The Lincolnshire Life ‘Talk of the Town’ feature by Richard Coppin – October 2008.
When you come to think about it, Grantham has more than its fair share of notoriety. It seems that every street in the heart of town has some quaint fact attached to it, or else, around the corner, there is a world-changing story. If you fancy a quick guide around my hometown, hang on to my coat tails and let me show you around.
It was perhaps the railway that really put Grantham on the map back in the 1800s. On a particular length of the East Coast Main Line just south of Grantham on July 3rd 1938, the elegantly streamlined steam engine, named Mallard, smashed the world speed record for steam locomotives. With her pistons and connecting rods going hell-for-leather, she reached 126 mph, a record that to date has not been broken by any other steam-powered train. With such speeds, London was in easy reach; a much more convenient way to get there than via the Old Great North Road that cut through the congested middle of Grantham, and along which the horse-drawn mail coach would have trundled.
A quick whiz back to the seventeenth century and we might just have met the irascible, and perhaps rather precocious young Master Newton (Isaac to his mates). He attended the Kings School in the town. The old place backs on to the leafy Church Street and forms an ancient part of what is now a modern grammar school. A preserved carving of I. Newton can still be seen in a window sill today, evidence that even the great man himself was, in his youth, a bored schoolboy at times. The Ask restaurant in the George Shopping Centre is the location of where he once lodged in town during those initial academic years, long before that famous apple initiated the most scientific understanding of motion and gravity the world had ever seen.
Our arrival at the George Shopping Centre is a timely one in fact. Not all that long ago the Georgian, red brick facade of this modern mall was the High Street entrance to an elegant hotel; The George. It boasted a fine restaurant, a ballroom, a bar, a taproom and a great many bedrooms. If you imagine yourself in one of those chambers around the year 1838 you would have seen none other than Charles Dickens himself scribbling a chapter or two of Nicholas Nickleby as he stopped off on his way along the North Road. Take one look at the archway which graces the front of ‘The George’ and it’s easy to picture the stagecoach turning in to change horses in the days before steam changed everything.
Cross the High Street diagonally (not recommended when it’s busy) and we come to the sixteenth century half-timbered building wherein Catlin’s restaurant exists today. It is reputed that here, when it was a bakery, gingerbread was accidentally invented. The local football club owes its nickname to this great discovery.
Heading south, past St. Peter’s Hill, where the statue of Isaac Newton stands, and we finally pull into the B&Q car park on London Road. When Grantham was in its industrial prime, this area was full of busy factories and huge workshops owned by the Ruston Hornsby Company. It was here in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that experiments were made to help their steam tractors claw their way over the boggy clay soil of Lincolnshire’s farmland. The radical solution was found in the development of a special caterpillar track. Once perfected, this became the adopted traction system for what were then called Army Landships. Since they looked like huge drinking-water tanks, the name stuck. You could say that the tank was almost invented in Grantham.
And talking of military matters, let’s lake a ten-minute walk from B&Q and make our way to St. Vincent’s Road. At the end of this leafy corner of Grantham stands St. Vincent’s Hall, a Victorian Gothic building with the most amazing conical turret. The place was once the council’s Planning Office. But in May 1943 it had a much more secretive role. It was here, as an R.A.F headquarters, that news first came through to Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, head of Bomber Command and the inventor Barnes Wallace that the special 617 squadron had succeeded in destroying two of the major German’s dams of the Ruhr; the Möhne and the Eder, using Wallace’s ‘bouncing’ bombs. The actor, who played the charismatic Wing Commander Guy Gibson, the squadron’s leader, in the 1955 film, The Dambusters, was Richard Todd. He lives not too far from Grantham and can often be seen in town. We seldom bother him, but we do tend to feel that he’s one of us.
A quick trip west leads us to Springfield Road. A new housing estate has been built up here on the site of an old munitions factory; British Marco. In 1942 a wartime feature film was based on true events that happened in connection with this factory. Melbourne Johns was the firm’s foreman who went into German occupied Europe to rescue three huge machines for making munitions. He only just made it back. The film; A Foreman went to France, showed what ingenuity Johns possessed to get the job done; it’s real stiff-upper-lip stuff, what-ho!
Back in the town centre we ought to drop in at the Guildhall Arts Centre (the old temporary town jail at one time). This would have been familiar territory to a woman called Edith Smith. You see, it was not in London or Manchester that the first woman police officer ever trod the beat but in good old Grantham. We like to produce feminists here. On November 27th 1914, as the First World War was in its early days, Edith went on duty as a member of the Women Police Service. Her job was to keep Grantham’s streets clear of, how shall we say, unseemly ladies of a certain professional nature. She worked until the armistice in 1918 and tragically committed suicide five years later.
But if you want a real feminist, a giant-sized, humdinger of a feminist, then come with me. We’re heading north, to the corner of North Parade and Broad Street. Today you’ll come across a private health and therapy centre, but back in 1925, the 13th October to be precise a baby girl was born in what are now upstairs treatment rooms. Her parents, Alfred and Beatrice Roberts, who owned a grocery shop, and lived above it, named her Margaret Hilda, little knowing that one day she would marry a certain Denis Thatcher and become the first woman Prime Minister in Britain. A plaque on the building’s wall marks the spot. Her name also appears on the Head Girls’ roll of honour at the Girl’s High School in town where she was a student before going on to Oxford University to study chemistry and to take a bit of an interest in politics.
Famous names seem to spring out all over the place in Grantham. Albert Ball, the First World War fighter ace attended the Kings School and lived in the town whilst he was a school boy. Nicholas Parsons, the T.V and radio entertainer was born here at number one Castlegate in 1923. The place is now a dentist’s surgery, where hopefully, there are no hesitations or repetitions. Fans of the radio show ‘Just a minute’ will no doubt get that gag.
Yet whilst the famous come and go, Grantham just gets on with getting on. This after all is a market town. The town holds a market every Saturday on The Market Place and Narrow and Wide Westgate. To walk around the market stalls is to partake of an activity that has been going on in town for over a thousand years. It was Richard III who, on the 3rd March 1484, consented that a Wednesday market could be held in Grantham, a state of affairs that continued until 1634, when market day was changed to every Saturday.
The market is undoubtedly the oldest commercial venture the town has ever seen, but there are some local businesses that have stood the test of time, though not for so long. Take Henry Escritt for example. He began his estate agency business as far back as 1860. The turn of the twentieth century saw him forming a partnership with Cecil Barrell to create Escritt and Barrell. A year later in 1901, the estate agency Goldings began and continued until 2006 when it joined with the still thriving Escritt and Barrell; one hundred and forty-eight years, two world wars, a Great Depression and still in business, not bad, eh? Mind you, H. H. Cox, men’s tailors and ladies wear can go back even further. They began trading in 1836, making their business Grantham’s oldest private independent retailer.
As times change, however, there always needs to be an influx of new business ventures to keep a town on its toes. The re-organising of Grantham’s road and street layout has given rise to many new ventures like the arrival of Asda and other supermarkets. Sainsbury’s was built on the site of the old London Road football stadium after it moved to its new home on Trent Road. Before the George Shopping Centre was built, the town saw the demolition of many old back streets to allow for the building of the Isaac Newton Shopping centre. More recently, Next and Home Bargains have set up shop alongside the relatively new Inner Relief Road named after Grantham’s twin town, the Sankt Augustin Way. The town boasts a two-screen cinema, a ten-pin bowling centre, several high level gyms, a leisure complex, a superb theatre and arts centre, numerous pubs and clubs, and an immense collection of food outlets. You’ll never go hungry in Grantham; we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to restaurants and take-aways. One of those restaurants is in the Angel and Royal hotel, the façade of which is over six hundred years old.
Grantham’s easy to get to, whether it’s by car, bus or even on the train. Ah yes, the railway, where our story began, we seem to have come full circle. Thanks for joining me on my tour around this old town of ours. I hope you enjoyed the trip. Pay us a visit sometime. We’re looking forward so much to seeing you.
Did you know?
The Grantham Parish church of St Wulfram is named after a 7th century French missionary. Its glorious tower and spire, completed in the year 1300, reaches a dizzy height of 282 feet, making it the sixth highest church spire in the land.
The church also boasts a chained library, first established in 1598. All the books are chained up and locked away in a sturdy room making it one of the most secure libraries you could think of. With books dating back to 1472, you can see why it needs to be.
There are tunnels underneath Grantham. One of them leads from what is now Catlin’s restaurant to the church. Monks seeking escape from the king’s men once used them.
Spittlegate Hill, that leads up out of town towards the A1 is so called because there was once a ‘hospittal ‘up there. In fact it was a leper hospital.