Why Rutland makes the perfect post pandemic retreat from a first time visitor to England's smallest county
With hotels and hospitality venues finally allowed to host guests inside on May 17 and this week marking English Tourism Week, writer, and mother of two, Rebecca Scrase, couldn’t wait to escape. As a first-time visitor to England’s smallest county. Here’s her take on why Rutland makes for the perfect post-pandemic mini break.
Confession 1: I dearly love my husband.
Confession 2: I adore my teenage boys.
Confession 3: After 14 months of being trapped together in the same four walls, I wanted to get away from them, overnight, the second I could.
Which is why, come May 17, I find myself in a pocket of absolute paradise and I couldn’t be happier.
Not for me the lengthy airport queues and panic of PCR timing and testing! Spare me the stress of sardine-packed planes to Portugal!
Instead, I’ve headed to Rutland, England’s smallest county which despite its diminutive size, is currently riding on a wave of ‘UK bests’. More of that, later.
I check in to the Wisteria Hotel in the market town of Oakham, where, with impeccable timing, the frontage of this mainly Georgian building is adorned with the eponymous flowers in full, resplendent bloom.
So excited am I about my new-found – if fleeting – freedom that I arrive about an hour (OK, two) before I’m meant to.
Katie, who I discover has worked here for 20 years and Anissa, who I discover has worked here for just a morning, welcome me with both warmth and enthusiasm. It feels as though they are as glad to see me as I am to see them.
After going through the measures necessary to keep everyone safe: mandatory face masks when walking thought the hotel; a temperature check (a fraught experience if you’re a perimenopausal woman) and being pointed to sanitiser stations, I’m shown to my room.
It is, like everything else here, spotless. The linen is ironed. The pillows at peak plump. No sign whatsoever of carelessly abandoned socks, a perpetually opening and closing fridge door or the X-box soundtrack I’m used to. Not, then, a home from home, but something far better.
I resist the temptation to fling myself on the sumptuous the double bed, (I may never get up again) instead heading out for lunch to the highly recommended and award-winning, The Grainstore Brewery, which, along with many other Rutland hospitality venues are opening their doors to punters inside for the first time since November.
At 12.30pm, the pub is already half full, with barrels being brought in and wheeled out and several people supping pints of the ales brewed in-house.
Although the railway-side establishment has been catering for outside customers in recent weeks, Brewery Tap manager, Rachel says it’s fantastic to be able to host customers indoors once again.
“We’ve got a really loyal customer following here, and everyone has supported us since we were able to open outdoors again, but it’s great not to have to sit outside in hats, coats and gloves anymore if our customers don’t want to, “she says.
A cheddar and ale soup and bread later, it’s time to hit the road for a whistle-stop tour of Rutland, which, it turns out, can cover practically all of it, the county being less than 18 miles north to south and 17 miles east to west.
At the risk of another shameful confession, it’s a county I’ve heard a lot about but haven’t visited until now, this despite it being only a couple of hours from my Suffolk home. Self-styled as ‘The County of Good Taste’ it boasts the ‘best pub 2021’, the ‘UK’s best bakery’, the longest-standing Michelin star at Hambleton Hall and was, until recently, the last county in the UK to withstand the might of McDonald's.
As well as being a foodie hotspot, it’s also a county which is geared (no pun intended) to lovers of the great outdoors. Rutland Bikes has the largest fleet of e-bikes in the UK (there’s a soon-to-be-launched ‘Food-E-Break campaign) whilst the Rutland Water-based Aqua Park (opening May 29) claims to feature the largest collection of bespoke, big-impact water obstacles in the country, including ‘The Rutland Mammoth’, the tallest aqua-based obstacle with a vertiginous drop of 5.5 metres.
Landlocked (Rutland is surrounded by Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, and Northamptonshire) it’s very much a rural county, its landscape is of the gently rolling hills and fields variety, peppered with chocolate-box villages and thatched cottages. Even its towns, including its tiny, characterful ‘capital’, Oakham, are full of independent shops which is a rarity these days.
It takes less than two minutes heading out of Oakham, along the Brooke Road towards Uppingham, that I spot the glinting waters of Rutland Water in the distance. It’s a sight to behold, and seems even more beautiful below the dark, brooding clouds that have made this May one of the wettest for years.
I carry along Uppingham road, barely any traffic at all, flanked by scenery which is less Middle England and more Middle Earth. What, I wonder, have I been missing? Yes, there’s been lockdown. Yes, there’s been travel restrictions. But as Boris further loosens the chains and we can now once again travel freely within our own country, I make a pact to do this, explore our hidden UK gems, far more.
After following a circuitous route around Rutland, I pop in to visit The Fox, a traditional pub with food at North Luffenham where proprietor Jason Allen is getting ready for the first inside evening diners in months.
Although he, like owners of other hospitality venues, ‘pivoted’ to make the most of their outside dining and drinking space, he ‘can’t wait’ to get back to ‘normal,’ with a full menu being served from Thursday.
A dedicated and natural ambassador for Rutland tourism, (Jason is also chairman of Discover Rutland, the county’s destination management organisation) he can barely contain his enthusiasm about the beauty and unspoiled nature of the county.
“I like to think of it as The Cotswold’s without the coach tours,” he says.
“As residents, we know just how lucky we are to have this amazing landscape on our doorstep, but as businesses, we also know we have to embrace and encourage tourism. As yet, it’s still a fairly undiscovered gem, to the extent that if you asked many people in other parts of the country where to find Rutland, they’d struggle. But that is changing, and it’s our duty to ensure it’s done sensitively and sustainably.
“It’s also a county which is just as beguiling whether in winter or summer, so we hope that more visitors will enjoy the shoulder months, too.”
Of course, no visit here would be complete without a stop off at the lakeside Normanton Church, arguably the county’s most iconic feature and the backdrop to many an Instagram post or wedding picture. It does not disappoint and feels, like every other icon, slightly surreal being actually here next to it, IRL.
Finally, and a magnet for foodies everywhere, it’s off to the gastronomic icon, The Olive Branch at Clipsham. It’s latest accolade (and there are many) is that it’s recently been named ‘UK Pub of the Year 2021’ by the Good Pub Guide.
Two days before opening, it’s a hive of activity both inside and out, where chef / owner, Ben Jones, is moving chairs and tables to accommodate inside dining and having an artificial lawn laid to further extend his outside space.
What, I ask, will be on the menu when it does open? “Whatever is at its best in the kitchen garden, “he says. “Asparagus is good this time of year.”
His staff are also cleaning the Beech House, a detached, sandstone house opposite the pub, which has six, individually-styled rooms and is reminiscent of a shooting lodge inside.
“We are all about the genuine, authentic country escape which we hope is reflected in both our food and our accommodation.”
I’m not surprised they’re pretty much fully booked until July.
Back at the Wisteria Hotel, it’s a bath before the evening meal. If there’s a greater bliss than soaking in up-to-the-neck bubbles knowing you’re not going to be disturbed by, well, anyone, after 14 months of, well, being disturbed by everyone, I’m yet to discover it. Have towels washed by someone else ever smelt fresher or felt fluffier?
I dress for dinner and realise that it’s also the first time I’ve done so for what feels like an eternity. The restaurant is busy and it’s wonderful to hear raucous laughter from other tables, the clink of knives and forks, the unadulterated joy of being served food you have neither shopped for, prepared of cooked yourself. There’s a particularly lively group of six, all with different accents, who point out the irony about ordering the handmade scotch egg on the menu, asking whether the starter also qualifies as a ‘substantial meal.’
For my starter, it’s more than substantial; delicious, too: potted duck served with toast and pickles, the melt-in-the-mouth meat piquant with shallots and capers followed by seared salmon, lyonnaise potatoes and beans. I’ve treated myself to a bottle of wine, toasting myself to the occasion, table candle flickering.
The service is impeccable, too. Lee, restaurant and bar manager who is also serving tonight says he’s been really excited the whole day about the first step in ‘getting back to normal’ and welcoming guests inside this evening. Although he’s wearing a mask, you can still see his impressive beard underneath which, he says, he started growing at the beginning of the pandemic.
Maybe it’s the wine, maybe it’s the surroundings, maybe it’s the euphoria of enjoying my first night away, solo, for what feels like forever, but I realise that whether it’s sporting a five-inch-long beard or feeling ridiculously grateful for being allowed back into hotel once again, we’ve all been marked by the past fourteen months in one way or another.
Now, though, as we return to far greater freedoms, it’s time to get out, explore and enjoy the absolute best of the great UK break. Personally, I can’t recommend Rutland enough.
What are you waiting for?
For more information about what to do and see in Rutland, visit Discover Rutland