RUTLAND: The Rutland Belle For that quintessential Rutland experience, only a sedate voyage around Rutland Water will do. In the likely event that you don't know anybody with a boat, especially one that can sail to a landlocked reservoir, a trip on the Rutland Belle will have to suffice. The season opened this Easter weekend, and the boat sails four-ish times a day from Whitwell Harbour until the autumn. There's the pier, down by the cafe/restaurant, past the diving gear shop. Come on, hurry up, she sails at noon.
I was sold my ticket by a uniformed bloke in a sailor's hat. "One adult?" he beamed, and handed me a pink ticket. Half a minute later I was handing over the same pink ticket to another smiling operative on the jetty, this time in a thick black jumper with gold epaulettes. "Sorry, we're only doing the round trip today, the pontoon at Normanton isn't operational yet." Damn, that was my main reason for paying seven quid 30 seconds ago. But never mind. I stepped aboard, through the deserted cabin and up to the ever-so empty upper deck. Just me, then? So much for the great UK bank holiday tourist rush. Thankfully my embarrassment was spared by a late party of pensioners. The husbands were determined to join me upstairs to take photographs, but their wives forced them to stay downstairs in the warm for the duration. Very wise, as it turned out.
The ticket seller locked up his booth, climbed to the upper deck, strolled past me with another grin and shut himself in the wheelhouse. The ticket collector then leapt aboard the boat, cast off from the jetty and positioned himself behind the bar. It's a very small business, this. And then off we chugged, all not very many of us, for a tour of the eastern end of the reservoir. First to the largest bronze sculpture in the world (at least it was in 1980, but it's almost certainly been overtaken by something bronzier since), poking up from the edge of a picnic area like a deformed razor blade. On past the odd fishing boat and the occasional skiff. And then a quick jaunt alongside the dam, which looked like 1km of piled-up pebbles with a lot of cyclists on top. It's rather thicker beneath the waves, for which the villagers of Empingham downstream are duly thankful.
Next stop Normanton Church. Or alas, in this case, non-stop. This former private chapel proved a real headache for the engineers who built Rutland Water in the 1970s. The building was just too far down a grassy slope to be safe from the rising waters and would have been part submerged, rendering it unserviceable. A cunning plan was therefore proposed whereby the lower half of the church would be filled in using concrete and limestone, raising the floor to just below window level. A protective pier of stones was then constructed around the perimeter, leaving the deconsecrated church connected to the mainland via a short causeway. And now Normanton Church houses an unlikely museum which tells how 3% of Rutland came to be flooded, and how this unique building survived. Alas I never quite made it inside, but the views from the passing boat were reallyratherstriking.
At this point, as we neared the extensive marina of the Rutland Sailing School, the wind chill factor cut in. I nipped downstairs to the bar to order a half pint of warmest tea, then confused the barman by going back upstairs into the freezing winds to drink it. Madness, obviously, but I'd paid handsomely for the view and had no plans to surrender to a mere Arctic blast. The tea kept me heated for a few minutes, but for the last mile of the voyage I was shivering as if encased in a block of ice. I shall never complain about overheating on the Central line again. Whitwell Harbour's becalmed shelter therefore came as a blessed relief, and I rattled off the boat as rapidly as possible. And behind me followed Captain Trevor, back to the booth at the top of the jetty, ready to sell tickets to the next batch of not-yet-chilled sightseers. I bet they enjoyed their trip too, but I bet they sat downstairs.