It’s only when you take a second, closer look at Grade II-listed St Matthew’s Church in Normanton that you realise something isn’t quite right. Handsome though it undoubtedly is, it appears to be the victim of a cruel optical illusion as though, somehow, it’s sinking into Rutland Water. Which, in a manner of speaking, it is.
In the 1970s - in the face of a growing, water-hungry population - it was decided to flood the Gwash valley above which the church hung, turning it into a giant reservoir. Homes below were demolished and the area inundated.
Following public outcry, however, the church, the floor of which was below the proposed water level, was saved - or at least its upper section. Its lower portion was filled with rubble and disappeared behind an embankment constructed around St Matthews, before the engineers turned on the tap, creating an island which, as countless wedding photographers have subsequently discovered, makes it as pretty as a picture.
All of which is rather apt. Running from near the church up into the wooded hill in the background on the other side of the water is a lane, although you wouldn’t attempt to negotiate it today. Some 35 metres or so under water, it once connected this latter day walkers’ idyll with beautiful Hambleton Hall, itself now stranded on a peaceful promontory in Rutland Water, by surface area the largest reservoir in England.
Owned by art collector Tim Hart, the historic hall is now not only a sumptuous hotel famed for its Michelin Star, stunning gardens and enviable location. It is also a fixture on the Tesla Supercharger and Destination Charging network and the launch-pad for unique “art and car” tours.
The format is simple. Art lovers book a room and brief Tim on their particular artistic bent. He curates a tailored driving tour taking in not only the homes, galleries, even castles of his neighbouring fellow aesthetes but also some great country roads.
Our tour starts at the historic market town of Oundle, known for its fetching Georgian streetscapes, independent cafes and shops not to mention an independent school. Its pupils, in formal uniforms, were trotting between lessons as we slipped silently past in, what else, a fast, battery-powered Tesla Model X 100D.
The roads around here could have been designed with the Tesla in mind: miles of near-deserted, well-surfaced lanes flanked by pretty hedgerows linking scattered villages and settlements. Only the frequent speed camera signs - and 50mph limits - remind you they don’t want a free-for-all.
Resisting the urge to explore every watt that this electrifying SUV - with its falcon wing doors, four-wheel drive, seven seats and 0-60mph time of 4.9 seconds - provides, we glide through quiet Glapthorn (population 271), even quieter Southwick (pop 181) then through pretty but somnambulant Bulwick (population 171, no wonder the roads are empty around here) complete with a delightful village store which doubles as a tearoom serving great coffee and very tasty treats indeed.
The Tesla carries us efficiently and comfortably along more sweeping, deserted roads, romping through Deene and then within earshot of Rockingham Motor Speedway (whose future, currently, seems uncertain) before Rockingham Castle itself, perched on a hill above the (unflooded) Welland Valley, hoves into view.
It’s a mysterious, ancient building boasting both fortifications and softer, country house-like elevations, all concealing a wealth of art within, some dating from the mid-16th century.
Rockingham Castle is still very much inhabited by its owners, the Saunders-Watsons, whose charming family snapshots dot the halls, passages and grand saloons and who, by appointment, will organise private art tours.
Fun family snapshots vie with fine portraits from the Tudor and early Stewart eras such as those in the Great Hall. The clever trick at Rockingham, though, is how they have interspersed the antiques with more modern works, collected by a succession of owners, and including pieces by William Johnstone, Claude Rogers, a small painting by Barbara Hepworth and, in the Library, a work by Paul Nash.
Charles Dickens, whose social visits to the castle are recorded by posters proclaiming his appearance in his own plays, staged for the family in the Panel Room and the Long Gallery, in 1849 and 1851. What a guest!
The gardens, too, are a feast for the eyes but don’t dally too long as there is another artistic treat in store, 10 minutes north along the undulating A6003, at Uppingham. Here, visionary Mike Goldmark started selling books in 1972 but in the intervening years has taken over an entire row of shops, which he has transformed into an art-lover’s mecca.
The main Goldmark Gallery is jaw-dropping, crammed with originals and original prints by the likes of Graham Sutherland, Henri Matisse, John Piper, George Chapman and Le Corbusier. There are fine - costly - bronzes by Elisabeth Frink and Frank Dobson, ceramics by Kang-hyo Lee and Clive Bowen.
Claiming to be “just a shopkeeper”, Goldmark will take the lucky few upstairs where, on racks groaning with artwork, labels such as Lautrec, Sutherland Original, even Picasso and Kandinsky, tease at treasures you’d need months to explore satisfactorily.
Dragging ourselves away, the Tesla - whose computer indicated a range of 258 miles when we picked it up in London, now shows 100 miles (we blame those swooping roads) so it’s time to visit cosily grand Hambleton Hall along the A6003, plug into one of its rapid chargers, watch the battery fill via an iPhone app and enjoy the creations of chef Aaron Patterson.
Talk about art on a plate. Who wouldn’t enjoy a tasting menu comprising salt-baked celeriac, hazelnuts, apple, autumn truffle, or slow cooked octopus with miso, or almond and amaretto soufflé with quince and honey ice cream, each presented as decorously as a fine watercolour?
Guests invariably absorb a few of Hart’s own artworks too, while working through the menu. Art lovers will also soon be able to enjoy 18 new specially commissioned Ben Perkins watercolours of birds found on Rutland Water.
Next day, my app shows a range of 282 miles - enough to waft this scintillatingly quick, futuristic-feeling Tesla with its seven seats and usefully large boot to the aforementioned “optical illusion” at Normanton, then on to journey’s end at Cambridge, 70 miles away.
But not before we’ve driven the A606 to explore the thoroughly characterful town of Stamford, then paused at a leafy vantage point near Collyweston to consume a lunch delicious hamper lovingly prepared Hambleton’s chefs.
The fun roads peter out after we meander through pretty scenery linking Oundle (again), via the A605/A14/B660 to Kimbolton, then east on the B645 to St Neots. But the final slog down the A428 to the university city is well worth it. Not only is Cambridge one of the finest cities in which to stroll, soaking up the architecture and mellow vibe. It’s also home to the last highlight on our artistic driving tour, Kettle’s Yard.
The university’s modern and contemporary art gallery is wonderful. But it’s a mere warm-up for the spellbinding thrill of obtaining a timed ticket to the adjoining house, once the home of Jim Ede, curator of London’s Tate Gallery in the Twenties and Thirties.
Evidence of his friendships with artists such as Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Alfred Wallis, Christopher Wood, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth abound in the warm embrace that this breathtaking time-capsule extends, taking you back to a time when the idea of conducting a motorised art tour - rattling off a couple of hundred miles with ease in a swish, silent, all-electric car, potentially on just one charge - would have been as unthinkable as burying a fine church up to its windows in rubble.
Tesla Model X 100D
MOTOR dual electric
TOP SPEED 155mph
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 4.9sec
RANGE 351 miles (NEDC)
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