The Thunderball theme song played in my head as I raced down the country road in an Aston Martin Rapide S to the next stop in the itinerary: The Cotswolds, an affluent pocket of the English countryside and a retreat of the rich and famous.
The “wings” of the Aston Martin made it possible for me to accelerate to 97kph in just 4.2 seconds. Cutting-edge technology made going around the bends and up hills buttery-smooth and mind-blowing. I was going at warp speed and lo-o-o-ving it! It was a miracle I didn’t get a ticket.
The original plan was to be chauffeur-driven, but we were gobsmacked when the keys to the iconic sports cars were handed to us after a tour of the top secret Aston Martin assembly facility in Gaydon.
We weren’t allowed to take any photos – not even a selfie – but I did get a buzz from running my fingers over the new, ultra-sleek Bond car, an Aston Martin DB10.
Click on the picture below to listen to Aston Martin’s chief creative officer Marek Reichman talking about the 2015 Bond car.
Tongues lolled and eyes gleamed with delight when we discovered Vanquish, Vantage and Rapide S models waiting for us to take the wheel.
British motoring journalist Jeremy Clarkson – best known for the BBC TV show Top Gear – rated the new-and-improved Rapide S an 8/10 in a TG review.
Having seen an Aston Martin expertly put together, I concur that it is indeed a paragon of impeccable craftsmanship – quilted, top-grade Scottish leather in the cabin, glass key, debonair design – and incredible horsepower (top speed: over 326kph).
To arrange your Bond escape, visit www.astonmartin.com/events/.
Turning on the charm
The English have a deep respect for nature, history and tradition. They delight in talking about nurturing their gardens, protecting the environment and preserving architecture. Their obsessions are even turned into lucrative businesses, and now we can get a glimpse into their world.
Becky and Robin Simpson’s interest in olde-worlde architecture led them to start Cotswold Tour.
Business is booming. People are captivated by the breathtaking scenery and quaint buildings. The Americans, observed Becky, seem more curious about the real estate value. Perhaps they got wind of Liz Hurley’s 184ha farm which is on the market for £6mil (RM33.8mil). There’s a party barn to boot. David Cameron has a hideaway here, too.
Becky’s six-hour tour through picturesque villages – some with offbeat names like The Slaughters (meaning “miry place”) – includes being welcomed into her own 16th century, yellow-stone, thatched-roof cottage by hubby, Robin, who awaits with a delicious tea spread of scones, pasties and finger sandwiches.
“They tend to park themselves near the fireplace,” Becky says of previous visitors on the first of three tea breaks during her tour, “and it’s hard to pry them off their seats when we still have many places to see.”
If architecture and history are your passion, it would be a shame to skip the famed honey-toned limestone homes of The Cotswolds. The limestone, once plentiful, was also used to build several of the eminent buildings in the City of Dreaming Spires (Oxford).
The Baroque-style Blenheim Palace is another residence that will impress. It was gifted to the first Duke of Marlborough by Queen Anne in 1704 after he defeated the French in the Battle of Blenheim.
It is now the domicile of the 12th Duke of Marlborough, Charles James Spencer-Churchill aka Jamie Blandford, who lives in the 46-room East Wing. Open year-round, visitors (and pet dogs) would be well-advised to heed the rules as the duke is quite fastidious about keeping his home immaculate. He has been known to chide offenders.
The ornate palace, set in 810ha of verdant countryside, is a Unesco World Heritage Site and famous for its lake, formal gardens and as a backdrop for weddings and films. Bollywood has come a-calling with Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham and Hollywood (again) with Spectre (the new Bond film due for release in November).
Fours hours or more is what is recommended for visitors to tour this huge property, but we had less and came too early in spring (while the ground was still thawing) to enjoy buzzing around its famed blooms, for instance, the rose garden. The best time to visit is June.
We did wander around the manicured French-inspired Water Terraces, though. With its fountains and statuary, it is a tranquil place to sit and daydream about owning such a property.
With a guide narrating as we went from one richly ornamented room to another in the palace, the artwork collected and commissioned by dukes came alive. The colossal ceiling paintings made us gasp in awe.
Did you know that British prime minister Sir Winston Churchill was a descendant of the Marlboroughs? Blenheim was his childhood home, he proposed to his wife Clementine here (at the Temple of Diana) and is even buried next to her, his children and parents in a nearby churchyard in Blaydon.
To mark the 50th anniversary of his death, the palace is holding a Walk In Churchill’s Footsteps tribute. For details visit www.blenheimpalace.com.
The splendour of Oxford
Tourists descend on Oxford with a vengeance. Oxford University is an obvious draw, as well as the famous Radcliffe Camera, Bodleian Library and Sheldonian Theatre. The city’s association with Harry Potter and Alice In Wonderland just doubles its popularity.
Of the 39 colleges scattered around the city that form the university, the must-sees are Christ Church, designed by Sir Christopher Wren; Magdalen, for its celebrated tradition of choristers heralding spring every May 1 from the bell tower; Merton, for being one of the earliest colleges (1264); and Exeter and New Colleges for their magnificent chapels.
While the medieval architecture is dazzling, a lot of love is poured into Oxford’s spiritual growth too. Pop into one of the many chapels to listen to the angelic voices of the boys’ choir. Many of the colleges have choirs (of young ‘uns nurtured from age eight) that give concerts throughout the year. Music CDs are produced too. More info at www.visitoxfordandoxfordshire.com.
Oxford Castle was built in 1071, turned into a prison in 1531 and closed in 1996. The incarcerated, who included young children, lived in miserable conditions. The cadavers of prisoners who were hanged were taken away for medical research. Families were not allowed to claim them for burial. There’s a chilling illustration of human dissection in the exhibition gallery. Despite its depressing history, the top of the tower offers one of the best bird’s eye views of the city.
While the Oxford Castle Unlocked tour is told from the perspective of former inmates, you could take your experience further with a stay in a hotel next door that occupies a former prison block. Rooms still have the original prison doors.
Punting is supposed to be one of the things that got Charles Lutwidge Dodgeson’s (aka Lewis Carroll) juices flowing for Alice. Pictures I Googled showed people looking relaxed as they drifted down the Isis in their punts à la a gondola gliding through the Venetian canals, but it was a little terrifying for me.
With just one lesson on how to use the metal pole to push off and steer through the tributary, we didn’t make it very far. Each of us took turns at the stern, but we kept getting entangled in the low overhead branches of the trees on the riverbank.
Being amateurs, we almost ran down some geese and ducks, too. Yet, the big-hearted birds hung around like guardian angels.
Perhaps, with practice, that book will emerge.
Wowed by London
The London Underground is a convenient way to get around the city. It doesn’t take long to find your bearings in this 150-year-old “rabbit’s warren”. Tube maps are easily available and you can always ask for help.
The lines are colour-coded and it can be fun discovering where to hop on and off. With a prepaid card, the city is your Oyster.
We took the tube to The Shard (the tallest building in Britain, nay, the European Union) from our hotel, The Langham London. Our tickets entitled us to a glass of bubbly, which we sipped as we gazed at London from over 300m up.
We also stopped at the Victoria & Albert Museum to admire the tailoring genius of the late fashion designer, Alexander McQueen, in an exhibition called “Savage Beauty”.
His name is synonymous with the bumster, armadillo shoes and Kate Middleton’s wedding dress (designed by creative director, Sarah Burton).
After his sudden death in 2010, his creations were presented in a tribute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It was the hottest ticket in town.
The exhibition in London – the maverick designer’s birthplace and training ground – has many more outfits (going back to his student days) and accessories.
“The world needs fantasy, not reality. We have enough of reality today,” the designer once remarked in the New York Times, and Savage Beauty embodies that down to the ambient music and Cabinet of Curiosities. I could have stood here all day, mesmerised by the radical head-dresses, shoes and jewellery.
For a truly sensational experience in London, catch a West End production and then discover how it all comes together with a backstage tour at the National Theatre (www.nationaltheatre.org.uk). Or better yet, opt for an aerial tour of the main theatre, Olivier. You’ll love it!
On our final night in London, we bagged second-row seats to the top-billed Gypsy (on till November) at Savoy Theatre.
The well-loved Imelda Staunton plays Gypsy Lee Rose, a domineering showbiz mum who lives vicariously through her daughters’ successes. Her daughters, however, are torn between their own ambitions and hers.
The stellar acting and powerful songs had me sniffling through two standing ovations. The final song, Rose’s Turn, was very moving.
It must have been gratifying for the actors to see Stephen Sondheim, Gypsy’s lyricist, in the audience. They sang him Happy Birthday as he turned 85 on March 22. It made me think of my granny in Kent, Daisy Fletcher, who turns 100 this month. Have a terrific birthday, Gran!
So what are you waiting for? Start revving those engines as England awaits!
For the Visit Britain media trip, the writer stayed at the Barnsley House Hotel & Spa in the Costwolds, The Lambert Arms in Oxford and The Langham London.