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Lording It Over England's Decade-Old Inland Sea

December 14, 1986|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

HAMBLETON, England — When you armchair or otherwise daydream about your next trip to England, turn your fantasies toward an inland sea less than a two-hour drive from London.

This would be a sea you could sail any time of the year, matching your skills acquired on Southern California waters with the English Olympic Sailing Team that trains here.

When the weather warms, or if you wear a wet suit, you could windsurf on Rutland Water the morning after enjoying such hits as "Pravda" or "Les Miserables" at a London theater.

On the other hand, you might prefer to fish for brown and rainbow trout in waters rated among Europe's finest still-water trout fisheries.

On a peninsula reaching far out onto the water, you would stay at a country manor house built as a lodge for London's wealthy and titled fox hunters of the 19th Century.

Riding to Hounds

You would, of course, also be able to go fox hunting like a visiting lord throughout the high season of following the hounds and hopping the hedges, from the end of October to the beginning of March.

There would be bicycles as well as sailboats and canoes for rent, and miles of cycling and walking trails around this inland sea.

Surrounding such a location, you could daydream of finding some of the great and least-known country houses of England, displaying works of art in settings much more enjoyable than city museums. The villages in this countryside would seem to have been sculptured from medieval stone.

For other moods and moments, there would be the words written by your host and hostess reminding guests that this restored hunting lodge overlooking moonlight on the water is a place "to feel romantic or make someone else feel romantic."

If you're beginning to wish that all of this wasn't a fantasy, and that you could just pick up the phone and put your travel agent to work, the good news is that England's inland sea has been a reality for a decade. But most U.S. travelers to England have yet to find their way here.

Rutland Water is a 20th-Century fantasy-cum-reality. It is under the administration of the Anglian Water Authority, which welcomes visitors to "Europe's largest man-made lake."

Created by Parliament

The reservoir was created by an act of Parliament and completed between 1970 and 1976 to supply water to an expanding population in towns of the Rutland countryside. But the real growth of the past decade has been in recreational facilities as the contours of this English midland turned a reservoir into what the people of Rutland proudly call their own inland sea.

It has 27 miles of shoreline bays and marinas, a sailing reach five miles long, a peninsula that seems to have been here since glacial times. The five-mile walk around the peninsula takes a leisurely 2 1/2 hours.

With the building of the reservoir conduits and dam, Hambleton Hall, a 19th-Century hunting lodge, suddenly found itself on the peninsula in a spectacular waterside setting. There had not been even a dream of Rutland Water when Hambleton was built in 1881 as a fox hunting lodge for Walter Marshall, who had amassed a huge fortune from the brewing of ale.

The lodge passed on to his younger sister, Eva Astley-Cooper, who enjoyed fox hunting but was happiest presiding over a salon as benefactress for such budding talents as the youthful Noel Coward, who became one of the most honored British playwrights, and actors, producers and composers.

History of Hambleton

Stories of Hambleton Hall and the Rutland Water countryside are told for guests in a booklet of literary quality by Tim and Stefa Hart, the couple who acquired and restored Hambleton, opening it for guests in 1980. It is home to them and their three sons, ages 4 through 12. Guests have the feeling of staying in one of England's finest private homes.

My wife Elfriede and I reached here on our last stop of driving through byways of the English countryside. Driving north about 90 miles from London on Highway A1, turn east on A606 toward Oakham and you will quickly be at Rutland Water.

Those who do come here are in no hurry to get back on the highway. In their restoration of Hambleton Hall, the Harts have created a country house that is already listed among the distinguished Relais & Chateau of Europe.

An oak door leads into the entrance hall with its glowing fireplace. The drawing room reflects the work of interior decorator Nina Campbell.

Hambleton has only 14 guest rooms. Most overlook Rutland Water and the rolling green landscape beyond. Antiques accent the Victorian atmosphere of the accommodations, and the bathrooms are carpeted.

Culinary Delights

The dining room is ranked with the best in Britain. Wines are selected by the Harts for flavor rather than just a fashionable label. The menus for Christmas Day will begin with "A Little Salad of Wild Mushrooms and Truffles."

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