Sunday 18 June 2023

Rutland Water parkrun

The ceremonial county, historic county and unitary authority of Rutland sits within the East Midlands region of England with a population of around 42,000 people. It covers an area of 147 square miles and is famous for being the smallest historic county in England. The origin of the name seems to be unclear, but there are several theories such as it being derived from Rota's Land as Roteland or from the Old English words meaning cattle and land. The county has a Latin motto 'Multum in Parvo' which means 'Much in Little'. People from Rutland, and this possibly only applies to males, are known as a 'Raddle Men' or a 'Raddle Man'.

The entire county is home to only two towns; Uppingham which is known for being home to one of the country's most prestigious public schools and for its internationally renowned art galleries, and Oakham which is the county town. Oakham has a unique tradition where any royalty or peers of the realm must forfeit a horseshoe to the Lord of the Manor upon their first visit to the town. The horseshoes, most of which are oversized and decorative, now number more than 230 and are displayed within The Great Hall of Oakham Castle. The hall itself is said to be the best preserved 12th century building in the country.

To the east of the county town, and right in the centre of the county, is the Gwash Valley, named after the river that flows through it. Owing to the expanding population the decision was made to create a reservoir in the valley. A 1.2km long dam was built near the village of Empingham using clay excavated from the valley floor. However within the area chosen were three villages. The first, Upper Hambleton stands on higher ground so was safe, and now sits on a peninsula. Middle Hambleton was a little lower and lost most of its buildings. However Nether Hambleton was situated further down in the valley and had to be completely abandoned, with long-established families losing their homes and livelihoods. The decision was of course highly controversial and a notable medieval 'wattle and daub' building called Beehive Cottage, said to be the oldest cottage in Rutland, was lost. 

The eastern side of the reservoir used to be part of the Normanton Estate, which was first created in the years following the Norman Conquest. It went on to be the seat of the Earls of Ancaster. The centre of the estate was Normanton Hall, and this survived up until the late 1920's when it was demolished. There was also a village, but this was cleared in the 18th century in order to create a park for the estate. Much of this parkland, including its deer park and fish pond, was located within the modern-day reservoir. The original village church, St Matthew's, which stands on foundations from the 14th century, was rebuilt as a private chapel for the Earls of Ancaster.

The reservoir was created between 1971 and 1975. It was originally given the name Empingham Reservoir during construction, but public opinion led to it being called Rutland Water by the time it was finished. Measured by volume, when it was first completed, Rutland Water, which holds 124 million cubic metres of water, was the largest reservoir in the United Kingdom. The completion of Kielder Water, in Northumberland, in 1981, pushed it into second place where it has remained ever since. However, Rutland Water remains at the number 1 spot if measured by surface area, which is recorded as 12.6 million metres squared (or 4.1 miles). It is now owned and operated by Anglican Water, providing water to over 500,000 homes across five counties.

Rutland Water is also now an important place for wildlife and part of the area is now a nature reserve which has also been designated as a Special Protection Area. It is home to many species of birds, with the most notable being the Osprey, which was introduced to the area in 1996. There are now 26 of them living here. In 2021, during routine draining works, the fossil of a Temnodontosaurus trigonodon, which is a genus of Ichthyosaur was found within a lagoon area of the reservoir. It is over 10 metres long with a skull that weighs over a tonne. It is the largest and most complete fossil of this kind to be found in the United Kingdom. This was the third Ichthyosaur to be found in Rutland Water, the other two were discovered during its construction in the 1970's.

It is also used as a place of recreation. The banks feature miles of pathways for walking and cycling, while the water itself is used for watersports, mostly sailing. There is a pleasure cruiser called the Rutland Belle which takes visitors on trips between April and October. Aqua Park Rutland is a water-based centre which contains a selection of challenging obstacles for those who prefer a more adrenaline filled activity. There is also a large picnic area with a beach and a 10 metre tall artwork by Alexander, called The Great Tower. At the time of its installation it was the largest single-cast bronze sculpture in the world. Since October 2015 the banks of the reservoir have also been home to a weekly, free, timed, 5km event called Rutland Water parkrun.

We visited Rutland on 17 June 2023 to take part at the parkrun's 315th event. If travelling by public transport, the entire county of Rutland only has one railway station and this is at Oakham (direct trains run from Cambridge and Birmingham). The onward journey seems to involve taking the R1 bus to Uppingham, followed by the R5 bus to Normanton. Another option would be to travel to Stamford Station in Lincolnshire and pick up the R5 bus from that end of the line. However I can't be totally sure that it would all work out early on a Saturday morning. Incorporating a taxi into the journey may make it easier. If relying on public transport was the only choice, I would personally explore the option of booking an overnight stay at one of the local camp sites or at Normanton Park Hotel which occupies Normanton Hall's surviving stable block, where you can quite literally roll out of bed and into the parkrun meeting area.

If travelling by vehicle, the reservoir has a four main car parks dotted around its banks, and visitors taking part in the parkrun need to head for the Normanton car park, which is on the eastern side near the village of Edith Weston. There is a fee to park and the full charges can be found on Anglican Water's visitor information page. However parkrunners can park for a flat fee of £1 by obtaining a discount ticket from the start/finish area. This is then inserted into the payment machine followed by the ticket issued upon entry. There doesn't appear to be a time limit associated with this deal, so you could potentially stay all day and still receive the discount. At a very rough count there appears to be approximately 300 spaces in this car park.  There are toilet facilities adjacent to the car park, just look for the octagonal shaped building.

The parkrun meeting area can be found by heading to the north of the car park, so make sure the reservoir is on your left hand side as you follow the road and path. A good indicator that you are going the right way is that once past the Cafe / Rutland Water Fishing Lodge and through the trees, you should be able to see the quite peculiar sight of a church seemingly half submerged in the water. This is the aforementioned St Matthew's Church, also known as Normanton Church. It was deconsecrated in 1970 and is now Grade II Listed. When the reservoir was being created, it became apparent that the church would be partially submerged. There was public outcry at the thought of losing another historic building, so the church had its lower level filled with rubble and topped with concrete. A causeway was built to link what would have otherwise been an island, to the mainland. The meeting area is adjacent to the church.

Rutland Water parkrun takes place on a flat, single out-and-back course. The surface underfoot is tarmac so road shoes are the way to go all year round. It's also absolutely fine for buggy runners. If attending with a dog, the park's rules state that it must be kept on a lead at all times and must not be allowed to enter the water. The official average attendance at time of writing stands at 228. Just before the lockdown, the attendances were regularly in the 400's, but as of June 2023, it is more likely to be in the high 200's, with the occasional week where it breaks into the 300's. The first-timers' and main briefings are held at the meeting point and the start-finish area just on the other side of a gate. At 9am, the event gets underway.

The start is on the tarmac path, which is a regular width, so it's a good idea to self-seed appropriately as the early congestion means overtaking is not easy until the field spreads out. The right hand side is initially bordered with a bush which marks the historic border between Normanton Hall's original formal garden and the rest of its park. It now forms the border with the grounds of the hotel. The left hand side is open grass which leads down to the water's edge. Inevitably not everyone will stay on the path itself, so there is some initial over-spill onto the adjacent grass.

The course simply follows this path as it meanders northwards and once the initial congestion has eased, the arrangement is that you keep to the left. According to old maps, the course passes through an area which was once a cricket ground. The grassland here is used for the grazing of sheep, so you may find some out and about as you progress along the course. The sheep are responsible for this course's only real hazard, which is their poo. Things change from week-to-week, but it's best to keep an eye out to make sure you don't slip on a fresh one.

The land now under the water just off the coast was once the site of a pheasantry. Towards the end of this section is an octagonal-shaped building linked to a structure within the water. I understand this is the Rutland Water Draw off Tower which is used to extract drinking water from the reservoir. Adjacent to the tower is its small access road and the course crosses this. It is not accessible by general vehicles but the crossing point has a marshal, to keep everything in order. A wide gate is opened for parkrunners to pass through and this involves a brief moment on some grass. Once onto the other side, the route bears to the left and the participants head along the dam itself. It has been designed to blend into the natural environment and the section at the waters edge is topped by a rock wall. There's a great view across the fields towards Empingham from the top of the dam.

The course continues along the dam until reaching the 2.5km turnaround point, which is marshalled and features some cones and a turnaround sign. We visited in the summer and the weather was glorious, but I understand in less favourable conditions this course is quite exposed to the elements (notably the wind). The rest of the course is a simple case of heading back along the exact route in the opposite direction (keeping to the left, of course), and the finish is found in the exact spot where it all started just a short while earlier. Notably, this venue has an arch to run through at the finish, which I thought was a nice touch. Barcode scanning is taken care of just on the other side of the gate, on the grass in front of the church.

I recorded the course using my Garmin and the data can be found on Strava, should anyone wish to see the course in detail. There is also the Relive course fly-by video which can be found on YouTube. The results were processed and published online a short while later and 262 people had taken part in event number 315. The official post-event refreshments venue is The Waterside Cafe, which is near the Normanton car park, just next to the fishing lodge. It has the option of sitting outside or remaining inside. The inside seating area features a large window with panoramic views over the reservoir. We ended up hanging around the church trying to find the perfect angle for a photograph, and missed the breakfast window. We ended up eating from the lunch menu instead, which was very nice.

Once we had finished at Rutland Water we headed around to the county town of Oakham where we visited the Great Hall and saw the horseshoes. The grounds were originally the site of a motte and bailey castle and there was a Time Team archaeological dig here, which aired in 2013. In order to watch it you'd need to find Series 20, episode 7 'Horseshoe Hall'. We then popped into All Saints Church, and saw the Grade I Listed Buttercross, which contains an unusual set of stocks with five holes. From Oakham we made our way into the countryside to find the Grade II Listed Welland Viaduct which links Northamptonshire to Rutland over the valley of the River Welland. This is notable due to it being the longest masonry viaduct to cross a river valley in the United Kingdom. It has 82 arches, all built by hand between 1876-1878. Well worth a visit.

And with that our short visit to the county of Rutland was over. We'd had a brilliant time, and the cherry on top was the amazing welcome we received from the volunteer team and other locals at Rutland Water parkrun. So many people chatted to us, which really made us feel at home. Thank you to everyone involved for such a lovely event.

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