Thu, Jan 29, 2009 - Page 12 News List

Ye olde Rutland

A map from 1807 guides Stephen McClarence through the tranquil villages and fields of a corner of England barely changed in 200 years

By Stephen McClarence  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

VIEW THIS PAGE Crows caw, pheasants scuttle into hedgerows, a hare bounds across a field, and for three hours, as I take a winter walk through Top-Secret England, I meet not a soul. My day in this quiet corner of an already quiet county — Rutland, in the East Midlands — would have brought a contented smile to the face of the great landscape historian WG Hoskins.

Back in the 1960s, in his Shell Guide to Rutland, Hoskins perfectly summed up the country’s smallest county as “a picture of a human, peaceful, slow-moving, pre-industrial England.” All over the country, he pointed out, nature reserves were protecting rare animals, birds and plants. Here in Rutland, he reckoned there was scope for something new: a reserve dedicated to protecting human beings against “incessant noise, speed and all the other acids of modernity.”

Then he went all whimsical: “One would like to think that one day soon at each entrance to this little county, beside a glancing willow-fringed stream, there will stand a notice saying ‘Human Conservancy: Abandon the Rat-Race at This Point.’” No notices so far but, give or take the odd supermarket, Rutland is still largely free of the rat-racing “acids of modernity.” It has quietly rolling countryside, two characterful market towns (Oakham and Uppingham) and charming villages. One of these, Braunston, is the focal point of my walk, a glimpse of a timeless rural England.

I discovered this gentle 9.6km circuit last summer, thanks to a series of leaflets promoting Rutland. It offered the intriguing prospect of some 52km² of open country with no roads, just a network of tracks, bridle paths, green ways and footpaths. I set off on a blisteringly hot July morning and it was glorious: no villages, apart from long-deserted ones, just the odd isolated farmhouse and distant church spire and views across to Robin-a-Tiptoe Hill. It was an Arcadian vision: sheep, birds, buttercup meadows and hawthorn hedges, with low hills checkered by hedges and dotted with copses, spinneys and coppices, the relics of a medieval royal hunting forest.

In a tourism world where anywhere even slightly off the beaten track is branded “secret,” “hidden” or “unexplored,” this was a genuine discovery: a pocket of England apparently unchanged for 200 years. If it were open moorland or heathland it would be understandable, but this is central England, just 19km from the city of Leicester. In Spain, these tracks would be exploited as drovers’ paths; garrulous guides would lead tourists along them. But this is the English Midlands, so no one makes much of a fuss.

That July day was so hot that I abandoned the last leg of the walk and took a short cut near a road called the Wisp to the finishing point, the Old Plough, one of Braunston’s two pubs, for a leisurely lunch. The full walk had to wait for a bright, chilly, winter Saturday morning.

Before I set off, I meet up with Braunston’s local historians, John Beadman and Les Lickman. Beadman, a retired poultryman, is the fifth generation of his family to live in the village, a handsome place built mainly in honey-colored stone. The Braunston he grew up in was a farming community; practically everyone worked in or around the village. Now many residents are newcomers, some commuting daily to London.

Not everything has changed, however. Lickman, a retired upholsterer, spreads out a tablecloth-sized parish map from 1807 and we study the area. “There’s hardly any alteration to it since then, except a few hedges have been removed,” he says.

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