Land that time forgot

Rutland is the smallest county in England, but has some big claims to fame, finds Roger Ratcliffe.

The lady volunteer warden at the bird hide is in a gossiping mood. The female osprey on that nest over there, she points to a mound of twigs on top of a lakeside pole, has a new suitor for her affections.

"And . . ." a hint of scandal enters her voice, as though she's talking about a neighbour, "it's the half-brother of her current partner. Fascinating!"

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Nearby, the newly arrived male osprey is perched on one of the bone-white branches of a dead ash tree, and inside the bird hide an array of binoculars and telescopes is ready for a spot of aggro between the siblings.

Both birds are easily identified by numbered rings above their great fish-snatching talons. The interloper, the warden says, is recorded as having been raised here in 2008, while his rival was born to the same mother three years earlier.

Within minutes there's an contretemps over the calm surface of Rutland Water. The resident male osprey flaps angrily in the direction of his younger brother, who deftly flies beneath the attacker. But after a bit of mid-air shadow-boxing and bluff-calling, he beats a hasty retreat into the blue distance, and if you think it all sounds a bit like a storyline from a TV soap then you're almost right, because the whole thing is being followed by a live webcam. Ospreys have been breeding here since 1996, with the release of young Scottish birds. And the latest nest – clearly visible across Manton Bay from the Watersnipe Hide at Lyndon Nature Reserve – has become the top attraction in Rutland, England's smallest county.

Rutland is just 18 miles north to south and 17 miles east to west, and much of it is occupied by Rutland Water, which happens to be England's biggest man-made lake. Anglian Water's huge bird hide at the Egleton reserve it runs with the local wildlife trust is the most sophisticated in Britain. Nearby, each August a couple of large fields host the annual British Bird Fair, a sort of Glastonbury for birdwatchers.

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Sitting in a bird hide gazing out at the ducks, waders and cormorants can make even the most dedicated birder twitchy after awhile, however, so it's good to have some alternative activities up your sleeve.

One of them should be cycling. There's a dedicated 25-mile cycleway around Rutland Water and most of it allows level pedalling. An enormous range of bikes including tandems and buggies is available for hire from Rutland Cycling at Whitwell and Normanton.

But it's well worth heading away from the lake to get lost in Rutland's labyrinth of country lanes. Wandering along these hawthorn and oak-lined byways you stumble on period-piece thatched cottages, huge stone horse troughs or old milk churn stands left from the halcyon days before bulk tankers. And you get a sense of a glorious Middle England

that has all but vanished beneath Tarmac and plough.

Freewheeling down the long tree-lined hill between the villages of Wing and Manton, no less than four pairs of bullfinches rose up from the verges, and at the bottom a streak of bright turquoise from the River Chater was all I saw of a kingfisher. Exploring further afield, Uppingham should be top of the must-see list. It is the second-largest town in Rutland, although in Yorkshire it might be seen more as a large village, and is solid and prosperous. A stroll round its old streets reveals a wall sundial here, an antiquarian bookshop there. The best time to see it is on a Friday, which has been market day since the late-13th century.

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The town's real jewel is Uppingham School, just across from the market place. Its honeystoned buildings and quadrangles are where people as diverse as the racing driver Malcolm Campbell, actor Boris Karloff, chef Rick Stein, and national treasure Stephen Fry were once pupils.

Turning north up the A6003 you come to Oakham, a small town of around 10,000 people which nevertheless boasts the title Capital of Rutland. You'll be disappointed if you expect to find a sort of miniature County Hall and streets of dolls house-like buildings, even though one of them is the 17th century thatched cottage of a dwarf named Jeffrey Hudson, who was famous for being the smallest adult in England.

Oakham Signal Box, which railway anoraks will tell you is an "MR type 2b" and has been in constant use since 1899, is much-photographed, its fame due entirely to the fact that it provided the basis for an Airfix model which has been constructed on thousands of kitchen tables over the years.

Away from Rutland's two metropolis are some splendid village inns with classy interiors, and roaring log fires if it's a chill night. In the almost too-perfect village of Lyddington, for example, the Marquess of Exeter is run by Brian Baker, who learned his trade as chef to Sir Elton John and the fashion designer Valentino, and judging by the menu they clearly loved their comfort food. The house speciality – Brian serves almost 400 a week – is flat iron steak "Caf de Paris" with pomme frites and green salad.

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At the Kings Arms, Wing, chef James Goss clearly hates buying anything that's ready made. Thus he produces his own ketchup and mayonnaise, bakes all the bread, smokes meats and even finds time to create the most incredible salamis. The signature dish here is suckling pig.

One of the county's best-known attractions are Barnsdale Gardens, the original home of BBC's Gardeners' World TV programme. The legendary creator, Geoff Hamilton, died in 1996 but the

38 small gardens he created for the viewers – someone called them "a theme park for gardeners" – are still hugely popular.

At Barnsdale, you see Geoff's ideas for things like a cottage garden, town garden, courtyard garden, herb garden, wildlife garden, Elizabethan vegetable garden, and a tranquil garden.

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Perhaps picking up on Rutland's theme, Geoff's gardens show that small can, indeed, be beautiful.

Where to stay and what to do

Roger Ratcliffe stayed at Barnsdale Lodge Hotel, The Avenue, Exton, LE15 8AH. Tel 01572 724678 or visit

Lyndon Nature Reserve is at Lyndon Hill, Rutland, LE15 8RN. Anglian Water Birdwatching Centre is at Egleton, LE15 8BT. For details visit

The British Birdwatching Fair 2010 is at Egleton Nature Reserve, Rutland Water, on August 20-22, 9am-5.30pm day. Visit

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Rutland Cycling is at, Bull Brigg Lane, Whitwell, LE15 8BL and Normanton Car Park, LE15 8HD. Tel 01780 460705 or visit

Geoff Hamilton's Barnsdale Gardens are in The Avenue, Exton, LE15 8AH. For details call 01572 813200 or visit

The Marquess of Exeter is in Main Street, Lyddington, LE15 9TL. Tel 01572 822477, www.marquess

The Kings Arms Inn is in the village of Wing, LE15 8SE. Tel 01572 737634 or visit

For further accommodation, sightseeing and dining ideas visit

YP MAG 19/6/10