Hambleton Hall Hotel on Rutland Water is one of Britain's finest country hotels and restaurants. Owner Tim Hart talks to Mary Bremner about fieldsports.

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Ten years as a banker in London is probably enough for anyone. It certainly was for Tim Hart, owner of Hambleton Hall Hotel in Rutland. “I’d got to the stage where I wanted to earn my own living working for myself in the country,” he says. What he was going to do he hadn’t decided, but two weeks recovering from mumps focused the mind and he chanced upon Hambleton Hall, a private house for sale in the village of Hambleton on a peninsular on picturesque Rutland Water. Well, chanced upon isn’t quite the truth as Tim had strong connections with the county, as he already had a house there and came every weekend to hunt, mainly with the Cottesmore, sometimes with the Quorn or Belvoir. “The house was being sold by the Master of the Cottesmore, and a friend was interested in buying it as a hunting lodge. I persuaded her it was far too big for her and bought it myself to turn into a hotel.” This was in 1979. Hambleton Hall opened in 1980.

A man with vision

At that time Rutland Water, over which the hotel has fine views, was regarded as a new blot on the landscape, having been created in 1976. “The locals viewed the new reservoir with great suspicion at this stage and could not yet see what a local amenity it was going to be,” says Tim.

Because of strict planning regulations, the view from the hotel is the same as it was in 1979 – not a house to be seen, undulating green fields and beautiful trees down to the water’s edge; a similar view, but over a valley rather than water, to when it was built as a hunting box in 1881. Possibly one of the best views in the county, if not further afield.

Trend-setting kitchen

Tim had no catering knowledge as such, but was familiar with many high-end
establishments and knew the sort of place he wanted. He recruited Nicholas Gill to be head chef at the tender age of 21, a member of the reception team from the Savoy to be front of house, a drunken Frenchman who was a wine expert (he didn’t last long) and Tim acting as maître d’. Between them they built up a formidable reputation for fantastic food served in an idyllic setting, winning their first Michelin star in 1982. They were the pioneers of nouvelle cuisine in the UK and where they led many followed. They certainly brought the county of Rutland up to scratch. For such a tiny county there are many superb restaurants and pubs, many of which have Hambleton Hall-trained chefs running the kitchens.

Happy with gun, rod or horse

Brought up on the Essex/Suffolk borders, Tim has spent his life hunting, fishing and shooting. Indeed it was the hunting that brought him to Rutland and the shooting has kept him there. He shoots at least 12 days a year locally. His love for game is reflected on the hotel’s menus. Head chef Aaron Paterson, who has been with the hotel for 25 years, is particularly keen on game cookery and uses produce supplied by the local shoot at Exton. Fallow deer and muntjac are the locals and feature frequently.

If he’s not shooting locally, Tim heads to Scotland whenever he can to stalk and fish. And if he’s not doing that he’s often found foraging the hedgerows. “We have local foragers who sell to us, but I am a keen forager myself when I have time and pick mushrooms (blewit and puffball round here), elderflower, horseradish, wild garlic, blackberries, sloes and in the summer truffles, which can be found near Oundle. Sorrel and hogweed are both prolific in this area and are delicious in salads. Everything goes into our kitchen at the hotel.”

Bread of heaven

As well as running such a successful hotel, Tim also owns Hambleton Bakery, which was named Britain’s Best Bakery in 2012. “Julian Carter, head chef between Nicholas and Aaron, is from a family of bakers, 10 generations of them, and after nine years with us decided he wanted to go back to baking. Rather than lose him I persuaded him to do it with us, as like him I have a great love of artisan, or what you would call old-fashioned bread making. We opened the bakery in Exton in 2008 on the day Lehman Brothers collapsed. Quite ironic as I worked there for six years and as they were going bust I was creating jobs. I had to smile.” The bakery has grown into five shops and employs 60 people.

Because of its position in such good shooting country, the hotel lends itself to shooting parties and welcomes them, dogs too. Belvoir, Burghley, Buckminster, Blatherwycke, Cottesbrook and Noseley shoots are all nearby and shot by guests who may well find Tim on the next peg. Thank goodness he got mumps when he did…