Rutland is a wonderful place to relax, or explore the countryside, as Mark Bibby Jackson discovers on his stay at The Barnsdale Hotel.
Rutland is one of the UK’s best kept secrets. An hour-and-a-half north of London by train, the smallest county in England is a place people often rush past in their frantic journey north, south, east or west. But that is a pity as the quintessentially English county has beautiful Cotswolds stone towns – without the crowds – excellent countryside to explore by foot or bike and in Rutland Water, a tranquil reservoir and nature reserve.
I stayed at the property when it was called Barnsdale Lodge before Covid, but since then it has been taken over by the Signet Collection. The group has undertaken a total refurbishment of the hotel including all the rooms and dining spaces, as well as creating a new reception.
During our January visit, the function room was being refurbished, and this should open shortly, followed by a new spa area with sauna tubs, outdoor swimming pool and tennis court in May.
We were greeted at reception by Ellie, who offered us a welcome coffee in the Rod Room, The Barnsdale’s informal dining room. She explained that part of the strategy behind the spa is to attract more local residents to the hotel.
Already The Barnsdale holds artisan markets, as well as wellness and yoga sessions, for both guests and locals. Throughout the summer live music will be played from 6pm to 8pm in the beautiful courtyard. Future plans include e-bikes and the introduction of a farm shop next summer.
The Barnsdale Hotel and Spa
My room, which is called woodpecker – all the rooms are named after birds or animals – is tastefully, decorated with flower wallpaper, and an interesting yet tranquil range of colours – red, blues and yellows. I find this a welcome relief to the ubiquitous grey you encounter so often in hotels.
The bathroom has Signet toiletries and is in pale blue, which seems appropriate. The room has plenty of space and a most comfortable bed. There is also a complimentary bottle of Taylor’s Reserve tawny port, which I am to test out later that evening. But first I had some walking to do.
A Walk Around Rutland Water
The Barnsdale is located right next to Rutland Water, the vast reservoir which dominates this tiny county.
At its heart is Hambleton Peninsula, which is easily walkable. A 5.5-mile circular trail takes a couple of hours to circumnavigate. Ellie explained that I could walk to the peninsula along a path beside the main road, but recommended I park on Lyndon Road right by the water, some half a mile from the village of Hambleton. I heed her advice.
Keeping the water on my right, I set off as a flock of geese take off in front of me. I pass by some sheep munching away imperviously and before long I reach a small wood. My tranquil and relatively flat walk continues towards the end of the peninsula. Copious benches dot along the path allowing you to repose and enjoy the sound of the waves lapping against the shoreline.
Unfortunately, I do not have sufficient time to do the full loop, as the sun is starting to set, but instead head back along the road to Hambleton. With a solitary pub, church and quaint post office, Hambleton is a very pleasant village. Those of you familiar with the Cotswolds will recognise the stone immediately.
As I approach it, the most beautiful rainbow appears in the sky to my right. It is the perfect end to a very pleasant walk.
Dinner at The Barnsdale Hotel Rutland
The Barnsdale used to be a hunting lodge dating back to 1760, which explains the name for the 1760 Brasserie, where we are to dine.
First, we have a drink in the Burley Bar to set us in the mood. I sample some tasty beer from the local Grainstore Brewery served in a jug, pulled by Isaac, one of the many excellent staff at The Barnsdale Hotel.
We order our food at the bar and are called though to the restaurant just as our glasses become empty.
1760 Brasserie has a lovely warm feel to it with green walls, panelled walls and gorgeous curtains. My guest says it is like eating in a Georgian dining room. Not that she is old enough to know.
My starter is a prawn cocktail, as far removed from a Manchester United sandwich as you are likely to encounter. A roasted baby lettuce is engulfed by tender prawns, with the dish enlivened by spicy Siracha sauce. The roasting of the lettuce is a great touch and the dish a resounding success. My companion is equally satisfied with her chicken liver parfait, which is served on brioche toast – an excellent combination.
We opt for the house wine, but this is no ordinary house red. A 2021 Pays D’oc, Cabernet Sauvignon, it has none of that lingering aftertaste you often encounter with house wines. It goes perfectly with my companion’s steak, but is light enough to work well with my sea bream fillet, which comes in a decadent brown butter sauce with shrimp and capers. The vegetables are really on point, providing a perfect crunch.
I conclude with the selection of cheeses including a remarkable red Leicester which goes a long way towards converting myself to the oddly coloured cheese. My companion enjoys a pavlova, which is just sweet enough without overdoing things.
As our visit coincides with Burns Night, we retire to the bar for a nightcap of Glenlivet Founders Reserve, while I chat with Isaac about the relative merits of Speyside and Islay single malts.
Breakfast at The Barnsdale Hotel Rutland
I conclude my evening by sampling some of the excellent complimentary port in my room, so the following morning I am feeling a little bit flaky. However, drawing back my curtains, I am greeted by the most beautiful sunrise over Rutland Water, which is the perfect restorative.
Refreshed by the excellent hot shower, I am ready to assault breakfast, which is served in the Rod Room. The eggs Florentine fortify me sufficiently to enable me to set off on my second walk of our brief stay in Rutland.
The previous day, Ellie had suggested I walk from the village of Exton along the Viking Way to Fort Henry. Today, she appears mysteriously – perhaps she is related to Mr Benn – with a map of the walk. So, I drive the mile or so to Exton, park on the ambitiously named High Street, and set off map in hand.
Walk to Fort Henry
Heading northwest out of the village to some farm buildings, I discover a sign announcing the Viking Way.
From here it is easy to follow the bridal path on a circular six-mile walk. Passing through a wood, I discover a fork in the road indicating Fort Henry is to my right. A longer route leads off to the left, doubling back above the fort and its two lakes. As it is a sunny morning a opt for the longer route.
Passing through farmland and another wood, I eventually come across a spot where the footpath heads downwards and right towards Fort Henry. Shortly, afterwards I see the first lake and the ‘fort’ standing on the opposite bank.
Fort Henry is really a boating house, rather than something built to repel Nordic invaders. Nearby is the 19th-century Exton Hall, which has a small Roman Catholic chapel dedicated to Saint Thomas of Canterbury.
The fort is in a lovely aspect, surrounded by mature trees. The lake is busy with ducks and geese taking flying lessons, while a couple of swan attempt synchronised head dunking.
It is the highlight of the walk.
At the end of the second lake, I turn right and follow the bridleway back to Exton. Like Hambleton, it has one pub – the inviting Fox and Hounds as well as a small memorial and church, just outside town. The walk takes approximately two hours.
I return to The Barnsdale where Ellie is chatting with my companion in the courtyard. It really does feel as if we have become accepted into The Barnsdale family.
On our drive home we stop at Oakham, a very pleasant town which has direct trains to London Kings Cross for those who like travelling by rail.
In addition to the beautiful All Saints Oakham, the Butter Cross dates back to 1611 at least. It still has some stocks. Nearby, are the remains of Oakham Castle, which is free to enter, and park, although all that remains is the 12th century Great Hall. It’s a worthy conclusion to our brief trip to Rutland, an unspoilt beauty in the heart of England. I suggest you come here while it remains this way.
The Barnsdale Oakham
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All photos by Mark Bibby Jackson.