Rutland Water is a reservoir with a traffic-free bike path around it, Britain's best lake cycle circuit. | map
The text and pictures below come from chapter 20 of the cycling guidebook 50 Quirky Bike Rides in England and Wales (Rob Ainsley, Eye Books 2008). (This web page has extra pictures.)
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Ride round Englandís biggest and newest watery secret
Where Oakham, Rutland: Circular tour of Rutland Water (31 miles / 50km)
What Gentle car-free lakeside track
Why Circumnavigate Englandís largest reservoir and newest lake
How Train to Oakham
The Ride | map
This gentle, car-free, family-friendly day ride could be the UK's most overlooked biking gem. The circuit of Rutland Water Ė Britainís biggest reservoir in its smallest county Ė offers gorgeous villages, period-piece towns, and beautiful waterside family cycling, all in an easy day.
Start at Oakham station (about 90 minutes from King's Cross). It has a comfy old-building, English-market-town feel, with a decent complement of pubs, cafes and real shops (but no cycle hire). Trundle round here after breakfast, then head out east along the A606 (a mile or so of main road). You'll soon see on your right, at a junction, the small bike-route signs for the Rutland Water circuit.
'Rutland Water' sounds as if, Lake-District-like, it's been around since the Stone Age. In fact, Britain's most extensive reservoir was still farmland when Abba were in the charts. But in 1977, to supply thirsty Peterborough and the East Midlands, the massive man-made lake spilt its 3,000 acres of blue onto the countryside just east of Oakham.
Barely an hour's cycle across in any direction, England's tiniest county was known mainly as joke fodder until being abolished in 1974 (as in Eric Idle's TV series Rutland Weekend Television, and Beatles spoof The Rutles, which often mentions Rutland). Through popular demand it was reinstated in 1997, and its motto Ė multum in parvo, 'a lot in a little' Ė is apt.
And scenic Rutland Water, as big as Lake Windermere, is a curiously overlooked cycling gem. A smooth circular shoreline cycling track, almost all off-road, runs 28km or so around it, with an extra 11km option skirting the peninsula in the middle. It has a fair few slopes, but none longer than a few dozen metres, and it's excellent for families and mixed-ability (or mixed-motivation) groups. Bring your binoculars and you might even see an osprey.
Most of the time the path is within a stone's throw of the lake. The surface (some tarmac, mostly hardpack) is all-weather, though if it's throwing it down with rain there are few opportunities to shelter away from the places mentioned above. Conversely, in strong sunshine you'll need hats and sunblocker: there are several stretches of shady wood, but none that long.
From Hambleton, do a lovely (clockwise) seven-mile circuit of the Hambleton peninsula, giving you a gradual three-sixty panorama of the reservoir shoreline. You see lots of nannyish, litigation-phobic signs sternly warning you to dismount on "steep" hills and badgering you about helmets. Some of these mild downhills are skiddy gravel, true; but a greater threat comes from the copious sheep poop, which can easily make its way from tyres to kids' fingers, or directly on to drinking-bottle mouthpieces. Post-ride hand- and bottletop-washing is strongly advised for kids and adults.
As you leave the peninsula, look out for the splendid Jacobean Old Hall (eight o'clock if the route is a clock face) on your left. Rejoining the Rutland Water circuit, you go past the Bird Watching Centre (at nine o'clock on the notional clock face; open daily) where you can see ospreys - either with your binoculars, or via the live camera.
Manton (eight o'clock) is a characterful village with pleasant pubs, and a short section of cycle path alongside a main road turns left down the hill back to the shoreline. (Watch out for hawthorn-related punctures in autumn!) More undulating takes you to the remarkable old Normanton church (four o'clock; picture, right). There is bike hire here. The straight flat damtop lane (three o'clock) takes you to some more gently rolling, smooth paths past Whitwell (one oíclock, something of a watersports centre, with kayaking, windsurfing, and the Rutland Belle pleasure boat doing its hourly afternoon trips; bike hire) and Barnsdale (twelve oíclock) and then back to Oakham.
Also in the area
Eyebrook Reservoir, a few kilometres south south-west of Rutland Water, can be cycled round and is gently scenic Ė but itís on road and not near a railway station.
Stamford, a perfectly preserved Georgian and early-Victorian town often used as a film location (Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, the Da Vinci Code), is a few kilometres to the west. National Cycle Route 63 (Burton-on-Trent to Wisbech via Leicester and Peterborough) takes you from Oakham to Stamford. Perhaps because it lacks a 'killer postcard view', Stamford is less recognisable than say Bath or York. But it's at least as nice to wander round on foot or by bike as they are, has more period-areas to explore, and isn't as self-consciously twee. On a nice evening, take your bikes and a picnic down to the lovely little park on the River Welland just west of the bridge.
Around Rutland Water is a lovely area of England, surprisingly rich in villages whose period buildings, free of any post-Victorian architecture, look like they've come off a Viewes of England Jigsawe Puzzle: Empingham, North Luffenham, Lyddington and countless more. Lanes are quiet, scenery consistently pleasant, and there are lots of quirky things to cycle up to and investigate.
Such as the 82-arch, three-quarter-mile railway viaduct (for a goods line) by Harringworth village, south of the Water (picture, right). Completed in 1878, it's Britain's longest, and you can't quite work out what something so spectacular is doing in this down-to-earth landscape.
Other places like this
England has plenty of large lakes and reservoirs that you can cycle round on roads at various distances from the waterside, but none of them have car-free paths right round the shoreline quite like Rutland Water.
For example, to circumnavigate Windermere, Englandís largest lake, involves 40-odd km of main roads, lanes and tracks, not always by the shore (but itís handy for Windermere train station and the Lake District scenery is more eye-catching than Rutlandís).
Kielder Water, up in Northumbria, is beautifully set in a wild expanse of forests and hills. It rivals Rutland Water for size (smaller surface area but bigger volume). One side has a minor road and the other a network of forest roads fine for cycling Ė itís quite a mountain biking centre. Itís a very long way from a train station though. More accessible is the fabulous circuit round Derwentwater and Ladybower Reservoirs in the Peak District (in Chapter 33 of the book). It's on very quiet roads or traffic free, easily accessible by rail, and the landscape is superb.
But what makes Rutland Water really odd is its newness: just over thirty years ago you couldnít cycle round it because it didnít exist. In that respect itís hard to find any cycle experience like it.
Snack stop Harbour Cafe, Whitwell Couldnít be handier: right on the water, with tables outside to watch the watersports
Bevvy break Horse and Jocky Inn, Manton The only pub directly on the lake circuit route. Friendly, decent beer, food, and tables outside
Quirkshop Normanton Church Though apparently afloat on the water, in fact sits semi-submerged dry on a bed of concrete. It was scheduled for demolition when the reservoir was built but a campaign saved it. It's now a museum showing the history of reservoir, worth a visit.
• Normanton Church museum
• Stamfordís time-capsule architecture
• Harringworth Viaduct
• Quaint villages