A break in Rutland

Last Updated on 18th February 2022 by Mike@bitaboutbritain

Thatched cottages in Exton, RutlandI seem to have been passing through Rutland, England’s smallest county, for years. It just happens to be in the way when taking a particular route to or from the Deep South and the East Midlands.  A leg of this journey is along the scenic A606 road between Stamford and Nottingham, which I can highly commend to you unless you’re really pushed for time. One might even suggest, if you need to get your kicks (and who doesn’t?), take route A606. If you do not know Rutland, you may appreciate its motto, Multum in Parvo (much in little), which neatly sums up the place. The county only has two towns, Oakham and Uppingham, and its rolling countryside features attractive little villages with honey-coloured limestone cottages, pristine Gothic style churches and inviting looking pubs.  In parts, it is reminiscent of the Cotswolds, the sort of place that cries out, “come and take a weekend break here” – so of course I never have.  What the ABAB team did finally get round to was a brief stop on the way to Matlock (a far less appealing place; but that’s another story).

Exton, RutlandRutland is an old county with an ancient history.  Once part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, it became absorbed into the area of Danelaw agreed between King Alfred and the Danes in the 9th century.  The origin of the name is disputed by some, but the Oxford Dictionary of Place Names (which is good enough for me) firmly says it derives from Roteland sometime around the year 1060 – ‘the estate of someone called Rota’.

Sadly, the magnetism of Matlock being what it was, our sojourn in delightful Rutland was fleeting; a mere dozen or so clicks of the shutter in the Great Photo Album of Life.  The results, dear reader, are on this page.

Rutland Water

Rutland WaterFirst, we should introduce Rutland Water.  Rutland Water is a reservoir, created to supply drinking water to the growing population of Eastern England.  It was formed by damming the Gwash valley, mainly fed by the rivers Welland and Nene, was completed in 1975 and is the largest manmade lake (by surface water) in England.  It is certainly Rutland’s biggest feature, surrounded by countryside and used by thousands of residents and visitors for pleasant walks, cycling routes, fishing and a whole variety of water sports.  The Discover Rutland website describes it as “the playground of the East Midlands”.  There is also a nature reserve that, among other things, is home to the Rutland Osprey Project.

In 2021, the fossilised remains of Britain’s largest ichthyosaur, colloquially known as a ‘Sea Dragon’, were discovered at the Rutland Water Nature Reserve.  This ichthyosaur is approximately 180 million years old and around 33 feet (10 metres) long, the biggest and most complete skeleton of its kind found so far in the UK.  It died when present day Rutland was covered by a shallow sea.  The discovery even featured on the wonderful TV programme, ‘Digging For Britain’.  Here is a link to the BBC’s piece on the discovery of the ichthyosaur.

Normanton church

Normanton Church, Rutland WaterNormanton church is what you might class as Instagram fodder.  Surrounded on three sides by Rutland Water, in the right light it hardly looks English at all.  Sometimes, it almost seems to float.  Once upon a time, there was a medieval parish church, dedicated to St Matthew, serving the village of Normanton.  In the early 18th century, nasty local aristocrats, the Heathcotes, demolished part of the village to make their estate nicer for themselves and took over the church as their private chapel and mausoleum.  In the 1760s, the church was given a classical-style makeover.  When Rutland Water was planned, it seemed inevitable that the church would meet a watery doom.  However, thanks to local efforts, it eventually had a partial reprieve.  It was decided to fill the lower level of the church with rubble, finished off with a flat concrete covering on top to make a floor about 2 feet (60cms) above the water level, leaving the upper portion of the church visible when flooded.  A causeway was built to connect the church with dry land and defensive works put in place around it.  As well as being an eye-catching watermark, Normanton Church is used as a wedding venue and at one time had a small museum in it, telling the story of Rutland Water from prehistoric times.

Empingham

Empingham, St Peter's churchIt is impossible to miss Empingham, an attractive village with a striking looking church, on the road between Stamford and Oakham.  It sits in the Gwash Valley at the dam (eastern) end of Rutland Water.  At one time, the reservoir was going to be called Empingham Water.  The village’s name is Saxon, meaning something like ‘the settlement of the followers of Empa’, so there have been people living there for about a thousand years – at least.  The church, St Peter’s, is mostly 15th century, but dates from the 13th century; its impressive tower is 14th century.  Most of the village’s buildings date from the late 18th/ and 19th centuries.

To the north east near Tickencote and the A1 is the site of the Battle of Empingham, also known as Battle of Losecoat Field, fought on 12 March 1470 during the Wars of the Roses. It was a very short battle and an emphatic victory for the Yorkists. The name of the battle is popularly thought to be derived from the defeated Lancastrians shedding their identifying livery as they fled the field.  However, it is (apparently) more likely to result from a nearby feature named hlose-cot meaning ‘pigsty cottage’.

Exton

Exton, Rutland, village green and Fox and HoundsExton is one of those villages that could be described as ‘quintessentially English’.  It probably isn’t, because it is far too picture-perfect, with a large number of chocolate-box cottages, an lovely tree-planted village green with a pub, the Fox and Hounds and a 13th century church dedicated to St Peter and St Paul.  Exton is much loved by Instagrammers.  Less brazen and short of time (did I mention that?) as well as daylight, I wandered about vaguely, snapping furtively at people’s houses, feeling like an intruder.  Nearby is a large country estate, Exton Park, and Barnsdale Gardens, created by Geoff Hamilton of the BBC television series Gardeners’ World.  The village has an interesting history going back before the Norman Conquest, and is mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086, but the current buildings are mostly Victorian.  Exton is also very handy for Rutland Water, like everywhere else in Rutland.

Rutland, Normanton ChurchAfter all that excitement, you will be shocked to learn that we almost lost Rutland completely.  Under the Local Government Act of 1972, in 1974 Rutland disappeared into its much larger neighbouring county, Leicestershire.  Fortunately, it re-emerged following yet another reorganisation in 1997.  However, in a further classic example of large organisations doing things to suit themselves rather than the people they serve, the Post Office had already awarded it Leicester postcodes and these remain in place.  The lesson, of course, is to visit Rutland quickly, before it vanishes again. A weekend break, perhaps?

80 thoughts on “A break in Rutland

  1. tidalscribe.com

    Long ago, newly returned to England, I thought Rutland was a made up place, a joke, because of some comedy sketch I heard! I would like to visit.
    Post codes have a lot to answer for and I always seem to live in places that have been subsumed into larger neighbours.

  2. robertawrites235681907

    Rutland is a country I shall definitely be looking up, Mike. Great pictures and information. Is that dinosaur fossil on display in the British Natural History Museum. I know I saw a very large water dino there.

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Thanks, Robbie. I don’t know – I think it needs to go somewhere for conservation (the fossils are quite soft). I hope it will end up being displayed locally, rather than getting lost in some huge national museum.

  3. thehungrytravellers.blog

    Yes I remember the 1970s county changes and the uproar surrounding the demise of Rutland. If memory serves I think we lost each of our two smallest counties, the other being Huntingdonshire which unlike Rutland has never reappeared. Rutland was for a while home to my favourite ever town twinning sign…on the A606 I think….”welcome to Whitwell, twinned with Paris”. Always made me laugh. Enjoyed your article, not passed through Rutland for a long time now.

  4. cat9984

    Your final paragraph made me wonder if that’s what happened to Brigadoon? Maybe it was just legislated away. (Hopefully you have seen the musical or my question makes no sense.) 🙂

  5. marmeladegypsy

    What an incredibly charming place. I’m just wild about the Normanton church and aren’t they clever to have protected it in such a good way. The photos of the buildings you showed are wonderful — filled with charm and setting off all parts of the imagination on a Midsomer Murder or perhaps a jollier show! Thank you so much for the introduction!

  6. Andy

    How delightful and quintessentially quintessential. I don’t know why but I find myself imagining that the followers of Empa somehow had something to do with pantomime traditions – I can imagine them all shouting – Empa, Empa stick it up yer jempah! But it probably wouldn’t sound like that in 9th century Saxon. Sorry for the utter irreverence – I suppose I just can’t help myself! Yes, definitely a great place for a weekend getaway.

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      It galls me that it used to be on the doorstep to you-know-where and I knew nothing about it. I did once get stuck in a snow drift in Leicestershire, though, and saw Fairport Convention (or was it Steeleye Spam?) at the De Montfort Hall.

  7. cynth76

    I have been there in 2015. I got to meet a friend, who was a penpal since we were 12 years old, and he lives in Barrowden. I stayed with him for a couple of days as a friend and I were wending our way to Yorkshire. We got to see the Burghley House and also an old Anglo-Saxon church that was way off the beaten path. He took us to several other places too but I think the one that I loved the most was the old church.

    1. Jill Morris

      Oh that was so interesting. Never been to Rutland but so want to. Not too easy from Huddersfield with no car and limited time and budget.

  8. hilarymb

    Hi Mike – it’s a lovely county … my brothers, their cousin, my father and his brothers were at Uppingham; I hadn’t heard about Normanton, but as I was coming up from the south, not surprising I suppose … the school has some interesting history – it was decamped in the late 1870s to Wales to escape a typhoid epidemic. I’d love to revisit and spend some time there – cheers Hilary

  9. April Munday

    I always thought Barnsdale was in Yorkshire. I’ve never knowingly been to Rutland, but it looks like an excellent place to visit. I always think about The Rutles when it’s mentioned, though.

  10. SueW

    I’ve never been to Rutland but feel as though I know parts of it thanks to ‘Country File’.
    I love the village you featured, so pretty.

  11. Paul Dempster

    When they created the “waters”did they flood any villages?Because here in the States that’s what they would!Lovely looking Village!

  12. artandarchitecturemainly

    Imagine nasty local aristocrats demolishing part of the village to make _their_ estate nicer for themselves and taking over the church as their _private_ chapel and mausoleum.. Yes, Normanton Church was given a classical-style makeover and must have looked excellent, but it was a bit too late for the community.

  13. Emma, West Sussex

    Such an interesting post and I agree with everything you say about it being ‘instagram fodder’ and the type of place that calls us to stay for a weekend… Wonderful photos, too – thank you for the trip to beautiful Rutland!

  14. aline soules

    This is charming and I love coming to your blog and learning more about anything “multum in parvo” (which is how I like my holidays). Visiting each of your blog posts is like a little holiday.

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