Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:18 am
I 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).
Rutland 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.
First, 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 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.
It 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 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.
After 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?