The ospreys are back on Rutland Water, home to the first of these magnificent fishing birds to breed in England for 150 years. 2010 was the most successful breeding year since the birds returned in 1994, and the team caring for them have high hopes for 2011. They observe them from their arrival from Africa in late March, through to their Autumn migration, reporting regularly on breeding progress in blogs and video clips here. If you visit, there’s plenty of opportunity to see these fabulous creatures. Read on, for other things to do in this small but impressive county.
Rutland – motto “Much in Little”- punches way above its weight as a place to visit. I took a trip to the smallest English county, just 18 miles by 17, and found a scenic slice of Middle England bursting with things to see and do. My list includes stone-built villages as pretty as the Cotswolds, a man-made lake as big as Windermere, specialist shops, fine-dine pubs and tea rooms, but not a single fast-food outlet.
Call of the country
The poster on St Pancras Station was irresistible. “Perfect for a short break…a world away from London..relaxing rural paradise with countryside activities and watersports.’ The direct train from the capital takes a recently reopened old route. My train trundled into Rutland over the ¾ mile long Seaton Viaduct, (built 1878 ) across the Welland valley. (Direct trains also run from Birmingham, Peterborough and Stansted Airport). A seven minute taxi drive from Oakham later, and I was at Hambleton Hall. This Victorian House from the county’s fox hunting boom years was converted into the very model of a country house hotel. They have a simple vision. No spa, gym or golf course. Instead, old-fashioned luxury, a fine garden, views over Rutland Water, much cosseting and Michelin-star cuisine.
Rutland won back its “independence” for neighbouring Leicestershire in 1997 when it became, once again, England’s smallest county. In Oakham, the county town, do see the Great Hall of Oakham Castle, one of the finest examples of domestic Norman architecture. Built in 1190. it has one of the UK’s oldest stone halls. The 240 horseshoes hanging on the walls were given by royalty and peers on their first visit. It’s the rule – Prince Charles handed over his horseshoe recently. Rutland is also famous for what isn’t there – a McDonald’s. Instead there is a fine defender of traditional bread-making. Hambleton Bakery aims to reunite the public with ‘proper bread’. Try its honey and nut-bread, white crusty bloomer and Hambleton sourdough in the shop in Oakham.
The Internet is one reason Rutland has so many thriving specialist stores. You can “window shop” online for antique French beds and hand painted furniture at Swans. And browse vegetable ivory necklaces and earrings (from an Amazonian palm) at Troy (both in Oakham). Places like this have a brighter future now they’re connected to the world. But nothing beats walking through the door and pinging the bell. In the Goldmark Gallery, Uppingham, for example, there were original prints, paintings, drawings, sculpture and ceramics to suit even the modest chequebook. The town is the unlikely home of one of Britain’s leading Harley-Davidson motorcycle dealerships, Sycamore Harley-Davidson. Live the two wheel dream, if only for a one-day rental, on the scenic and quiet local roads.
Rutland has an outstanding crop of little stone-built villages. Add these names to any tribute to the English countryside – Ayston, Lyddington, Tickencote and Exton. Take a copy of Pevsner, the great church authority, and tick off intriguing churches. The one in Brooke, a tiny village around a triangular green, has rare, old box pews. Ridlington Church has musical instruments like those used by Hardy’s characters in “Under the Greenwood Tree”. Of St Peter & St Paul, Exton, he wrote: “in few churches in England [can] English sculpture (C16th – 18th) be enjoyed so much.” Biggest horticultural draw is Barnsdale – Britain’s largest collection of individually designed gardens – created by BBC gardener Geoff Hamilton his TV series “Gardeners World”.
Serving good food is one of the best ways to preserve a village pub. One example of how far pub food has come recently is the terrific King’s Arms at Wing. It qualifies as a gastropub, but still looks every inch the country inn, with a bar dating from 1649, flagstone floors, low-beamed ceilings, and open fires. They set me down with a glass of the “landlord’s choice” – Pillastro Primitivo Italian red, next to a blackboard showing how local the ingredients are. My starter was grilled figs, rosary cottage goats cheese, pistachio nuts and local honey, followed by wood pigeon breast, foie gras, roast black pudding and rosti potatoes. A wallet-breaker in London. Here, around £30.
and my original entry on those ospreys…
Rutland used to be the fox-hunting capital of England. The chase may be over, but the distinctive tally-ho landscape remains – wide grassy fields criss-crossed with hedges, with woods specially planted for cover. The 21st century alternative is osprey watching. The great fish hunter is back and breeding on Rutland Water, the reservoir created in the 1970s. The two best places to watch it, and a long list of other birdlife, are the Egleton and Lyndon visitor centres. But the closest encounters are from the lake cruiser Rutland Belle (April – October). Really lucky passengers may catch the most thrilling sighting of all, as the splendid bird with the five feet wingspan circles the water, then plunges in feet first and powers out, clasping a still-living trout.