” he boasts.
Browne’s brush with fame took place in Burghley House, an estate on the edge of Stamford that hosts annual horse trials (held this year between September 2 and 5). The building’s mid-16th-century façades and 115 rooms are among the finest examples of Elizabethan design in England and demonstrate why Stamford has become a favourite with architectural aficionados as well as location scouts.
There are over 600 listed buildings in the Stamford area, all protected against insensitive structural modernisation, and the centre of the town was designated Britain’s first official urban conservation area in 1967, obliging owners to maintain cosmetic appearances – from paintwork and railings to the height of hedges – within local guidelines.
“The look of Stamford and its surrounding countryside make it special. There’s been a lot of specific control over the volume and appearance of development to ensure it retains an unspoilt, traditional quality. It attracts people who like that, so there’s a collective goodwill whether you’re shopping or in the local pub,” Browne explains.
Although Stamford is just off the A1 trunk road, the 20,000 residents indirectly benefit from the town being 100 miles north of London, and therefore just outside comfortable commuting distance. A few bravehearts drive daily to nearby towns such as Peterborough to board trains to London but most residents choose instead to work, live and play in Stamford itself, giving it a daytime buzz that true commuter towns often lack.
There are farmers’ markets, plenty of independent small shops and state and private schools catering for a wide demographic mix. Tourists are present in large numbers, too – many even today clutching their “Middlemarch maps”, standing outside the local estate agent’s office (it was a grocery shop in the TV drama) and then gazing at St George’s Square, where scenes for Pride and Prejudice were shot. The local museum still features Middlemarch TV memorabilia and bar staff at the local George Hotel – one of England’s oldest coaching inns – talk proudly of celebrity paying guests such as Matthew Macfadyen and Donald Sutherland.
But most local people want Stamford to be considered as more than a movie set. Anne Guthrie moved to the town as a teenager in the early 1990s and is now a public relations executive for The Wildlife Trust. “The media attention has been positive and it’s turned Stamford from a village into a town with far more visitors and a lot of self-confidence. But even without that recent history, it’s a buzzing place. These days Stamford is very entrepreneurial, with small businesses popping up, independent shops and a strong sense of purpose,” she explains.
With such strong local self-belief, it is little wonder that the property market is confident, even in these straitened times. Each year a rare estate near the town comes on to the market, fetching anything from £2m to £4m, but a more typical top-end property is the 17th-century Careby Manor, for sale through Chesterton Humberts for £1.1m. This is an eight-bedroom house constructed of local stone and close to the town centre. Inside are tall ceilings and windows, typical of the period, and outside 13 acres of gardens and paddocks.
Major local employers include the armed forces – RAF Wittering is nearby – as well as quarries and engineering companies, but the top end of the property market is fuelled by incomers rather than existing residents. Other properties that are currently on the market include St Paul’s House, a grade II-listed, five-bedroom house with original 17th-century features and a barrelled ceiling on the lower ground floor, for sale through Chesterton Humberts for £810,000. Aldgate Lodge, a Georgian country house in the village of Ketton on the edge of Stamford that has been renovated and expanded to 12,000 sq ft, is being sold through Knight Frank for £3.65m.
“Stamford is a lifestyle town. People aspire to live here, perhaps after spotting it as a tourist. Lots of people want to buy and once they’re here very few move out. So turnover is low, demand is high and supply very limited. Prices tend to move higher as a result,” explains James Eastaway of estate agency Fine & Country.
Official Land Registry figures, covering all property transactions in Stamford and its surrounding villages, show that average prices rose 13 per cent in the year to May 2010, roughly returning them to pre-recession levels.
“We’re on the edge of the London money catchment area,” says Eastaway. “We’ve benefited from the strength of the capital’s housing recovery as most of our buyers from outside come from London. They want a holiday home or a larger property if they’re moving here permanently in their later life. They’re interested in the £700,000 to £900,000 [price range] or even above, which is where the market is strongest. Homes at the lower end take longer to sell because buyers have difficulties obtaining mortgages.”
So while Stamford is not immune from the problems besetting the wider British housing market, the thick limestone walls found in the town’s finest houses help to make sure its owners are protected against the worst ravages.
Less predictable is what image the town will obtain from the next movie to be filmed there. Locals say a big-budget gothic horror story is lined up for this autumn, although mystery surrounds the celebrity cast. Whoever the actors are, one thing is certain: it is Stamford that will steal the limelight.
Chesterton Humberts, tel: +44 (0)1780 762 849, www.chestertonhumberts.com;
Fine & Country, tel: +44 (0)1780 750 200, www.fineandcountry.co.uk;
Knight Frank, tel: +44 (0)20 7629 8171, www.knightfrank.com