The joys of England’s smallest county: It doesn’t have any cities (or motorways) and most can’t even point to it on a map. But we’re bowled over by the simple pleasures of Rutland
- James Litston explores Rutland – England’s smallest county – on an ebike, hitting the trails by Rutland Water
- En route, he recommends visiting the part-submerged Normanton Church and taking the time to bird-watch
- Head to the town of Oakham to scoff pastries at Hambleton Bakery and to stock up on Rutland rapeseed oil
- In association with Original Cottages
Most people will pause when trying to find Rutland on a map. This rural idyll – England’s smallest and least populous county – is located at the point where Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire meet, and has neither motorways nor cities: just two small towns and plenty of villages.
Fortunately, the locals, known as Raddlemen, don’t take offence.
Jason Allen of Discover Rutland (discover-rutland.co.uk) says: ‘We’re so used to it that we’ve added a fun, interactive map to our website, encouraging visitors to have a stab at guessing our location. There are clues and prompts to help them, plus details on things to see and do here.’
Grand: Pictured is Hambleton Hall, the beautiful setting for a luxury hotel and a Michelin-starred restaurant
Wild thing: Spot little grebes among the array of birds that thrive in and around the Rutland Water reservoir
To be fair to those for whom the Where’s Rutland webpage might prove a challenge, this historic county spent 20 years engulfed by its neighbour Leicestershire, regaining its independence only in 1994.
At just 147 square miles (Leicestershire measures 804 square miles), its diminutive size belies a strong identity that’s centred on the reservoir at its heart.
Rutland Water – created in the 1970s and spanning 3,000 acres – is Britain’s largest man-made lake, and much of Rutland’s visitor appeal lies around its shores.
The creation of Rutland Water flooded several villages, wiping them from the map, but in exchange the county gained a remarkable resource.
As well as providing the landlocked East Midlands with a reliable water supply, the lake offers opportunities for kayaking, sailing and stand-up paddle-boarding, and is ringed by a waymarked trail for walking and cycling.
As the route weaves its way through 23 miles of waterside meadows and woodlands, it’s simple to tick off a good many of the county’s signature sights.
Keen to take in the whole thing without breaking too much of a sweat, I rented an ebike from Rutland Cycling (£35pp, rutlandcycling.com), which operates the UK’s largest fleet of electric bicycles.
Landmark: The part-submerged Normanton Church, which was saved from demolition when the Rutland Water reservoir was created
Making waves: Windsurfing on sun-kissed Rutland Water. Holidaymakers can also kayak and stand-up paddle-board on the lake
James says the town of Oakham, pictured above, is the ‘best place’ to sample Rutland’s finest food
MAKE YOUR ESCAPE WITH THE SOUND OF SILENCE
The noise of our pre-pandemic lives has returned with a bang, but if you miss the sound of silence that came with lockdowns, English Heritage is offering a solution.
With the help of actor and mental health campaigner Stephen Fry, an ‘hour of contemplation’ has been introduced each day across 16 of its monasteries in England to encourage visitors to experience them as they were intended when first built.
They include the most important centre of early Christianity, Lindisfarne Priory in Northumberland, the 14th Century Mount Grace Priory in North Yorkshire, Battle Abbey in East Sussex – founded by William the Conqueror following the Battle of Hastings – and Cleeve Abbey in Somerset.
Fry has recorded an audio introduction for those seeking peace and solace, which includes a reading from Saint Aelred, the 12th Century abbot of Rievaulx Abbey in York, in which he describes the joy emanating from a monastic existence when the shackles of everyday life have been cast off.
His words will resonate with those who felt that lockdown gave them a unique chance to step back from hectic routines: ‘Everywhere peace, everywhere serenity and a marvellous freedom from the tumult of the world.’
Dr Michael Carter, the senior properties historian at English Heritage, says: ‘In a modern world, where people are constantly rushing and expected to be at the end of a phone 24/7, we often find silence disconcerting.
‘It’s important sometimes to take a step back and focus on appreciating the peace and tranquillity that is unique to these historic buildings – monuments to the human spirit and the divine and our ongoing quest for inner peace and fulfilment.’
He adds: ‘With many people having experienced a difficult past 18 months, we’re inviting visitors to escape from their cares for a short time using the quiet, the sound of birdsong, the rustle of the wind in the trees, to contemplate and free their minds and spirits of the busy, noisy, demanding distractions of contemporary life.’
From its base at Whitwell on the lake’s north shore, I set off on a circumnavigation, following the staff member’s sage advice: ‘The hills are much easier if you go anti-clockwise!’
Electric bikes are heavier than normal cycles, but they certainly make a difference when you work your way through their settings: from almost no assistance at all on ‘eco’ to jet-powered ‘boost’.
The electric motor amplifies any energy exerted on the pedals, which meant I could tackle inclines with barely more puff than I’d need on level ground. And the beauty of biking the traffic-free trail as it loops around the lake is that things worth stopping to see pop up every couple of miles.
Take your first break at the nature reserve (£6pp, lrwt.org.uk/rutland-water) at Egleton, at the lake’s western end.
Its Birdwatching Centre offers 35 hides overlooking meadows, lagoons and reed beds that support an impressive array of warblers, grebes, wading birds, terns, ducks and geese.
On the southern shore at Lyndon Visitor Centre, there are ospreys. By now, these long-distance migrants will be in their West African winter quarters, but the seasonal shift sees their star power replaced by autumn leaves reflecting in the lake.
Further on is the singular sight of Normanton’s part-submerged church. Saved from demolition when the reservoir was flooded, it’s now a Rutland icon.
A jetty beside the church provides departures for scenic cruises aboard Rutland Belle (from £8pp, rutlandwatercruises.com).
Beyond this lies the dam that was built across the Gwash Valley in 1975, before a final push on the pedals gets you back to the starting point.
If you fancy a more leisurely visit than a 23-mile bike ride can offer, head for lakeside Hambleton, which sits atop the peninsula reaching into the heart of the lake.
Among this well-to-do village’s honey-hued houses stands Hambleton Hall (hambletonhall.com), a Relais & Chateaux hotel and Michelin-starred restaurant.
Or head to the wonderful Finch’s Arms (finchsarms.co.uk), the village pub whose insanely delicious seasonal menu can be enjoyed outside on the terrace in fine weather.
Its spacious guestrooms are also a winner, with contemporary styling and lake views from several of them.
A more traditional option is Barnsdale Lodge (barnsdalelodge.co.uk) on the northern shore, whose 46 rooms wrap around a courtyard garden.
This family-run hotel is a lovely place to relax over simple pleasures such as croquet on the lawn or supper in the restaurant that celebrates Rutland produce.
This comes to the fore during Rutland Food & Drink Week (October 25 to 31), which cements its reputation as the County of Good Taste. With samplings, beer festivals, pumpkin-picking and special menus all over the county, it’s a delicious time to visit.
At other times, Oakham – the county town – is the best place to sample Rutland’s finest.
Otters Fine Foods (ottersfinefoods.co.uk) stocks Oakham honey and Rutland rapeseed oil, while Hambleton Bakery (hambleton bakery.co.uk) has tempting pastries and cakes.
And don’t miss Fika (fikacafe.co.uk) for the best coffee in town.
Rutland’s motto of ‘Multum in parvo’ – Much in Little – is clearly quite apt. But don’t be surprised to find yourself keeping quiet about its joys. After all, you don’t want everyone else descending on your new-found idyll…
- James Litston was a guest of Barnsdale Lodge, where B&B is from £109 per night (barnsdalelodge.co.uk).
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