It’s possible to walk across Rutland in a single day, but if you have limited time to spend in England’s smallest county I wouldn’t recommend a march from border to border! You’ll discover far more about this lovely patch of rolling countryside by meandering from place to place, exploring a few tantalising byways, and allowing yourself plenty of time to stand and stare. Although it covers less than 150 square miles, Rutland is packed with far more than its fair share of attractions.
The first surprise – and difficult to miss – is Rutland Water. It’s England’s largest reservoir and dominates the centre of the county. Although it was man-made in the 1970’s to provide water for homes and businesses in the East Midlands, careful landscaping has given it the appearance of a natural lake. Today it is an important haven for wildlife, designated as both a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a European Special Protection Area.
Over 260 species of birds have been recorded here, including the magnificent ospreys that have bred here since 2001. It is also home to a wide variety of animals, insects and plants, some of which are rare and the subject of conservation projects. On the nature reserves at the western end of the reservoir there are hides, nature trails and expert information and advice on hand to help you make the most of your visit.
Well away from the reserves there is still plenty of room over the reservoir’s 3,100 acres for other activities. Whether you are an expert or complete beginner you’ll find excellent facilities for sailing, windsurfing, canoeing and fishing. There is also a pleasure cruiser, the Rutland Belle, providing a more leisurely way to enjoy the water.
For those who prefer to stay on dry land, there are grassy slopes perfect for children’s games and picnics, and well-maintained footpaths to take you around the perimeter of the reservoir. There are also bikes for hire, which is probably the best option if you want to explore the full 25-mile circuit!
However you travel, one place to head for is the striking Normanton Church museum that juts out into the water on a pier of stones. St. Matthews Church, as it was called when it was built in the 1820’s, seemed doomed when the reservoir was planned as it was below the water line. Fortunately, a group of volunteers saved it and it now contains an exhibition about the history of the area.
If you can drag yourself a little way from Rutland Water, you’ll find another ‘must see’ destination – Barnsdale Gardens. They were created by the late Geoff Hamilton, the famous TV gardener, and featured in his popular Gardener’s World programmes. After his death, his family opened them to the public, maintaining and developing them according to Geoff’s ideas and principles.
The fascinating thing about Barnsdale is the variety of gardening styles on show. There are 38 different gardens to suit every taste and lifestyle. They range from a tiny courtyard, to modern town gardens and traditional country gardens. Some are low- maintenance, others have been designed for families with young children or to encourage wildlife. They are all beautiful and full of clever but practical ideas that you can easily adapt to your own garden.
And where next? You must see at least some of Rutland’s picturesque villages. Linked by winding country lanes – and complete with village greens, ancient churches and quaint pubs – these villages appear very similar at first glance. Most of the houses and cottages are built of local limestone or ironstone and many are thatched. But look a little closer and you’ll soon find that each village has its own unique history and character. They include Edith Weston, named after the wife of Edward the Confessor, Wing which has an ancient turf maze, and Exton where the small church houses a wonderful collection of carved memorials.
The only two towns in Rutland are also both full of old and attractive buildings. You won’t want to miss wandering through the narrow streets of Uppingham if you enjoy browsing around antique shops, bookshops and art galleries. And, if shopping gives you an appetite, this town also provides plenty of places where you can have a quick snack or a more substantial meal.
Not far from Uppingham’s little market place, and seemingly built on a different scale from the rest of the town, you’ll find the impressively large façade of Uppingham School. Its buildings are usually out of bounds to the public but if you time your visit to coincide with the school’s holidays you might be able to join one of the occasional guided tours and see more of the school’s splendid architecture.
Just six miles from Uppingham is Oakham, the county town of Rutland. It’s a little larger than Uppingham but still compact enough to explore comfortably on foot. Market days are Wednesdays and Saturdays, but on any day of the week the ‘L’ shaped Market Place is the bustling heart of the town. Many visitors can’t resist trying out the stocks at the 400 year old Butter Cross. But can you work out why they were made with five leg-holes?
Just behind the Market Place lies Oakham Castle. The ‘castle’ is actually the Great Hall of what was once a Norman fortified Manor House. It’s a fine example of late 12th century architecture, and contains stonework carved by masons who worked on Canterbury cathedral. Inside the castle is a fascinating display of over 200 horseshoes, many of them large and purely decorative. They have been collected here as the result of an ancient custom which demands that a horseshoe must be given to the Lord of the Manor by members of royalty and peers of the Realm passing through Oakham. The oldest one was given by Edward IV and our present Royal Family is still upholding the tradition.
Among the many other interesting buildings in the town, look out for the modest thatched cottage that was reputedly the birthplace, in 1619, of Jeffery Hudson. He became famous for his size, being only 18 inches tall until he was 30 years old and then only growing to about three foot six inches. He may have been ‘the smallest man from the smallest county’ but lack of stature didn’t prevent him from having an action-packed life. After being served up in a pie to amuse Charles I, he was taken into royal service, knighted, and one of his many adventures involved being captured by pirates.
If you only have time for one more visit it has to be to the Rutland County Museum, housed in what was originally the indoor riding school of the Rutland Fencibles cavalry regiment. Amongst the many exhibits there is a collection of memorabilia from the vigorous protest campaign launched in 1974 when Rutland lost its county status and officially became part of neighbouring Leicestershire. Fortunately, Rutlanders refused to ‘disappear’ so easily and won back the independence of their unique county in 1997.
The museum also displays the county’s motto – Multum in Parvo. It means ‘much in little’. I couldn’t have put it better myself!