The county town for Rutland, England’s smallest county, is appropriately dinky, but has plenty for visitors to get stuck into.
Take for instance the great hall of Oakham Castle, which looks a lot like it did when it was built in the 12th century.
The parish church next door is a Medieval wonder, with rare Decorated Gothic capitals in its nave.
We haven’t mentioned that Oakham is on the largest reservoir in England, which has turned into a wildfowl paradise in the last 45 years.
Rutland Water has two visitor centres to help experience this birdlife, and hosts the annual British Birdwatching Fair, an extravaganza dubbed by some as “Glastonbury for Birdwatchers”.
1. Oakham Castle
While this monument may not tally with everyone’s idea of a castle, it is one of the most complete Norman buildings in the country.
What you see at Oakham Castle is a Great Hall that used to belong to a much larger fortified manor.
In the nave are typical round Norman arches supported by three hefty circular pillars on each side, each topped with carved Romanesque capitals.
Look closer and you’ll see the vestiges of musicians carved into these capitals.
These were defaced in the Civil War by Puritan troops.
Impossible to ignore is the hall’s collection of ceremonial horseshoes.
This stems from a custom in which peers of the realm should hand over a horseshoe to Oakham’s Lord of the Manor upon their first visit to the town.
There are 230 horseshoes in all, the oldest given by Edward IV after his victory at the Battle of Losecoat Field close by in 1470.
2. Rutland Water
One of the largest artificial lakes in Europe, Rutland Water has the largest surface area of any reservoir in England.
In more than 3,000 acres of countryside this huge body of water was excavated across five years in the early 1970s and then flooded in 1976. Over time it has become a key habitat for birds, and a nature reserve protects all of the west shore.
To illustrate, around 4% of the European population of gadwalls winters at Rutland Water, while ospreys were reintroduced in the 1990s.
Two visitor centres will help you encounter Rutland Water’s winged residents and migrants.
The lake is a noted sailing and water-sports venue, and you can take cruises aboard the Rutland Belle in spring and summer.
There’s a beach on the north-east side, while all around the shore is a 23-mile track for walkers and cyclists.
3. All Saints’ Church
Next door to the castle, All Saints’ Church can be seen for miles in the surrounding countryside for its Decorated Gothic tower and spire.
The building is a medley of Gothic architecture spanning several hundred years, and was given an unusually sympathetic restoration by Sir George Gilbert Scott in the 1850s.
The tower and spire are from the 1300s, while the earliest part of the building is the Early English south portal and porch from the century before.
The nave is 14th-century Decorated Gothic and has something almost never seen from this period: Topping the pillars are carved capitals depicting scenes from the bible, vegetal patterns and grotesques and a green man.
Eagle eyed observers can identify Adam and Eve, the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the Annunciation and the Coronation of Mary.
4. Rutland County Museum
The place to get to know England’s smallest county is a fine former military building dating to 1795. This used to be the riding school for the Rutland Fencible Cavalry and was turned into the county museum in 1969. You can go in for free to pore over a treasure trove of captivating exhibits.
Take for example the Neolithic hand-axe fashioned from Alpine jade, one of only 120 discovered in the country, and found on newly ploughed soil in Rutland in 2015. The fossil collection is strong, and includes a bison horn and long extinct Triassic and Jurassic oysters.
On the macabre side are the intact New Drop Gallows, dating to the early 19th century.
Lots of Medieval archaeological discoveries have been made around Rutland.
One of the most valuable is the Brooke Reliquary, an exquisite enamel casket crafted in Limoges in the 13th century.
5. Barnsdale Gardens
Packing 38 individual little gardens or “rooms” into an eight-acre plot, Barnsdale Gardens is the work of Geoff Hamilton (1936-1996). He was a beloved presenter on the BBC’s long-running Gardeners’ World, and acquired this plot in 1983 when it was just a ploughed field.
A riot of colour and creativity, and flocked by birds, Barnsdale Gardens has a spectrum of styles and features, and endless ideas to borrow for your own project.
Just by way of a introduction there’s a Japanese garden, a miniature “Versailles” parterre, a rose garden, cottage garden, wildlife garden, herb garden and an allotment always used by Hamilton for Gardeners’ World’s fruit and vegetable segments.
The tearoom uses local produce where possible and has outdoor tables on the lawn when the sun is shining.
6. Normanton Church
On the east shore of Rutland Water is a sight that requires a double take.
The Neoclassical Normanton Church is partially submerged in the lake, but can still be accessed and even functions as a wedding venue.
The building was raised in the late 1820s, and was deconsecrated with the construction of Rutland Water.
But rather than be demolished or moved, the floor was simply filled in above the waterline with rubble, and a concrete cap was added just beneath the windows.
The church is ringed by an embankment and projects onto the lake.
Head to the little pier next to it for a great photo opportunity.
7. Oakham Butter Cross
Across from Oakham Castle’s gate is a Grade I Butter Cross (market shelter) dating back to the early 17th century at the latest.
This structure appears on a map from 1611 and was used both for selling dairy products and preaching.
At one point there were four structures like this in Oakham.
At the base of the central pillar is a set of wooden stocks with five holes, the exact purpose of which is uncertain.
The old town pump is close by and a neat partner to the Butter Cross, while the surrounding Market Place is very picturesque, especially on trading days.
8. The Anglian Water Bird Watching Centre
On Rutland Water’s protected west shore and close to the village of Egleton is the first of the reservoir’s two visitor centres.
Unveiled by the Duke of Edinburgh in 2001, the Anglian Water Bird Watching Centre is open every day of the week, all year, and is the perfect resource for the lake’s vibrant birdlife.
The exhibition area features interactive games and interpretation boards going into depth on the multitude of wildfowl that makes its home at the lake every year, while in summer you can watch a live video feed from an osprey nest.
With windows looking over the wetlands, the centre is the anchor for the British Birdwatching Fair every August and has a shop selling binoculars and telescopes, and is well-stocked with books on birds.
9. Lyndon Visitor Centre
Around to the Rutland Water’s south shore, the Lyndon Visitor Centre was opened by none other than Sir David Attenborough in 1985. The facility has been updated since then, and is set in a serene corner of the lake-shore with unobstructed views of the water.
From the entrance you can follow a self-guided trail, which weaves through old and newly planted woodland, and will deposit you at seven bird-watching hides.
In summer one of these is just the place to observe the lake’s ospreys and will normally have a volunteer on hand adding insights and tips.
10. Rutland Farm Park
An outing that littler visitors are sure to love, Rutland Farm Park is open year round on a working farm conserving rare breeds of sheep, cattle, poultry and pigs.
These 19 bucolic acres used to be on the Neol estate, and all of the farm buildings date back to the 19th century.
On the farm kids can meet or get close to a real diversity of domestic animals.
You can groom ponies, feed the cows, interact with lambs, sheep and goats, and cuddle guinea pigs and rabbits.
There’s also a walk-through free range poultry pen, letting you feed the birds and collect their eggs.
11. Aqua Park Rutland
In summer you can take on the UK’s largest inflatable water challenge, on the north side of Rutland Water.
Aqua Park Rutland opens for the summer at the end of May and is an epic obstacle course measuring 100 by 80 metres and loaded with slides, climbing walls, balance bars, blast bags and rollers, all with snappy names.
“The Beast” for instance is the tallest inflatable climbing wall in the country, while new obstacles like the Ice Tower XXL and Action Tower XXL have been introduced.
A typical 50-minute session will flash by, and costs £20. You’ll wear a buoyancy vest and wetsuit for this adventure, both included in the price.
Kids will need to be eight or older, at least 1.1 metres tall and able to swim for 50 metres in a buoyancy vest.
12. Rutland Water Park
For a one-two hit of action on the water, this water-sports centre is a short walk along the lake’s north shore.
Rutland Water Park sells or rents out canoes, kayaks, rowboats, windsurfs, paddleboards and sailing dinghies, depending on your qualifications and experience.
Wetsuits, buoyancy aids and harnesses are included in the price.
And of course, if you want to learn the basics of water safety or want more advanced tuition for sailing, windsurfing, canoeing or kayaking, there’s a team of instructors qualified to national governing body standards for each activity.
13. Bugtopia the Zoo
This company started out as a travelling bug experience, introducing kids and grown-ups to the wonders of bugs at educational “meet and greets”. In 2014 Bugtopia found a permanent location for a zoo on Rutland Water and opened for business the next year.
Naturally invertebrates are the soul of the attraction, counting scorpions, leaf cutter ants, worms and Madagascar hissing cockroaches.
But these are accompanied by a host of other animals, mostly small and rescued from the pet industry, other zoos or seized from luggage at airports.
You’ll get close to meerkats, armadillos, Asian palm civets, frilled dragons and raccoon dogs.
14. Birdfair: British Birdwatching Fair
The UK’s entire birdwatching industry converges on Rutland Water in August for the British Birdwatching Fair.
Usually on the third weekend of August the event draws tens of thousands of people, and each year raises money for a specific conservation initiative, be it protecting the world’s seas and oceans or the migratory birds of the eastern Mediterranean.
There are hundreds of trade stalls at the event, selling all kinds of birdwatching equipment accessories and equipment, from guides to binoculars and bird-feed.
The fair draws up a packed programme of talks by naturalists, seasoned birdwatchers and ornithology experts, and a big auction raising funds for the annual conservation charity.
15. Oakham Market
There’s a special about the centre of Oakham on Saturdays and Wednesdays when the historic Market Place is given over to stalls trading fruit and vegetables, flowers, cheese, freshly baked bread, pastries, herbs, eggs and clothing.
On the third Saturday of the month the snug Goal Street is the setting for a farmers’ market where you can buy goodies like honey, jams, charcuterie, sausages, pickles, preserves and locally raised beef right from the producer.