The Location Hunters: Which way is the 19th century, please?: The Middlemarch trail leads to the pleasant town of Stamford. But television fans don't find what they're looking for, says Anna Pavord

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The Independent Travel
Stamford in Lincolnshire, once one of the most pleasant towns in England around which to walk, has become quite dangerous for pedestrians. The problem is caused, not by the traffic, but by all the fans of the recent television serial, Middlemarch, cruising the pavements with their heads buried in town trail leaflets.

You are all right if you stick to simple errands. No filming took place near Tesco in the pedestrianised High Street, or along the steepish St Mary's Hill where Truffles has its coffee shop. It is when you turn the corner into St Mary's Street that you need to watch your step, for this is where the filmed locations, and therefore the Middlemarchers, cluster most thickly.

In this street, which leads on to St George's Square, you can find the Vincys' house, the Plymdales' house, Bulstrode's Bank, Mawmsey the grocer's, Spooner the jeweller's and St Botolph's church where Rosamund Vincy and the handsome Dr Lydgate were married.

The church is the church - a straight swap of St Botolph's for St George's, one of the five town churches that still dominate the skyscape of Stamford. It is cast up on an island, surrounded by narrow streets and houses.

The other locations, though, put you in a dizzy muddle. The real estate agent, Savills, was transformed into the grocer's shop, while Middlemarch's fictional estate agent's, Trumbull's, is actually a private house a few doors down St Mary's Street. The handbills and property ads used in the serial have gone - to the museum, where Middlemarch props have joined the real antiques. That is only fair, because some of the museum's artefacts were used to dress up sets in the drama. Spot the join.

Stamford's Assembly Rooms and arts centre were reinvented as Bulstrode's Bank and the White Hart inn. The town's most famous hotel is actually the George, but it did not even get a walk-on part. Instead, the BBC's set-building department customised the 18th-century facades of the Assembly Rooms to make them more realistic than real.

They built a false portico on the entrance, with fancy pillars straight out of the 18th century. They painted an equally convincing inn sign, a white hart lolling on greensward, which swung out over the corner of St George's Square. They did the job so well that visitors now turn up in Stamford wanting to stay at the White Hart, which is a problem for the tourist board.

Long before the BBC 'discovered' Stamford, the town was a vital staging post on the Great North Road. That is why the George became so important. 'As fine a built town all of stone as may be seen', said Celia Fiennes who, as an itchy- footed traveller of the 17th century, had seen most of them.

Although even the toughest architectural critics go weak at the knees in Stamford, it did not get an unequivocal thumbs-up from the production designer, Gerry Scott. 'None of the houses was true to period,' she said. 'They all had to have new colours. There are all sorts of new things: letter-boxes, bells, Xpelairs, aerials. Nobody notices what changes you've made, but they would soon notice if you hadn't'

The chance to admire Stamford's streets free of 20th-century clutter was one of the bonuses of Middlemarch. No 'pay and display' notices, no double yellow lines. Will the price of houses in the town go zooming up as a result? For pounds 340,000 you could become the Lydgates' neighbours. For a similar sum, you could buy yourself a view of the offices of Middlemarch's newspaper.

Stamford was not what George Eliot had in mind as the model for Middlemarch. She was thinking more of Coventry, but the Luftwaffe put paid to that city's chances of starring in a costume drama.

Stamford, however, has excellent credentials. Although Eliot brought out her novel in the 1870s, publishing it in magazine instalments, it was set in the 1830s, just when Stamford was easing out of the premier commercial league and adjusting to life in the second division.

If the town's shopkeepers had won their great battle to bring the mainline railway through Stamford, the film's location managers would have had to look elsewhere - to Richmond in Yorkshire perhaps, or to genteel Totnes. The general election of July 1847 was fought on the issue of the Great Northern Railway and Stamford's place on the line. Battles broke out between townspeople and police in scenes far more violent than anything Eliot's amiable Arthur Brooke suffered at the hustings. Stamford lost out then. We gain now.

The BBC was measly with the stagecoaches, though. The coaching trade was at its peak in the 1830s, and Stamford had 30 stagecoaches and 40 mail coaches passing through every day. This Middlemarch was suspiciously quiet.

The only location still bearing the signs of its film star status is the old warehouse at the junction of Austin Street and King's Mill Lane, used as the offices and works of Middlemarch's radical Pioneer newspaper. 'Will Parliamentary Reform put an end to the harnessing of men and women by a hired overseer to draw carts like beasts of burden?' asks a handbill in the window, signed by William Ladislaw, Editor.

In this quiet part of the town, a busy commercial area in the 19th century, you feel most strongly that you have stepped into the real Middlemarch, a feeling which intensifies as you mooch on down the narrow, curving, cobbled lane and find yourself outside the serial's Green Dragon pub, a private house at No 2, King's Mill Lane.

It is unlikely that Stamford's head will be turned. It was made by merchants and is not easily impressed. The BBC filmed at about a dozen locations in the town, but for every building used, there are 20 just as interesting. It is a place where the whole is more important than the parts. Go on the Middlemarch trail, but do not shut your eyes to the rest of the town's delights.

There are many other Middlemarch locations in and around the town. The Old Infirmary was set in Browne's Hospital, Broad Street. It is open on bank holidays and Saturdays in August (11-5); to view at other times apply to Stapleton & Son, 1, Broad St, Stamford. The Lydgates' house, which ate up too much of Tertius Lydgate's income, is at 3, All Saint's Place. Scenes at Sir James Chettam's house, Freshitt Hall, were filmed at Walcot Hall, in nearby Barnack; garden only, open Sunday, 5 June (2-6), admission pounds 2. The stables here also stood in for the White Hart's coach yard. The Lydgate family's home at Quallingham, Northumberland, was actually Grimsthorpe Castle, the Vanbrugh mansion at Grimsthorpe, near Bourne; house and garden are open Easter Sunday/Monday, and then on Sundays from the end of May. Admission to the castle, pounds 2.50. The museum in Broad Street has a display of Middlemarch mementos, and produces informative town guides. Open Monday-Saturday (10-5), Sunday (2-5); admission 40p. The Tourist Information Centre is in the Arts Centre, St Mary's St (Middlemarch's White Hart) where you can see the shopfront of Mawmsey the grocer's.

(Photographs omitted)

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