England’s smallest county has big ambitions. With a slew of projects aimed at tapping into Rutland’s growing community of well-heeled professionals, and rumours of a new Soho House rippling through the region, the East Midlands rural escape seems to be slowly styling itself into the new Cotswolds.
Perhaps that is long overdue. A short taxi ride from Peterborough, which is a mere 40-minute train ride from London, Rutland is more accessible to city folk than Chipping Norton. In fact it is probably more Cotswolds than the Cotswolds these days, which has become a haven for footballers’ wives and clapped-out rockers, clogged up with Maseratis and spray-on-muddied Land Rovers.
In Rutland, unlike its glamorous cousin, the thatched, sandstone cottages are still quaint, the village greens are still hushed, and the cosy fire-lit pubs aren’t crammed to the rafters like Covent Garden on a Friday night. And yet Rutland may now be reaching a tipping point.
A new private members’ club, Woolfox, with a spa, yoga studio, brunch space and golf course, is set to open soon. Rutland Nursery, which has just launched a chi-chi new brasserie and wellness centre with spectacular sunset views over the water, seems to be positioning itself as the area’s answer to Daylesford.
The revamp of the Barnsdale hotel in Oakham by its new owner, hotelier Hector Ross (who also owns luxurious Newbury country pile the Retreat at Elcot Park) also feels like a turning point. After years of gentle neglect, the former hunting lodge to neighbouring Exton Park Estate has been transformed into a swish country bolt-hole.
Although the multistage project is many years in the making, with a new spa in the offing for next year, Barnsdale’s transformation is already palpable.
The bucket of sauvignon blanc bottles arranged alongside lemon water in the hotel lobby sets the tone of an establishment that aims to bring laid-back luxury to the area. The interiors are Bahamas-meets-bramble cottage, with woven baskets mounted on to the walls, and geo-patterned sofas mixed in with William Morris-style wallpaper and baby-blue pouffes.
The orangery, with spectacular country views, is already proving a popular destination for family gatherings and ladies who luncheon. The 1760 brasserie dining room seems even more special though, offering an intimate food experience that showcases local produce (the Rutland water trout is sensational) and vegetables grown in Barnsdale’s kitchen garden.
My pigeon salad with kohlrabi, a sumptuous vision of spring colour and expertly cooked, would rival anything served at a high-end London restaurant. The lamb, served braised and from the rump with wild garlic mash, is a crowd pleaser and the melt-in-the-mouth cod with deliciously complex lobster bisque and chorizo left me highly impressed. Service, which is warm and attentive without being cloying, is perfectly pitched.
The 42 rooms have been nicely redone, with Egyptian cotton linens, soothing pastels and upcycled furniture. The complimentary tipple of ginger liqueur nestled in tea trays is a nice touch. I had a delightful night’s rest in the new master suite, Fort Henry.
The highlight was definitely setting my alarm an hour early to allow time to enjoy its fabulous copper bath tub with bucolic views, before going down to breakfast.
The latter is a satisfying affair, with a well-cooked full English served in fetching bone-china mugs. If one is nitpicking, there are probably some slight tweaks needed to meet the standards of the members’ club set – freshly squeezed juice at breakfast, a loose-leaf tea option, and cotton wool pads in at least the higher-end rooms for example.
Then again, with prices starting at £120 a night (a third of the price that a Soho Farmhouse room is fetching over the summer) Barnsdale is certainly extremely competitive.
I was just as enchanted with Rutland’s low-key charm. On a whistle-stop tour I encountered cycling paths, rolling hills and hiking trails – all uncompromised by crowds. The lake was stupendous, a silent glitter of water dotted with boaters and fly-fishers.
Although the main town Oakham has not reached its potential, surrounding towns such as Uppingham and Stamford, with their farmer’s markets and boutique shops, give Stow-on-the-Wold a run for its money.
I can’t wait to return next year to see Rutland further along its journey and Barnsdale’s new spa – though I do hope that the county retains something of the secret, unspoilt quality that makes it so special.
Doubles from £120, including breakfast. The Avenue, Exton, Oakham, Rutland LE15 8AH (01572 724678; barnsdalerutland.com)