Seasoned travel writer, globetrotter and former presenter of TV’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ programme, John Carter, delves into some delectable destinations from his youth.
“Oak’s the finest wood/ Ham’s the finest bacon/ If Oakham’s not the finest town/ I’m very much mistaken.”
That irritating snatch of playground doggerel – chanted by a quartet of skipping schoolgirls – has stuck in my mind for over thirty years. Fortunately, I have other memories of my first visit to Rutland, and of other visits that came after.
There was the coincidence of turning up in the middle of the summer festival, with its assorted high jinks. Of staying in a lovely 17th century inn right on the main street (now, I believe, a retirement home). On seeing the great collection of horseshoes in Rutland Castle – actually more of an impressive barn than the sort of building that “Castle” brings to mind.
And of discovering that nearby Whitwell is “twinned” with Paris. How a small community on the A606 near Rutland Water came to be matched with the capital of France is one of many mysteries I have been unable to solve.
“You’ll like Rutland” a friend told me when he heard I was making that first visit. “It’s like the Cotswolds, but without all the touristy stuff.”
As I am a great lover of the Cotswolds – about which more in a moment – I bridled at this description, but knew exactly what he meant as I drove around England’s smallest county. I contemplated the calm of Rutland Water – England’s largest reservoir and a great breeding area for Ospreys said my companion, who knows about such things.
However, I knew something he didn’t. In Oakham’s Market Square is a 17th century coaching inn named “The Whipper-in Hotel”. I was able to tell him that a Whipper-in is a hunt servant who, armed with a whip and a voice like a foghorn, is responsible for rounding-up – “whipping in” the hounds when their work is done. My uncle Jack was such a one, with a hunt in the Cotswolds.
I said I’d be mentioning the Cotswolds again, and I do because, for me, that lovely region is the very essence of England.
Our history has been shaped by it, as well as our language – “spinster”, “tenterhooks”, “distaff” all have their origin in the medieval wool trade. And don’t get me started on “Adlestrop”. But I am allowed to be biased, as this is the land of my youth – not, in strict geographical terms, the “Blue Remembered Hills”, but very close, emotionally.
If you’re the sort of person who is as much moved by gentle landscapes as by towering mountains, deep canyons or vast panoramas, then you will love the Cotswolds as much as I do, and take yourself off to walk its lanes and pathways. Buildings of mellow golden Cotswold stone seem to be as much a part of the natural scene as woodlands and waterways.
I concede, however, that my friend was right about the “touristy stuff”. There is a lot of it in some places, just as there are a lot of people who like the region only because it is “fashionable”. But you may easily avoid the tourist traps, and those people, and find rich beauty in the very heart of England.
The last time I wrote about holidays in England, I got tangled up with Offa, who was King of Mercia during the second half of the 8th century, and of a Norse chieftain named Buthar, who was around some three centuries later.
Offa left us the Dyke, which marked 150 miles of the ancient border between England and Wales (though they didn’t exist as such at the time), and Buthar gave his name to Buttermere in the Lake District. Walking holidays in those areas were – and are – the connection.
But my present thoughts turn to earlier history, the location being Hadrian’s Wall. This time it is not a skipping chant but a small poster on sale in a gift shop that has remained fixed in my memory.
We were at Vindolanda, having walked a small part of the National Trail that runs along the ancient frontier. And in the gift shop my son spotted the poster, depicting soldiers in the bath house. What particularly caught his eye was the detail of a lowly minion in one corner, washing a bundle of sponges fixed to the end of short sticks.
Being a curious child of a certain age, nothing would satisfy him but an explanation of what that was all about. When he discovered it was – in his words – “the way the Romans wiped their bums”, we had no choice but to buy the poster which was pinned on his bedroom wall for many years afterwards.
Funny, isn’t it, how silly little things stick in the mind and trigger memories. A playground chant takes me back to the delights of Rutland and a tattered poster to a long-ago family holiday in the North of England.