How do you write a blog for Food Friday about a dinner that you missed? I had headed up to the Hambleton Hall hotel in Rutland, a county I had previously assumed to be fictional (like Barsetshire, Borsetshire and Shropshire), for dinner with the hotel’s owner, Tim Hart, but – in the grips of a shiver-fever that would have had Conan the Barbarian begging for Lemsip – I went to bed at eight.
So, a conundrum. I could imaginarily rhapsodise over the menu, a copy of which was left in my room, beautifully illustrated with local leaves, but that wouldn’t be much like journalism. I can tell you that the breakfast I hungrily made my way through the next morning was delicious, with bread from their own bakehouse, because it was. But nothing on dinner.
Instead, let me tell you about the walk that made it all worth it. Hambleton Hall sits on a peninsula amid Rutland Water, one of Europe’s largest artificial lakes. In 1975, the River Gwash was dammed at its Empingham tributary, and the dam caused the Gwash valley to be flooded, burying six square kilometres and creating a much-needed regional drinking-water reservoir.
Hambleton Hall Hotel
Buried by this water were two villages, Nether Hambleton and most of Middle Hambleton; Upper Hambleton on the new peninsula survived. As a reminder of what had happened, in some biblical twist, St Matthew’s Church in Normanton on the edge of the reservoir was preserved, now half-drowned. I set out in search of it.
We started from Hambleton, a Victorian hunting lodge with an appropriately louche motto: Fay ce que voudras – Do what you’d like. The hotel has compact but delightful terraced gardens, rich in mauve alliums when we went, and the view gives on to Rutland Water. Down the terraces and through the long grasses and buttercups we strode towards the view. It felt like a ranging cow should be cropping the knee-height greenery.
After a gate, we reached the rutted path; follow the stones and you’ll be in the water itself. A fisherman complained about his lot as he packed up, his distant companions cast in once again. The lake glowed, shimmered in the late-afternoon sun. I felt as if I hovered above the ground, an inch or so. Perhaps I was feeling weak from my incipient fever, or perhaps it was genuine beauty.
‘Keep the lake on your right,’ the hotel’s manager had advised us, and given that I can get lost in my own flat, it was sensible advice. We weren’t going to be able to track the whole thing, but the water over our right shoulders would at least keep us straight.
After a while, my first companion turned back, then my second settled on a bench. I pushed round, determined to see this church. In not atypical fashion, however, I had misunderstood the location of the church: not its north-south-east-west, but its up-down. I had visions of a parish church wholly underwater, its steeple six inches beneath the surface, an Atlantis within reach.
But I had not paid attention, and all the time I walked, a shady path through the woods, a loop around grass, a tramp across a meadow, I thought I needed to reach the water’s edge to peer in and see the church. Did I have Arthurian fantasies that it might rise out of the water at my approach? My fever may have had them, certainly.
The killer is that before I gave up and took the tarmac track back to Hambleton Hall, the church was in view most of the time, but too obvious to be what I wanted. So I retired defeated to the Hall, before I retired defeated to my bed. I felt better the next morning, and better still once I realised that I hadn’t not found the church, I simply hadn’t looked for it right.
The not so submerged St Matthew’s Church in Normanton