The Raddlemen of Rutland fought hard to regain their independence. Robert Nurden discovered why
NOTHING we tried would make the sheep or the pheasants move out of the way. So we gave up using the horn, turned the car around and retreated down the grassy lane. We were intruders in a secret land and should have guessed that the wildlife of Rutland would be as fiercely territorial as its people.

When in 1974 England's smallest county lost its independence and went under the yoke of Leicestershire, there ensued a cold rural war of guerrilla- like proportions. Forget the manufactured posturing of the 1990s countryside marchers; this was the real thing. In the dead of night Leicestershire road signs disappeared, to be replaced by those of Rutland. And locals continued to use the county in their address even though the Post Office threatened not to deliver the letters.

The campaign paid off when on 1 April last year Rutland was given back its independence, and the county's 35,000 Raddlemen - as the natives are known - marked the occasion with a week of partying. On Wednesday they celebrated one year of new-found freedom.

Squeezed from all sides by Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Cambridgeshire and Leicestershire, this little piece of Middle England, 16 miles by 16 miles, boasts two tiny market towns, Oakham and Uppingham, and 50-odd villages. There is hardly a factory within its leafy boundaries. Apart from some ironstone quarrying and a cement works, it has resisted all industrialisation.

The result is a quintessentially English landscape, where green fields and rich, red earth stretch across gently undulating country, and where sleepy villages nestle round a pub and a church. In Rutland small really is beautiful. Indeed, minimalism seems to have become a by-word.

The most bizarre (and true) incident goes back to 1619 when Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria during a visit to Oakham were served up a pie, out of which sprang the 18-inch-high Jeffrey Hudson. Luckily the couple were amused at this right royal prank and the Queen took the dwarf home and installed him as her court jester.

Even the signal box at Oakham station achieved a certain downsized notoriety: Hornby, maker of model railways, copied it for its own miniature signal box. And when Ruddles, Oakham's independent beer-maker, was taken over last year, the company's head brewer kept faith with the little things in life and set up his own brewery - the Grainstore - which now distributes its fine beers to 40 local pubs.

As if it was trying to prove the Rutland motto Multum in Parvo (much in little), the reconstituted tourist office has crammed its colourful leaflets with things to do. But we couldn't help wondering if they were somehow missing the point: that this is one of the few places left where the main attraction is in doing absolutely nothing. As one Oakham hotelier said to us: "If you can't relax here, where can you relax?"

This is classic car-trundling country on quiet roads, where the delight is in wandering from village to village, virtually every house built in the local limestone and roofed with the variegated-grey, Collyweston slate.

We didn't know that England still possessed such hushed beauty. So reserved in fact that it passed by one of the more obtuse Londoners on our weekend jaunt. "It's just like Essex," he said, and went home on the train that night.

The next day the rest of us had a competition to find the prettiest village but of course no one won because we each kept changing our nomination. Those in the south-west, where a different limestone seam turns the stone a honey gold, were at the top of everyone's list. Lyddington, Preston (my favourite), Braunston, Ayston, Wing, Morcott and Barrowden represent the magnificent seven among the unsung delights of this forgotten corner.

The churches are some of the best to be found anywhere: Tickencote, with its stunning Norman arch six layers deep; Brooke, John Betjeman's favourite; Ketton; and Exton. Not forgetting eerie Stoke Dry where the Gunpowder Plot is said to have been hatched and figures looking like North American Indians decorate the walls.

"This is the Cotswolds without the crowds and we're happy to keep it that way," said Mark Duffus, barman at the 17th-century Blue Ball Inn, Braunston, where a log fire crackled and obscure single malts lined the shelves. "We're still the tucked-away county, but I don't know for how long."

This is serious beer country where trainloads of bearded Camra enthusiasts frequently disembark at Oakham to scour the land for real ale hostelries. They won't have far to go because virtually every pub is a free house, packed with simple cheer and good beer, and where machines and flock wallpaper are hard to find.

We slipped over into Leicestershire (don't tell any Raddlemen but it's just as pretty as Rutland), to Somerby, to taste Baz's Bonce Blower, England's strongest beer at 12 per cent. The pub-cum-brewery there is also in the Guinness Book of Records for once making the strongest beer in the world - a staggering 23 per cent.

Back in the small but perfectly formed county lies a sleeping giant of huge proportions: Rutland Water, the largest man-made lake in Britain. We hired bikes and cycled along some of its 23-mile circumference, stopping off to look at Normanton Church which, when the land was flooded, was shored up on its own peninsula and saved from a watery grave.

On the lake, the local wildlife trust is attempting to re-introduce the osprey to England. It is an ideal habitat for all sorts of waterfowl and the August birdwatching fair attracts thousands.

Mike Goldmark, eccentric art dealer and bookshop owner who brought Gary Kasparov to Uppingham for a world chess championship warm-up, and saved the town from by-pass obscurity when he bought up the empty shops, offered us coffee. It was tasty but the paintings were even tastier, some of the best you'll see outside Cork Street.

A millionaire bare-footed Tao Buddhist, he said: "I'm an intuitive businessman who loves breaking the rules. I never leave town now, what's the point?" Perhaps it's because he hasn't got any shoes. His bizarre CV shows that through his chain of menswear shops in the Sixties he reinvented the kipper tie and two years ago booked the Royal Albert Hall for a poetry festival.

Open-air Shakespeare - three different plays a year - is on offer during the summer at the 16th-century Tolethorpe Hall. The Stamford Theatre Company, which last year got a rare and favourable amateur review in The Stage, owns the site and invariably fills it to capacity. In the guise of Glyndebourne, audiences spread picnics on the lawn before the performance. Sam Wanamaker was a great fan, on one occasion bringing Douglas Fairbanks along to see Romeo and Juliet. And a fox once got the biggest laugh of the night when it wandered on-stage to watch The Merchant of Venice.

This beguiling theatre has even managed to quell the roar of Harrier jets from nearby RAF Wittering. The Muse wrested an agreement from Mars not to fly past when the Bard was holding forth, except on one occasion when the squadron forgot and added 20th-century sound effects to the Battle of Agincourt in Henry V.

We dropped in on Barnsdale where the much-loved Geoff Hamilton used to present his BBC2 gardening programmes. His son Nick opened the 30 or so TV mini-gardens to the public last year and 60,000 paid homage to the kindly man and his memory. "When I walk round a corner of the garden, I still expect to find him digging away," said Nick.

We left through the county's backdoor - Eyebrook trout reservoir - where the Dam Busters practised in 1943 before flying off to the Ruhr dams in Germany. We slipped out, closing the door quietly behind us, and made for the roar of the A43. Next time we come, perhaps we'll make a better job of doing absolutely nothing.

rutland fact file

Where to stay

l Stapleford Park, near Melton Mowbray (01572 787522), just over the border in Leicestershire. From pounds 165 a night. Relaxed country house hotel offering hunting, falconry, archery, golf, spa.

l Hambleton Hall, Hambleton (01572 756991). From pounds 140 a night. Idyllic location on Rutland Water, the restaurant is one of the best in the area.

l The Falcon Hotel, Uppingham (01572 823535). From pounds 60 a night. Old coaching inn in the market square.

l The Whipper Inn, Market Place, Oakham (01572 756971). From pounds 59 a night. Friendly 17th-century hotel in the heart of town.

l Lord Nelsons House Hotel, Oakham (01572 723199). From pounds 32 a night.

l Rutland Cottage Holidays (01780 720087). Numerous good B&Bs, lists from Tourist Office (01572 724329).

Where to Eat

Pubs and restaurants serving traditional and European food: l Barnsdale Lodge, Rutland Water (01572 724678).

l Kings Arms, Wing (01572 737634).

l Hackneys Bistro, Uppingham (01572 822088).

lFinches Arms, Hambleton (01572 756575).

l The Blue Ball, Braunston (01572 722714).

Places to Visit

l Oakham Castle, 12th century building with scores of horseshoes donated, according to custom, by visiting peers of the realm

l Rutland County Museum

l Lyddington Bede House

l Rutland Railway Museum

l Pickworth Lime Kiln, where poet John Clare worked

l Barnsdale Gardens

l Wing Maze, Wing, one of England's last surviving turf mazes dating from Middle Ages

l Clipsham Yew Tree Avenue, Clipsham, 150 clipped yew trees depicting the first landing on the moon, the Battle of Britain and other national events

l Tolethorpe Hall, annual Shakespeare festival (01780 754381)

l Nature Reserve, Egleton; Rutland Water Cruises

l Rutland Water Cycle Hire (01572 460705).