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What was the point of Rutland?

Rut, in modern English, refers to a period of the year when the males of the species, usually deer and sheep, are at their most sexually active. One can discern the season of rutting because the males are more prone to fighting. In more modern parlance, it might be said they have 'The Horn'.

And it was the merry hamlet of Horn that I ventured here to seek.

Rutland, home of upside down horseshoes, and far too many magpies to salute, is actually, contrary to what is attested on most of Rutland’s tourist websites, the fourth smallest county in the UK. Granted, it may possibly be the third depending on the tides caressing the Isle of Wight or the water level in England’s largest man-made reservoir: Rutland Waters.

Perhaps, then, it is no coincidence that Rutland Water is shaped like a horseshoe set sideways by way of compromise between those who believe that the tips facing up captures luck (most of England) and those who insist the ends facing down drip good fortune upon the heads of those who pass by (the Raddlesfolk). Such positioning of one’s horseshoes provokes much debate for the three-quarters of Englanders who are said to be superstitious, even if only a tiny bit. That said, according to the data collected by the national polling agency: YouGov. only one-quarter of Brits believe in the ‘power of hanging a horseshoe’. In reality, I think Rutland Water looks more like a pair of discarded antlers pointing west.

Quite why anyone thought the miniscule Rutland, over and above any other county, had spare land to drown is anyone’s guess. Possibly someone thought the river Gwash should have a silent G, or that it should be returned to its original name of ‘Wash’. Perhaps a bureaucrat elsewhere thought, “I’ll go one better, and wash the entire stream away!” Or perhaps, they’d had no luck in Rutland and in their rage inflicted their wounded ego upon it. Either way, it was a wretched fortune for those who called the valleys around Gwash home.

Suffice to say, the proposal to submerge three percent of the county was strongly opposed by the Raddlemen and, I presume, the women of Rutland. But, thanks to a surfeit of clay with which to conveniently build a dam, Rutland Waters became a site that, according to the Rutland County Museum, has gone on to “become a major tourist attraction internationally recognised for its wildlife.”

It is a claim I find starkly fascinating quite simply for the fact that I had never heard of Rutland Waters until after I passed through despite all my global jet-setting. All those years of living overseas, and all that chatting to folk not of this country, and not once did anyone enquire of Rutland Water’s wildlife.

The flooding of the region overwhelmed one the earliest dwellings in Rutland: the mediaeval Beehive Cottage, and the entire hamlet of Nether Hambleton. But what did successfully evade the county’s plunging was Normanton Church, whose earliest recorded Rector preached from 1227 to 1235. It would have been him, probably, who oversaw the earliest innovations of a Rutland wedding ceremony.

Once upon a mediaeval time, it was sufficient for a man and a woman to turn to one another and be married without so much as a witness being in attendance nor an exclamation of “I do”. Although the man going down on one knee, possibly pleading, was a thing even then. But that was that - they were betrothed. It did not require the head-wrecking complications of compiling a seating plan for friends, families and other feral members of the community all of whom demanded their place a wedding breakfast to take place at some point after four o’clock in the afternoon.

All told, marriage was usually for the purposes of securing financial as well as political advantage for the family, and was typically at the behest of the bride’s father. It was not so much a case of ‘love don’t live here anymore’ as ‘there’s no such thing as love’ - undoubtedly it was the time period for the cynical to reign supreme. Moreover, that was what started the tradition of the bride not seeing the groom before the wedding, then presenting her smothered under a veil, wrapped up like a Christmas gift: it all contrived to prevent a thorough jilting.

Then the religious shoehorned themselves into the party. With typical fervour, our Canons believed it to be better if the betrothed gave their verbal consent to the arrangement before they proceeded to seal the deal, or rather unseal the deal if she was of virginal qualities. From around 1215 onwards, it was decreed that only upon formal consent, combined with consummation, would the invisible marital bind be sanctified. Moreover, the nuptials would require the blessings of a priest.

By the sixteenth century our clergy demanded that notices be spoken aloud in one’s local parish church, usually at least four weeks before announcing one’s consent to married life. The priest, now firmly wedged into the legal process, would persist upon the couple that there should be absolutely no premarital shenanigans between handfasting, as the initial engagement was called, and the formal ceremony. History also records that very frequently the preachers’ preachings fell on deaf ears and even more history recites that many were most indignant about no one taking a blind bit of notice.

Over time, came the custom that the husband and wife might wish to exchange tokens of hospitality to one another: a sort ‘of welcome to our humble marriage’ enactment. It might be a gold ring, but it was just as likely to be half a coin, a pair of gloves or a toothpick. Thus began the precarious tradition of inappropriate gift-giving: buying her lingerie, a vacuum-cleaner or some cool gadget for the kitchen, for example, might detonate the first marital row. Then came vows, bouquets, witnesses, celebrants, souvenirs for the guests, extensive shopping lists authored by the happy couple, bridal magazines, tears, tantrums and all rounded off in house-deposit’s worth of debt.

All through all these iterations we hung on to to some pretty odd traditions, I mean superstitions. Lucky horseshoes, for example, being part of the bouquet. It used to be the job of the children to go hunting for a thrown to gift to the bride to auger in good fertility. Iron, after all, was the perfect marriage between earth and fire. The invention of the car, and the introduction of Amazon, has forced an adaption of the tradition to white, plastic moulded replicas.

Of course, brides could marry in any colour of their choosing, white is merely a two-hundred year old tradition, but never red. Albeit if one was of Chinese heritage, it must have been a hell of a dilemma. One should always include something borrowed, something blue, an old thing and a new thing for reasons that make absolutely no sense, and others espoused the importance of putting a coin in one’s shoe - presumably limping to the altar is a fashion statement. One also might wish to consult on whether the moon is waxing or waning, as well as be mindful of the day of the week. Saturday, according to Celtic heritage, is most unpropitious. That it is now the most common day of the week to get married may suffice as an explanation for why forty-two percent of marriages end in divorce.

Another reason for our rising divorce rate is, of course, stopping the practice of lobbing worn shoes at the newly-betrothed for luck. We replaced smelly footwear with white rice until someone discovered it was killing the wildlife, so we took to chucking confetti. Then churches banned that for being messy so now it is dried flowers - but only if one marries in a chapel or similar. These, of course, are mostly out of bounds to the gay community.

And so, today, about four-fifths of Englanders who marry, chose to do so outside of church. The last wedding to be conducted at Normanton Church was in 1954. Thereafter, the chapel was deconsecrated so the building could be reconstructed to withstand the incoming reservoir. Later, it was opened as a wedding venue for couples to pledge their love in civil ceremonies and without an attending member of the clergy. These days one can bypass the marriage bit altogether and just shack up instead: as 48% of the couples in Rutland do, and the 9% of the divorced Raddlesfolk probably regret not doing.

Most fascinatingly: one-third of Rutland’s residents say they have never been married nor in a civil-partnered. And yet, frustratingly, within this epicentre of singledom, I had absolutely no luck finding Horn.

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