Good things come in small packages: even counties! Rutland not only has unspoilt countryside and pretty historic towns and villages, but is also a gourmet's delight
England’s wonderful variety is neatly encapsulated in Rutland, her smallest county at roughly 17 miles by 17 miles. This is a uniquely rural and unspoilt county with charming villages, historic churches, good shopping in its market towns, fine dining and some superb country houses within easy reach. Only 1 1/2 hours north of London by road, it is a perfect short break destination.
Oakham is the quintessential market town. The Market Place leads to the old Buttercross and stocks (puzzlingly with 5 holes) and Oakham Castle (Market Place, Oakham, Rutland LE15 6DX; 01572 758440; www.rutland.gov.uk/castle), in reality a fine great hall built between 1180-90. It houses a quirky collection of horseshoes on its walls dating back to 1470: tradition demanded that every visiting peer should donate one as a sign of allegiance.
The Rutland Museum (Catmose, Oakham, Rutland LE15 6HW; 01572758440; www.rutland.gov.uk.museum) has background on the county as well as farming implements and the only surviving New Drop gallows in the UK, first used in 1813 to hang two burglars. Apparently the local schoolmaster sent his pupils to the hangings as a lesson against misbehaving leading to many subsequent nightmares!
Check out Mill Street for a diverse selection of classy shops. There is a market every Saturday and Wednesday and a farmer’s market on every 3rd Saturday. At 17 Gaol Street, Hambleton Bakery has excellent bread - the rye loaf is my favourite.
For food, you cannot go wrong at Nick’s (Market Place, Oakham, Rutland LE15 6DT; 01572 723199; www.nicksrestaurant.co.uk), a cosy dining room tucked into a corner of the market place. 2 course lunch menus start at £12, dinner at £15.95, and the food is always tasty. I recently enjoyed a wonderfully creamy stilton cheese and mushroom tart and a beautifully presented salmon fillet.
Rutland Water and Hambleton
Rutland Water is a giant reservoir which swamped an entire village when finished in the 1970s . Europe‘s largest manmade lake covers 3 % of the county , but has become an integral part of Rutland. It is an attractive expanse of water, offering water sports, fishing, bird watching and a variety of cycle and walking tracks (Rutland Water Tourist Information Centre, Sykes Lane, Empingham, Oakham, Rutland LE15 8PX; 01780 686800; www.anglianwater.co.uk).
Hambleton is an attractive village on a peninsula which juts out into the water. There is a picturesque church and a pleasant amble round the edge: build up an appetite for the Finch’s Arms (Oakham Road, Hambleton, Rutland LE15 8TL; 01572 771142; www.finchsarms.co.uk), a 17th century inn. The traditional bar has open fires, then a sleek dining area leading to a patio with great views. A 2-course lunch menu is £11 or choose local game such as partridge and hare.
The most famous hotel in Rutand is Hambleton Hall (Ketton Road, Hambleton, Rutland LE15 8TH), a Victorian pile tastefully converted into a supremely comfortable Relais & Chateaux hotel: think squishy sofas, plump cushions, open fires and bronze animal sculptures - I love the warthogs in the drawing room. It has a cosy bar with an impressive range of malt whiskies, an airy drawing room overlooking some lovely gardens with the waters beyond and a dining room resplendent in pink and chintz.
Rooms start at £220 but they presently have an autumn special from October to December 2010 for £145 per person including a 3 course dinner. Rooms are contemporary country house chic: choose one overlooking the gardens for a fabulous view. However, don’t be put off by these prices: there is a superb value ‘lunch for less’ offer of 2 courses for £21 or 3 for £26.50. The Michelin star food is imaginative, colourful and beautifully presented: arrive early and enjoy the country house ambience over an aperitif.
Uppingham is another pleasant little town, famous for its public school, and worth a wander for its antique shops and galleries.
Nearby, the Marquess of Exeter (Main Street, Lyddington, Rutland LE15 9LT; 01572 822477; www.marquessexeter.co.uk) is now more upmarket brasserie than village pub. There is an excellent value 2 course set lunch for £10: I had a rich stilton soup followed by crunchy crackling pork belly. I like the ‘food to share’ idea, such as rib of beef for two.
Lyddington Bede House (Blue Coat Lane, Lyddington, Rutland LE15 9LZ; 01572 822438; www.english-heritage.org.uk) dates back to Norman times and was a palace of the Bishop of Lincoln. Only his private apartments remain with superb oak friezes and interesting woodwork in the roof. After the reformation, it became an almshouse for 12 poor people; 2 women were included to do the cleaning!
Brooke and Exton
Churches are one the hidden delights of Rutland: that at Brooke is described as ‘the one the Victorians missed’. It is still largely Elizabethan on a Norman original with box pews, screens and interesting graves: Mr Raullins got through 4 wives in quick succession in the early 1700s!
The 13th century church at Exton was heavily restored in Victorian times, but the real highlights are the 9 Noel family monuments. Check out the 1683 memorial to Viscount Campden with his 4 wives and 19 children, all beautifully depicted in marble by Grindling Gibbons.
This little village has the Olive Branch pub, the unpretentious owner of a Michelin star. (Main Street, Clipsham, Rutland LE15 7SH; also 6 stylish bedrooms from £110). Off a traditional bar area you will find cosy dining spots with rustic colours, newspapers and fires. 2/3 course menus are £16.95/£19.95 with generous portions: we enjoyed deliciously rich pate, loin of pork with pease pudding and wood pigeon breast with truffled lentils.
The nearby Yew Avenue (Clipsham, Oakham, Rutland; 01780 444920) has some 150 trees, up to 200 years old which are pruned into solid domes, some decorated with spitfires, elephants or crowns: it is like walking down the middle of a giant chess board.
Just over the border
A little further on from Clipsham is Grimsthorpe Castle (Grimsthorpe, Bourne, Lincs PE10 0LY; 01778 591205; www.grimsthorpe.co.uk), a rather beautiful country pile with a spectacular Vanbrugh façade commissioned in 1715 and an imposing entrance hall.
Melton Mowbray’s cattle market on Tuesday mornings has local colour (Scalford Road, Melton Mowbray, Leics. LE13 1JY; 01664 562971; www.meltonmowbraymarket.co.uk). There is a buzzing ’fur and feather’ section where it is a toss-up as to whether they are being sold as pets or dinner and a (dead) game bird auction, as well as a general market and minor antiques.
Head on to lunch at the Red Lion Inn (Red Lion Street, Stathern, Leics LE14 4HS; 01949 860868; www.theredlioninn.com). This traditional inn is full of comfy nooks and niches, open fires, slate floors and warm colours. It’s a good local where people drop in for the beef burgers and local ales, as much as for the more sophisticated food from the excellent kitchen. Main courses are £10-15/two course lunch menu: £13.
Stamford is a beautifully preserved Georgian town with 11 churches and some nice independent shops. I like the St. Martin’s antique centre (23a High Street, Stamford, Lincs PE9 2LF; 01780 481158; www.st-martins-antiques.co.uk): with over 70 dealers, it is hard to leave empty handed. The George (71 St. Martin‘s, Stamford PE9 2LB; 01780 750750; www.georgehotelofstamford.com), an upmarket 17th century coaching inn is a good spot for lunch and Burghley (Stamford, Lincs PE9 3JY; 01780 752451; www.burghley.co.uk), one of the great Elizabethan houses of England, is just on the edge of town.
Burrough Hill Country Park (Burrough on the Hill, Melton Mowbray, Leics LE14 2QZ; 0116 3055434; www.leics.gov.uk/countryparks) encompasses an iron age hill fort and is just the place to walk off lunch with scenic views over Rutland and Leicestershire.