Britain’s smallest county proves to be a big draw for foodies, offering everything from the Rutland Pippin to Michelin-starred dining. Its enormous watery playground is surrounded by honey coloured villages, one of which claims to be twinned with Paris.

Driving through the blink-and-you-miss-it village of Whitwell, population 41, I wonder if I read the street sign correctly. ‘Twinned with Paris’, it announces proudly. Whitwell might have a handful of pretty, stone cottages, possibly more ducks than residents and an appealing-looking pub called The Noel, but Paris? Really?

It’s not until we sit down to lunch later at the Olive Branch at Clipsham that the co-owner Ben Jones throws some light on it.

Olive Branch garden

“One night some of the locals in the pub decided it was a good idea,” he chuckles. “It’s pretty tongue in cheek.”

It was apparently in 1980 that pub regulars decided to write to the then mayor of Paris, a certain Jacques Chirac, proposing the ambitious twinning. They added that if they didn’t receive a response, they would assume that Paris had accepted the offer. When no RSVP was received, a farcical ceremony was held, and the sign has been there ever since.

Rural Rutland, small hamlet of Whitwell close to Rutland water. Image AdobeStock

It’s just one of the quirky things my son and I discover during a trip to Rutland, England’s smallest historic county (and yes, the Isle of Wight may be a smidgeon smaller, but it’s a ceremonial county). This is the place with the largest collection of horseshoes in a Norman castle, where legend has it that Guy Fawkes et al plotted to blow up James I in parliament and which even has its own version of the pork pie – the Rutland Pippin, shaped like an apple.

Squeezed in between Northamptonshire, Lincolnshire and Leicestershire, Rutland might be pint-sized but it really packs a punch in the charisma stakes.

Sharing the same geology as the Cotswolds, its rolling green hills are studded with honey-coloured stone villages cloaked with a raw charm the chichi Cotswolds hasn’t seen for decades. And it’s relatively crowd free.

The county, whose motto multum in parvo means ‘much in little’, also comes with a spectacular centrepiece in the form of Rutland Water. Covering more than 3,000 acres, it’s one of the largest constructed lakes in Europe. This watery playground of the East Midlands is a place where you can windsurf, sail or fish its waters, go for a serene hike along its shores, or gaze skyward at ospreys and red kites gliding overhead.

We’re here to cycle around its perimeter, all 23 miles of it. But before that, a chance to scope the watery world from the deck of the Rutland Belle, learning a bit about the history of this reservoir, created by flooding two villages in the 1970s.

Normanton Church

We chug to the water’s most famous landmark, Normanton Church, which might seem to float on water from a distance but which we can see standing on its own shored-up peninsula as we approach. Saved from demolition by locals when plans for the reservoir were announced, the church is now a wedding venue and a popular picnic spot.

Back on land, it’s time to hit the cycle-hire shop. “There are only two hilly bits,” the lady at Rutland Cycling assures us. “If you go anticlockwise, you’ll hit the first one almost immediately, and over the other side of the water you’ll be able to coast down the second one.” All I can say is they must count a little differently in Rutland because, at times, it feels like the route goes up and down yo-yo style.

As for the hardy souls on Google who say it’s easily done in three hours, I can only suppose they are honed athletes; we set out at 11am and arrived back totally shattered at 4pm, with a much-needed lunch pit stop at the perfectly placed Horse & Jockey pub in Manton.

Horse & Jockey pub
Horse & Jockey pub in Manton. RJPHOTOGRAPHICS

It’s a scenic cycle though, mostly on a decent path with just a small section on a quiet road. Sometimes we pedal right down by the water’s edge, others we are flanked by fields of lambs or speed through tunnels of trees.

You can save yourself six miles if you miss out the promontory that juts out into Rutland Water but this forms some of the most photogenic part of the route (as well as a challenging hilly section). A tip: take a saddle cover – your bum will be numb by the end of the day.

Luckily, we don’t have far to go once we’ve returned the bikes (not that anywhere is far in this county that measures little more than 17 miles in any direction). We’re staying just two minutes up the road at The Barnsdale, fresh from a major renovation, with its boldly coloured fabric headboards and patterned wallpaper. A former Georgian hunting lodge with 45 rooms arranged around an appealing courtyard, it makes a comfortable and decently priced base from which to explore this fascinating county.

The Barnsdale
The Barnsdale
The Barnsdale bedroom
The Barnsdale bedroom

It also serves some excellent food – just what you need when you feel you’ve earnt your food miles on a marathon cycle ride. We do full justice to lobster and squid with orange and fennel that is wonderfully chargrilled. It’s the perfect precursor to delicious gnocchi with wild field mushrooms and spinach for me and an excellently cooked steak for my son.

Rutland prides itself on its food, and rightly so, given its agricultural heritage, although it did give way to the march of McDonalds in 2020 (the last British county to do so).

Every meal we eat is exceptional, starting at the Olive Branch at Clipsham, a short drive from a row of 150 yew trees clipped into unusual shapes that line what was the driveway to Clipsham Hall. Within a series of interlinked rooms that were once three farm labourers’ cottages, the atmosphere is very much ye olde village inn – beams, rustic furniture and roaring fires.

Food at the Olive Branch
Food at the Olive Branch

Yet the food is a long way from your average pub grub. My Maris Piper potato risotto with cep, caramelised leek, truffle and mozzarella works beautifully with the pub’s own beer – Olive ale, although there’s also an impressive wine list. The idea, says co-owner Ben Jones, is that if you want a £180 Mendoza, it’s there, but if you’d rather just relax with a glass of Riesling for a fiver, that’s fine too.

It’s a little more formal at Hambleton Hall, a Victorian mansion with a sweep of elegant public rooms and manicured gardens leading down to Rutland Water; it sits on the reservoir’s promontory. Eating exquisite canapés while we peruse the menu, we gaze out at the view framed by two cork oaks and see the cycle path we toiled along just the day before.

Hambleton Hall
Hambleton Hall

One of Britain’s longest holders of a Michelin star and a member of Relais & Châteaux foodie group, Hambleton really wows in the culinary stakes, with chef Aaron Patterson using produce from the kitchen garden and local suppliers to create artfully arranged dishes. They taste as good as they look, starting with poached king prawns with ponzu, avocado and seaweed before a delightfully fresh dish of tagliatelle and wild mushrooms.

Hambleton Hall Dining Room
Hambleton Hall Dining Room

Save room for the sourdough – it comes from their own Hambleton Bakery in Exton. It’s conveniently near The Barnsdale, so we pop in later to sample the Rutland Pippin, a combination of ham hock, sausage meat, apple sauce and Stilton in an apple-shaped pastry.

In between eating, there’s plenty more to explore, including the quaint market towns of Uppingham and Oakham, with their posh private schools, traditional butchers, bakers and boutiques, and a smattering of antique shops and art galleries.

Oakham School
Oakham School. Image shutterstock

Oakham is also home to a Norman castle, although what they call the ‘finest surviving example of Norman domestic architecture in Europe’ is actually the great hall of a fortified manor, which lies within defensive curtain walls.

Oakham Castle
Oakham Castle

Its interiors are hung with about 240 gilded horseshoes offered by visiting royalty and aristocrats; the oldest dates to Edward IV’s visit in 1470, and there’s one from King Charles, when he was Prince of Wales. No one really knows the reason behind the equine gifts, except that the horseshoe featured on the coat of arms of the de Ferrers family who owned the castle; it is also part of Rutland’s own banner.

Oakham Castle interior
Oakham Castle interior. Image DAVID PEARSON

There’s one more place to check out in this fascinating county before we head for home. In the tiny village of Stoke Dry, we navigate a stone staircase to the priest’s room above the porch in St Andrew’s church. Legend has it that Sir Everard Digby, who became Lord of the manor of Stoke Dry in 1592, first met with his cohorts to devise the Gunpowder Plot here.

St Andrew’s church
St Andrew’s church, Stoke Dry. Image AdobeStock

But although it’s easy to imagine Guy Fawkes et al whispering to each other in this atmospheric, poky room, a sign tells us it’s not true; Sir Everard moved to Buckinghamshire years before the dastardly plot was hatched.

There is, though, intrigue in the form of the 13th-century wall murals on the other side of the church. They show King Edmund being impaled by arrows by what look like American Indians some 200 years before Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas. Could they be proof that the Vikings took their longships across the Atlantic before the famed explorer? Or is it just another idiosyncrasy in this quirky little county?

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Text by Jane Knight