Mingling with the ghosts of highwaymen

It’s amazing to walk in the footsteps of the famous highwayman, Dick Turpin; Roman legions; fearsome Vikings; and Crusaders in flowing robes.

But, that’s exactly what happens when you journey down the ancient Great North Road, the legendary route that once connected northern and southern England.

Through the centuries, this famous highway – linking London and Edinburgh, Scotland – has been used by daring highwaymen, armies of many colours; mail coaches; and everyday travellers simply going about their business.


Each of these has left its marks, woven into the complex tapestry of English history, folklore and legend.

For example, there’s the well known story of Ben Turpin’s dash from London to York – a distance of 200 miles – in less than 15 hours on his faithful mares Black Bess

Various inns that still stand along the original route  claim that Turpin ate his lunch there that night, or stopped off to briefly rest his horse.

One particular part of that ancient road – as it passes  through the East Midlands –  especially grabbed our attention.

In Lincolnshire, about 14 miles from the cathedral city of Peterborough, the Great North Road crosses the River Welland.


The site is marked by the delightful centre of Stamford, which claims the title of ‘England’s finest Stone Town’.

And Stamford boasts The George, one of England’s great historic coaching inns, well known for a much-photographed gallows erected across the road outside – partially to warn off highwaymen.

A rest house has stood on the site of The George for about 1,000 years. We were told that the actual age of the building is unclear, but it could have been built about 947AD.

At one stage, the site housed a hospital, where pilgrims and Knights were entertained on their way to Jerusalum.


Today, The George has a garden and a plaque where young Crusaders once mingled.

The George has also seen its share of royalty, hosting visits by Charles II in 1641 and William III in 1696.

In 1597, The George was rebuilt by Elizabethan statesman, William Cecil, the first Lord Burghley. This descendants, the Marquis of Exeter still live in stately Burghley House, near Stamford.

Of course, with such an old building, there are also many colourful stories surrounding The George of Stamford.

During our visit, we were told about a man called Milton who once rode from London Piccadilly to The George – a distance of more than 90 miles – within five hours using a team of 13 horses.


In the grand entrance hall of The George of Stamford there is a portrait of local, Daniel Lambert, undoubtedly the inn’s biggest customer.

Lambert was apparently a strong man in his youth, but by the time of his death, he weighed 52 stone 11 pounds.

Today, The George has both hotel and restaurant facilities and entering the splendid building is like taking a step back in history – fittingly along one of the world’s great ancient highways, unfortunately now largely bypassed by a motorway.

East Midlands

Burghley House, Lincolnshire UK

Travellers who abandon England’s motorways and head into the countryside find surprises around almost every bend in the road.Burghley House, UK

Burghley House is a great example.

Situated near the beautiful stone town of Stamford, in the county of Lincolnshire, Burghley carries the tag of “one of the largest and grandest houses of the first Elizabethan age”.

It’s a description that sits easily.

The Grand Hall at Burghley HouseBurghley House was built between 1558 and 1587 for Sir William Cecil, later the 1st Baron of Burghley, who was Lord High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I.

An extraordinary example of Elizabethan architecture and stonemasonry, the house has 35 major rooms on the ground and first floors, including a grand hall with eye-catching wooden ceiling decorations.

There are more than 80 lesser rooms and numerous  halls, corridors and service areas.

Much of the house – including ceilings in many of the main rooms – is decorated with murals done in the English Boroque style by the Italian decorator, Antonio Verrio, who is often credited with  introducing this style of mural painting to England.

The ‘Heaven Room’ in Burghley House is regarded as Verrio’s masterpiece.

The Heaven Room, Burghley House, UKIn the Pagoda Room, there are portraits of  the Cecil family; Queen Elizabeth I; her father King Henry VIII; and Oliver Cromwell.

The eye-catching house, naturally, is a favourite with film makers and Burghley has been a striking backdrop for many movies, including “Middlemarch’, ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’.

Burghley Estate is made up of 12,000 acres of farmland; 700 acres of woodland; more than 250 dwellings; 60 commercial properties including hotels, offices and workshops; as well as quarries, sports areas, gardens and allotments.

The house itself is set in magnificent gardens and parkland, laid out  in the 18th Century by prominent landscape architect, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the man regarded by many as England’s greatest gardener.

Lake and boat house, Burghley House, UKOther highlights of the park include a man-made lake, a quaint boathouse, deer and a Grade 1 listed entry gate.

Since the 1960’s, Burghley has been owned by a charitable Trust, which has contrasted historic with modern by commissioning contemporary artworks in the grounds.

The main visitor gardens at Burghley are the Garden of Surprises and the Sculpture Garden.

Both gardens are open daily from March to October. Other parts of the estate are open at other times.Sculpture Garden, Burghley House, UK

The Sculpture Garden promises “contemporary sculpture in an historic setting”, while the Garden of Surprises combines fun and history.

Burghley House is the centre of many events throughout much of the year.

Check the Burghley House website for event details, along with information about the courtyard shop and cafe opening times.

Here are directions for travelling to Burghley House.

Photography courtesy of Rod Allerton.

East Midlands