Rutland Water is custom-made for outdoor pursuits, cycling among them.
Rutland is the little guy that fought back and won. England’s smallest county was wiped off the map as a result of boundary changes in 1974 and then, three years later, nearly five square miles of it was submerged in the creation of the Rutland Water, western Europe’s largest man-made lake. Suddenly there wasn’t an awful lot left of Rutland whatever way you looked at it. The county was restored by popular demand in 1999 and a circuit of the Water is now one of the most popular family bike rides in the Midlands. Pleasant rather than spectacular (the lake is artificial, after all), the route provided my 11-year-old son, Bertie, and I with an enjoyable, simple off-road outing during October half-term.
The start of the ride is inauspicious and, for a mile or so, the route runs beside the main road with no view of the Water at all which is frustrating. It comes into its own on the optional loop around the Hambleton peninsula, a tongue of land reaching out into the middle of the water, which we followed. As we approached a flock of sheep on the track I expected them to scramble but they just edged reluctantly to one side. In these parts I guess they’re used to people enjoying the great outdoors. During the course of the ride we passed fishermen up to their thighs in the water, golfers, canoeists, ramblers, dry stone wallers and birdwatchers. What I first thought was a recreated thatched Iron Age roundhouse was actually a birdhide. The weather was undoubtedly best suited, though, to sailors.
Wind had whipped the water into white horses and, in these conditions, the Jacobean Hambleton Old Hall could almost have been the lochside, baronial pile of a Scottish laird. In place of golden eagles Canada geese flew in a v-shape. Bertie also travelled in formation for greater speed in my slipstream like an Olympic pursuit cyclist. The Hall’s waterside view is relatively new, of course, having resulted from the flooding of most of Middle Hambleton to create the reservoir. An embankment provides the necessary protection for hall.
If you have time and energy it’s well worth nipping up to Hambleton (previously Upper Hambleton) as I did on a previous ride. Many people come for The Finches pub or Hambleton Hall hotel but the village is well worth the diversion just for the beautiful thatched cottages that line the main street with roses growing in arches over their gates. Everything’s old – The Old Manse, The Old Vicarage and The Old Stables – and the former post office and telegraph station, its sign still proudly on the wall, looks like something out of a Victorian murder mystery film. The road sign now indicates ‘No through road’ in two directions and ‘Oakham 3’ in the other. The initials RCC (Rutland County Council) remain defiantly on its shaft. Almost marooned by history, Hambleton will remain forever Rutland.
Having completed the loop, Bertie and I resumed our shore tour. A bench beside the village sign at Egleton and its Victorian primary school was a perfect swig stop and, on a warmer day, the tables outside the Horse & Jockey just around the corner would’ve provided an even better facility for imbibing. We could almost hear the ghosts of cyclists of summers past. The pub even has a bike rack and offers discounts for riders. Just the sort of half-way (public) house we like.
Shortly afterwards we hurtled down from the road on a slope so steep that I was glad we weren’t going in the other direction. Once beside the shore the track undulates and wiggles gently through clumps of trees making this my favourite stretch of the ride. At Edith Weston – a village not a person – a fine view opens up of the entire length of lake, sheep on the bank in front, Hambleton in the mid-distance and, in the background, the imposing Burley House.
The highlight of the route and the best known landmark on Rutland Water is St Matthew’s Church at Normanton. Originally medieval and with a tower rebuilt in the 19th century to look like St John’s in Westminster, the church was saved from the reservoir in the early 1970s by raising the floor by three metres, waterproofing the walls and building a stone embankment which also connects the building to the shore. Now it appears to sit on water almost as extraordinarily as Jesus walked on it. We’d just had lunch in a snack bar then, on resuming, passed a fabulous looking Italian restaurant and café overlooking the reservoir. Ain’t that always the way? One for next time, perhaps …
The final leg of the route on smooth Tarmac along the top of the dam with good views of the limnological tower (used to monitor the biological, physical and chemical aspects of the water) should’ve been the easiest. But for us, on such a gusty day, the exposed dam – it’s 40m high and 140m long – presented an unexpected challenge. We were practically tacking like the sailors we’d seen earlier, leaning into the wind to avoid being blown over. A sign beside the Rutland Belle pleasure boat read: “Not sailing today. Too windy.” We could well believe it. Not too windy for cycling, though. Just. We were so glad to get back to the sealed sanctuary of our car before the night’s storm really whipped up.
Distance: 23 miles.
Time: 3 hours.
Very straight forward navigation. There are car parks all round the reservoir but we started at Rutland Cycling (see Stop!) on the northern shore. Proceed around the reservoir in an anti-clockwise direction (as recommended by the bike hirer) following the plentiful waymarks. Just two points to watch out for. Firstly, at the end of the cycle lane beside the A606 in the north-west corner of the reservoir it’s easy to miss the signpost for the cycle route. If you encounter a roundabout you’ve gone too far. Secondly, just after the sailing club at Edith Weston pick up the next stretch of the cycle track through a steel gate on the left. Easy to zoom past.
Map: available from hire centres
The Horse & Jockey, Manton. 01572 737335 and horseandjockeyrutland.co.uk.
The Wheatsheaf Inn, Edith Weston. 01780 720083.
Crazy Fox café, Edith Weston.
L’Oliveto Due Italian restaurant and café bar, Edith Weston. 01780 721599.
The Harbour café, bar and restaurant, Whitwell. 01780 461288 and harbourcafebar.co.uk.
Rutland Cycling. Bull Brigg Lane, Whitwell, Rutland Water, LE15 8BL. 01780 460705. Website here. Alternative, smaller outlet at Edith Weston, LE15 8HD. Both centres open 9am-5.30pm in winter (every day) and 9am-6pm (weekdays) and 9am-6.30pm (weekends) in summer. Highly recommended.