The Raddleman’s Tale

Tales from End to End
The Raddleman’s Tale

Rutland and Rutland Water

by Hilary Crowden

(‘Raddleman’ is the old name for a Rutlander and is named after the raddle from the red earth used to mark sheep that have mated with the ram)

Rutland, as an area distinct from its neighbours, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire, was recognised a thousand years before the emergence of the English county system. Although not named as such until the 13th century, it fiercely resisted threats to its independence, until it finally succumbed in losing its county council in the local government reforms of 1974. Nevertheless, continuous opposition ensured that this was regained in 1997.

The search by the Welland and Nene River Board for a site for a large reservoir to serve the extension of the southeast urban commuter belt into Northamptonshire extended to 64 sites. Empingham became the chosen location, because it had the shape of the valley with the right geology to support the weight of a dam; sufficient local material to build the dam; a river reasonably near to fill the reservoir and a site near the new centres of population such as Peterborough, Corby, Northampton.

Petitioners against the Bill to build the reservoir could not match the promoters in time, money or technical skills but Rutland fought for the best deal it could. In Parliament there was talk of a ‘hydrological Stansted’ and of reducing Rutland to ‘a towpath around a lake!’ But Parliament found ‘a deplorable and regrettable necessity’ to build the reservoir at Empingham, ‘one of the melancholy consequences of the relentless demands of the urban dweller’.

The promoters appointed Frank Knight to be a link with the local community in a public relations offensive of exhibitions and meetings. Such was the faith of the local community in Knight, that when he moved house, from a cottage beneath the dam at Empingham, further downstream to a house in Ryhall, questions were asked at Empingham Parish Council, whether Knight knew something about the safety of the dam that they didn’t!

After inevitable delays, and the 1976 drought, Empingham reservoir opened in May 1977. It flooded 3% of the county taking 3,100 acres and could hold 27,300 gallons at capacity (not reached until 1979). It has recently been further enlarged. However, there was undisguised mirth when the reservoir was found to be ‘leaking’ thousands of gallons a day under the hill and out into the Chater valley, to flow into the Welland and to be pumped back into the reservoir. Local legend has it that ‘someone forgot to fill in the wells of the submerged farms at Hambleton properly’.

There was, and still is, considerable resistance to tourism. Sailing (but no motorboats); fishing; cycling and walking have been accepted and the nature reserves and their management welcomed. But it took 15 years for the local community to accept a passenger cruiser on the reservoir and even longer for refreshment kiosks to be tolerated. Caravan parks, camping and golf courses are still contentious issues and the erection of ‘Alexander’, the largest single bronze cast in the world at Sykes Land, Empingham caused an uproar at the time.

Normanton Church
Normanton Church

The tower of Normanton church, designed by Thomas Cundy in 1826-8, is modelled on St. Johns, Smith Square, Westminster and adds sophistication to the rural landscape. The flooding of the valley left it 40 yards within the reservoir. Consequently, in 1970, it was deconsecrated, the vaults emptied of the Chippendale coffins of the Heathcote family, and the monuments removed to Edith Weston and Edenham near Grimesthorpe. The threat of demolition galvanised some local worthies to try to save the church. Although they were unable to move it, they raised £30,000 to fill in the vaults and interior up to half its depth with limestone and raise an embankment around the outside. It has become the most photographed building in Rutland, half submerged in the embankment, a symbol of the gentler age of Rutland’s’ aristocratic and historic past, marooned like a beached ship on a harsh, windswept, modern shore. A symbol of a beleaguered county.

In 1975, there was considerable discussion in the local press in favour of renaming the Empingham Reservoir as ‘Rutland Water’ in order to perpetuate the county name. In the face of broad-based local agitation, Anglian Water Authority eventually agreed to the change. It proved that the little people could still fight back.

Hilary Crowden’s chapter in ‘Heritage of Rutland Water’ describes the plans to create Rutland Water and the campaign opposition to the construction of the dam and its inevitable effects. The book was produced by the Rutland Local History and Record Society.