Elegant, mustard coloured curtains billow animatedly in the early morning breeze. Cold air forcing condensation upon the windows after the previous night’s impassioned conversation. The early morning sky is slung low outside, overlooking the vast expanse of grey water in front of us. Black and white sheep graze along its shores, while gently turning leaves flutter past them in the wild breeze – golds, russets, browns and off-greens. From the white frames of “The Bay”’s large windows on the third floor, we stand freshly roused out of luxurious slumber, mesmerised by the view below. It is a perfect winter’s morning. Cold and crisp and alive.
On an easy drive from London straight up the A1, brown road signs lead us along country lanes towards Hambleton Hall – a much loved, locally sacrosanct, family-owned hotel that is nestled on the tiny peninsula of the UK’s largest man-made lake. It was converted from its previous incarnation as an impressive Victorian mansion in the early 1980s to the current 17 bedroom boutique bolthole and restaurant by since then much-renowned hotelier Tim Hart and wife Stefa who manages the sumptuous interior. This was the first endeavour for ex-banker Tim, whose hospitality forays have since included the eponymous Hart’s in Nottingham, whilst his sons Sam and Eddie have made similar names for themselves back in the capital with Soho institution Quo Vadis and the delicious Barrafina. Unlike these however, father Hart’s fine establishment is, rather, quintessentially country.
Hambleton Hall takes its name from the village of Hambleton and was purchased shortly after the land surrounding it was flooded to create Rutland Water forty years ago. The peninsula is easily navigable on foot in conjunction with a handy map provided by the personable hotel staff. The village is prettily olde-worlde with a charming old post office and other impressively sized houses that ooze character and make for an inimitable picturesque backdrop. Refined as if it were a Duke, the county of Rutland is smart and astute; fortunate then that the hotel will lend guests their own pair of suitably country-chic designer wellies, neatly lined up in the boot rack in the hotel’s limestone porch. You can knock up a rally on the retro tennis courts beyond the kitchen garden, or take your chances in warmer weather on a dip in the (heated) outdoor swimming-pool, framed by a delightful red-brick facade. All told, the hall beams with the romance of high-society English summer parties – and cosy weekend slumbers, when seemingly warmly lit from the outside-in in cooler months.
Aside from the extensive grounds that reach all the way down to the lake (make sure not to miss the Garden plant of the week as you explore), one of the main draws about this place is the restaurant. As a long-time Michelin-rated operation it has retained its star now for the fifteen years that head chef Aaron Patterson has been here, and gathers a firm following of well known repeat and local patrons. Diners are happily sated with beautifully cooked seasonal dishes from the daily changing menu which offers a la carte dishes as well as a teasing 5 course tasting menu for a very reasonable £85. Think Smoked Lincolnshire Eel, Colwick Cheese Totellino, Roast Partridge with butternut squash, pasta and truffles and deconstructed Tiramisu for pudding.
There is also a ‘gourmet corner’ for something a little more indulgent. Knowledgeable sommelier Dominique Baduel will keenly guide you through the extensive wine list with appropriate anecdotes – and the hotel has an enviable cellar which can’t be the only reason one of the UK’s best wine merchants calls it ‘my favourite hotel in the country’. The dining room is intimate, and yet, the magic of this place is such that there will usually be a birthday or celebration happening somewhere deep inside one of the three rooms. The roaring fire at the hotel’s cosy bar sees conversation flow in a relaxed and cheerful manner in the company of the hotel’s collection of friendly elephants. Personal touches abound – you can’t help but feel at home.
To counter the rich cuisine and hearty breakfast served again in the restaurant with an altogether different ambience come morning, there are countless activities on offer around the reservoir. Many people flock to Rutland Water to cycle around it – hiring bikes from one of the nearby centres for an enjoyable day or half day’s trip (mind the mud if you go off-season) – a life-affirming activity that takes in beautiful views and offers charming pit stops all the way around the 17 or 23-mile route depending on your preference. As a nature reserve it also attracts keen birdwatchers, whilst in the summer, you’ll spot many a windsurfer and sailor navigating the water (no swimming however, is allowed).
Lake aside, the surrounding countryside offers lots of welcome, time-slowing occupations. Excellent local pubs serving nearby Oakham ales are dotted around the nearby villages including Hambleton itself (the Finch’s Arms makes a great lunch or quick pint and a pork-pie stop after a walk or mid-cycle), whilst the pretty market towns of nearby Oakham, Uppingham and Stamford and their antique shops are just some of the reasons why this area has been continually voted one of the UK’s happiest places to live. Rockingham Castle, Burghley House and Burley on the Hill are more grandiose nearby cultural visits. Rutland is the UK’s smallest county, and has the intimate, friendly feel much envied by those who deliberately find a reason to stop en-route elsewhere. Indeed, the semi-sunken Church of Normanton, the only surviving building after the valley was flooded, is a popular choice for weddings and it’s not hard to see why.
Tim’s latest endeavour in the area, in partnership with Julian Carter, are a series of bakeries – as well known here as they are nationwide since winning ITV’s ‘Britain’s Best Bakery’ and various other accolades since. The artisan products they make include breads with a long fermentation wild yeast, sausage rools, cakes and and a signature bake that reflects ingredients from the local area. Julian was creator of the ‘Rutland Pippin’, a crusty dough filled with ham hock, sausagemeat, Colston Bassett Stilton and a handmade Bramley apple puree. The bakeries are now found in five locations and the produce that they make serve the main ingredients of Hambleton Hall’s much coveted Drawing Room afternoon teas. “Better than doing a spa” says Hart, “you’d need more bedrooms for a start.”
And that in essence remains the premise for this wonderful sacrosanct place. It seems anything but intended for the masses, more at home with handfuls of in-the-know people who may arrive to drink tea, go for a walk, curl up with one of the books by the fire or play backgammon until dawn. As the inscription on the limestone entrance reveals, here you can ‘FAY CE QUE VOUDRAS’. Do whatever you want.
Hambleton Hall, Hambleton, Oakham, Rutland LE15 8TH. Tel: (01572) 756991. For more information, visit www.hambletonhall.com.