Gaydon, Warwickshire: an automotive farewell symphony

IMG_5340 crop

Living in inner London, the sight of a Bentley Continental is nothing special; the occasional Ferrari raises an eyebrow only if it isn’t red. I don’t live in the capital’s most exalted neighbourhood, but even so a Maserati resides in the next street, an Aston Martin in the square beyond it. In this city of banks, luxury cars are no big deal. But tell me, when did you last see a Hillman Imp? A Vauxhall Viva? Or indeed any British car from the era when ‘deluxe’ meant a sun visor and a bit of carpet or ‘high performance’ meant Rostyle wheels and a speedometer calibrated beyond 90? Nowadays these – the cars of my childhood – are the true exotica.

I recently spent an afternoon at the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon, just off the M40 south of Warwick. And they’re all there – the motoring icons of a simpler, more rust- (and strike-) prone era, when garages dispensed Wynn’s and STP instead of computer diagnostics and bad cappuccinos and upwardly mobile young blades craved Dolomite Sprints, not BMWs. I was entranced.

If the much-diminished British motor industry still has a beating heart, Gaydon is surely it: Jaguar-Land Rover does its testing here; Aston-Martin has its headquarters in the village. The Heritage Motor Centre is the industry’s memory bank, and those memories are part of my family story. My father was a tool and die fitter for the firm that stamped out the bodyshells for millions of those sixties and seventies cars; the factory where he worked is, happily, still in business today. If only the same could be said for many of the hallowed British marques commemorated in this wonderful museum. Who nowadays has any clear recollection of the limousine-like stateliness of the Armstrong-Siddeley? Of the days when ministers were chauffeured in sleek Humbers? Or of a time when Wolseley wasn’t a fashionable restaurant but an unfashionable Austin with a nose job and a bit of wood and leather?

Alongside the triumphs of British motoring history – the Monte Carlo Rally-winning Minis, the E-Type, the gorgeous Jaguar XK120 – there is an unmistakable undercurrent of melancholy at Gaydon. So much of the glory commemorated by the collection is gone, never to return, as though Lord Nuffield had been an automotive Ozymandias. Look on his office – lovingly recreated here – and despair. Adieu Austin, bye-bye BMC, tara Triumph. Alvis has long since left the building. Even Ford, whose Cortina became part of British motoring’s DNA, no longer makes cars in Britain. There will never be Dagenham Dustbins again.

Among the saddest, but also the most intriguing exhibits are the stillborn concepts and prototypes that never made it into production. Some are pure oddball – a twin-engined Mini Moke, a slightly unhappy Rover SD1 estate – but some are inspired, like the startlingly fresh 1981 Leyland ECV3 energy conservation vehicle, a bundle of aerodynamics and efficiency that could produce 100mpg and 115mph from a 1113cc, three-cylinder engine. Take that, Toyota Prius. As for the opportunities missed, consider the 1968 Austin Ant, a Mini-based small SUV with four-wheel drive. No call for it, said British Leyland management; Suzuki was later to prove them wrong. Or ponder Alec Issigonis’ neat, angular 1969 study for a Mini hatchback. Again, Leyland management passed on the idea, even though it was BMC who first invented the hatchback, in the unsexy shape of the Austin A40.

Issigonis wasn’t the only one to see the writing on the wall. By the spring of 1975 it was clear that the strife-riven British motor industry was falling behind its continental competition, and the VW Golf, the Renault 5 and the Fiat 127 were mopping up sales that ought rightfully to have gone Britain’s way. At this stage an earnest young draughtsman submitted concept sketches to Leyland supremo Donald Stokes for a hatchback reworking of the Mini that was much simpler than Issigonis’ boxy proto-Metro. The proposal wasn’t taken seriously, perhaps because the sketches were mine and I was 11. The letter I received from Lord Stokes was gracious, but its air of complacency in the face of impending doom infuriated me at the time. That nice man was fiddling while my dad’s livelihood burned.

Who knows what might have been, if Stokes had listened to me or to Issigonis. Perhaps Gaydon would still be a Rover test track rather than a Jaguar-Land Rover one; perhaps MG would be more than a Chinese-owned minnow and I would actually have seen an MG6 by now. And perhaps the Heritage Motor Centre wouldn’t be what it is: an automotive farewell symphony to tug at the heartstrings of any patriotic petrolhead.

The Heritage Motor Centre is at Gaydon, Warwickshire, off junction 12 of the M40. Open 10am-5pm daily. http://www.heritage-motor-centre.co.uk

IMG_7416

Timeless Sanary-sur-Mer

Sanary doesn’t change..and to prove it I’m republishing pictures from my 2009 visit. When I revisited in the summer of this year, there was only one view – of Aldous Huxley’s favourite beach – that had changed radically.

Speaking of Huxley, this is his former home – the Villa Huley. A French stonemason made a typo while carving ‘Huxley’ into the gatepost, but the couple liked the name so much they kept it. Like the homes of other Sanary notables, the house is marked with a plaque

Sybille Bedford’s former home in Chemin du Diable isn’t nearly so grand as Huxley’s

Pretty as a jigsaw puzzle, Sanary’s fishing harbour is the key to its appeal

The old-fashioned bandstand could hardly look more French

Sanary is a beach resort, but it’s very low key: no fancy Riviera style beach concessions here.

You probably haven’t heard of…Sanary-sur-Mer

Unless, that is, you’re a fan of Sybille Bedford.

I first came to Sanary in 2004, but it wasn’t until I read Sybille Bedford’s memoir ‘Quicksands’ that I opened my eyes to its literary past. Bedford – who died in 2006 – was, like Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of that vanishing generation of travel writers who lived a remarkable life, wrote beautiful prose and never had to drag a fridge anywhere to please a reluctant publisher. Her chaotic, bohemian childhood saw her wash up in Sanary in the interwar years, just as it became a place of refuge for writers and intellectuals fleeing the rise of fascism. You want names? Sanary’s interwar exiles are names to conjure with: Thomas Mann, his brother Heinrich, Bertolt Brecht, Lion Feuchtwanger, Stefan Zweig and Mahler’s window, Alma Mahler-Werfel. Not all the exiles were escaping Hitler: Aldous Huxley produced some of his greatest work while living at the Villa Huley close to La Gorguette beach. Bedford knew the Huxleys, and subsequently became his biographer. The dinner parties must have been intimidating.

War came and scattered the exiles to the four winds. Mann’s house fell victim to the Nazis, who demolished it to make way for coastal defences. But Huxley’s villa is still there, and is marked by a plaque. So too is Bedford’s much more modest house on chemin du Diable. Pick up some information from the tourist office by the port and you can spend an enjoyable afternoon chasing literary ghosts.

In the nicest possible way, Sanary is a little old-fashioned. Its architectural ensemble is unimprovable: there are no filing cabinet apartment blocks to spoil the harbour. Instead, it’s dominated by the church tower, the mairie and the venerable Hôtel de la Tour where Sybille Bedford spent her first night. There are yachts, of course – this is the south of France – but unlike its neighbour Bandol, Sanary doesn’t have a marina so big you can’t actually see the sea. There are foreign visitors, but no braying expats; tempting restaurants, but nothing bling enough to lure a St Tropez celebrity. There’s an old-fashioned bandstand by the port, and a pretty little cinema on the avenue Gallieni, as timeless and unmistakably French as Babar the elephant.

There are beaches: a brace of modest coves west of the port, and Huxley’s beach at La Gorguette, dominated now by a slick new hotel. Longer beaches are found east of town in Six-Fours-les-Plages, and if you’re a seeker after secret coves, the far side of Cap Sicié has some as charming and modest as any in the south of France.

I returned to Sanary this summer on a warm July night to find the harbour in full swing. From a live stage by the tourist office the rhythms of a Latin American band blared. On the quay a night market was busy with visitors, browsing contentedly for crafts.

I browsed too. Not for jewellery, but for dinner: picking my way from one menu to another until I found what I was looking for. I selected a table just back from the quay. The restaurant was tiny – little more than a pop-up, its interior all kitchen and its handful of tables teetering on the kerb, a little too close to the traffic. I didn’t particularly mind; no Mediterranean port is entirely complete without the drone of scooters or the faint threat of motorised death. The meal was simple: soupe de poissons, dark and fishy, served with rouille, croutons and creamy gruyère. A perfect glass of cool rosé. Fresh grilled fish with salt, lemon, a scattering of herbs and a little olive oil. A small salad. It was wonderful. What I paid would have bought no more than a scornful look in London.

Little ports in the south of France just don’t get much better than that.

Oh, I doubt it’ll ever be hot or happening. Sanary is on the ‘wrong’ side of Toulon, which is in turn – and in some respects unfairly – the most unfashionable city in the south of France. It’s not on the travel industry’s radar. But if that’s what it takes to save it from a fate worse than St Tropez, so be it. Perfection beats a glimpse of Simon Cowell any day.

Practicalities
Sanary lies on the coast of the Var département, a little west of Toulon http://www.sanarysurmer.com
Ryanair connects London Stansted with Toulon-Hyères airport in the summer months; otherwise, fly to Marseille and pick up a hire car.

Hôtel de la Tour (sanary-hoteldelatour.com; around €95) is the traditional choice, right on the port and with a good restaurant; Hostellerie La Farandole (hostellerielafarandole.com, from €235) is the luxury choice on Huxley’s beach.

Beautiful Bamberg

Unless you’re a connoisseur of good beer – of which more soon – you probably haven’t heard of Bamberg. It’s not the kind of place colour supplements drool over: there’s no palm-fringed beach, it lacks a Ryanair flight and it’s in Germany, a country still little known or appreciated by much of the travel press. What this lovely Franconian city does have is a gloriously complete Central European townscape, as perfect as a pocket Prague and with the Unesco World Heritage status to prove it.

Altes Rathaus, Bamberg

The foaming brown waters of the Regnitz swirl around Bamberg’s old town hall, but if the mid-river site looks precarious, in practice the building has proved its staying power; the oldest parts date back to the fifteenth century.

Domplatz, Bamberg

Not even a grey winter’s day can rob Bamberg’s showpiece cathedral square of its looks. The city was for centuries an independent prince-bishopric, and this square was its nexus of ecclesiastical and temporal power.

Bamberg's Altes Rathaus by night

Elaborate baroque wall paintings and bubbling stonework adorn Bamberg’s old town hall, but the building is much older than its outward appearance suggests.

Bamberg

Rivalling the cathedral for dominance on Bamberg’s skyline is the former Benedictine monastery of St Michael, commanding a hilltop site with sweeping views over the city.

Klein Venedig, Bamberg

The medieval fishermen’s houses of Klein Venedig (Little Venice) line one side of the river Regnitz.

Neue Residenz, Bamberg

Bamberg’s baroque bishop’s palace was the work of Leonhard Dientzenhofer, one of a distinguished Bavarian dynasty that also supplied Prague with some of its most celebrated architects.

Facades, Bamberg

Bamberg isn’t only memorable for its major monuments but also for the lost-in-time feel of its meandering historic streets

Böttingerhaus, Bamberg

The city has some magnificent historic townhouses. The outrageously florid Böttingerhaus was built in the early eighteenth century for the privy councillor and elector Johann Ignaz Tobias Böttinger…

Concordia, Bamberg

…who also commissioned the lovely Concordia water palace just a short distance away.

Altes Rathaus, Bamberg

Finally, two more views of the Altes Rathaus – from the Inselstadt side of the river…

Altes Rathaus

…and from the opposite, Bergstadt side of the river

Practicalities: the nearest international airport to Bamberg is at Nuremberg, which has direct flights from London Gatwick and Stansted. From Nuremberg, high speed ICE trains reach Bamberg in around 35-40 minutes.

Stay: The St Nepomuk (www.hotel-nepomuk.de) is slick and built out across the river, but how could you resist a fine old hotel by the name of Messerschmitt? (www.hotel-messerschmitt.de)

http://www.bamberg.info/en/

When it comes to Christmas markets, size isn’t everything

I’m not big on Christmas, but I do like a good Christmas market. There’s something about browsing for baubles in sub-zero temperatures that melts my flinty atheist heart. It’s probably the Glühwein.

Since the Anglo-Saxon idea of what Christmas looks like is for the most part a Teutonic import, it seems logical to make a seasonal pilgrimage to the source. To Germany or Austria.

Not all Christmas markets are created equal, and while some are international travel magnets others are altogether more modest, local affairs. I have concentrated on the latter. Size isn’t everything, and what the following lack in big-city buzz they more than make up in fairytale charm. So here are my hot tips for a cold season.

Instead of Nuremberg, try Rothenburg ob der Tauber: http://www.rothenburg.de/d/ISY/mlib/media/ChristmasMarket2011_engl_web.pdf?mediatrace=.5376.

Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt is as ur and echt as they get, a classic Christmas market in a setting that’s steeped in German history. Including one or two of the more unsavoury bits, but let’s gloss over those for now.

If anywhere can top Nuremberg for atmosphere it’s surely Rothenburg ob der Tauber. You may not have heard of this exquisite little Franconian town but you surely know what it looks like, for it had a starring role in the film version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Perched on a hilltop overlooking the valley of the river Tauber and still defended by its city walls, it’s like something straight from the Middle Ages.

Alas, as magical as it is, Rothenburg is no undiscovered secret, and if anything is likely to mar the lost-in-time charm it’ll be sheer numbers, for this is a regular honeytrap for the bus tours. On the upside, there’s a Christmas museum and a Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas store that’s open all year round, making this the perfect destination for those who – unlike me – wish it could be Christmas every day.

How to get there: Air Berlin (airberlin.co.uk) fly to Nuremberg from a number of UK airports. From there, pick up a hire car – Rothenburg is just off the A7 Würzburg-Ulm autobahn. 

Instead of Munich, try Neuburg an der Donau: http://www.rce-event.de/on_doc/132196284142.pdf

Now this place really is an undiscovered gem: a beautiful historic town on the Danube, between the asparagus-growing country around Schrobenhausen and the Jurassic landscapes of the Naturpark Altmühltal , where there seems to be a castle atop every second crag. The market itself focuses on Schrannenplatz in the lower part of the town, and if it isn’t the biggest or most spectacular in Germany, it nevertheless boasts a free skating rink and offers a wonderful excuse to spend time in a setting so Christmassy you’ll want to wrap it up and take it home with you.

You can’t miss Neuburg’s enormous Renaissance Schloss because it looms over the town in properly feudal fashion, but be sure to see the handsome gabled houses tucked behind it in the patrician upper town. It’s also well worth making a side-trip to Neuburg’s equally picture-postcard neighbour, Eichstätt. Until 23rd December.

How to get there: Easyjet (easyjet.com) fly to Munich from London Gatwick, London Stansted, Manchester or Edinburgh. From Munich it’s about an hour by train via Ingolstadt; from Munich airport to Neuburg takes just under an hour by car.

Instead of Frankfurt, try Marburg: http://www.marburg.de/sixcms/media.php/20/Programmheft%20Weihnachten%202011%20%28Lese-Version%29.pdf

Frankfurt is a veritable superpower among Christmas markets, with a tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages and a hugely successful British offshoot in Birmingham.

Christmas in the university town of Marburg is modest by comparison; even the Riesenrad or ‘big’ wheel is a toytown affair, strictly for the children. The hilly, half-timbered Oberstadt (upper town) is a truly wonderful setting for some seasonal shopping, with the castle of the Hessian Landgraves crowning the skyline. Right on the main square there’s a little museum dedicated to the Marburg Romantic circle, whose members included the Brothers Grimm. You don’t get much more fairytale than that.

Scarcely less appealing is the Unterstadt (lower town), with a second cluster of stalls around the impressive Gothic Elisabethkirche. Some of the best options for eating, drinking and staying are in this part of town, too.

How to get there: Air Berlin (airberlin.co.uk) fly to Frankfurt from several UK airports. From Frankfurt it’s just over an hour by train to Marburg

Instead of Salzburg, try Wolfgangsee: http://www.wolfgangseer-advent.at/

I have to declare an interest here, because my own holiday home is on a hillside overlooking this stunningly beautiful Austrian lake. Close enough to Salzburg to make for a viable two-centre trip and with as many Julie Andrews points as the former when it comes to Sound of Music locations, Wolfgangsee is one of the most beloved of all the lakes in the Salzkammergut region, ringed by mountains and with three villages on its shores. The bus trips tend to go for St Wolfgang, the largest village; if you prefer complete relaxation then Strobl, at the eastern end of the lake, won’t give you sleepless nights. The westernmost of the three is St Gilgen, and it’s a good compromise, with fewer day trippers than St Wolfgang but a lot more life than Strobl at this time of year.

As for the markets, the produce is impeccably local: bath salts made with the pink mineral salt that gives the region its name, sheep’s milk soaps and flavoured schnapps – be sure to try Zirbe, flavoured with Swiss pine and tasting like an alcoholic walk in the woods.

The markets reopen on 25th December and stay open until New Year’s Eve.

How to get there: Easyjet (easyjet.com) fly to Salzburg from Gatwick, Luton, Bristol and Liverpool. From the airport it’s a 45 minute trip by car; the bus from central Salzburg takes around the same time.

Instead of Cologne, try Soest: http://www.soester-weihnachtsmarkt.de/

As wholesome as Westphalian ham and reputedly the place where pumpernickel was invented, Soest is an enchanting place to visit at any time of year, with a backdrop of half-timbered houses and green sandstone churches that makes it a particularly fine setting for a Christmas market.

The attractions include an old-fashioned carousel and the produce ranges from jam and marzipan to Hungarian specialities from Soest’s twin town.

But Soest itself is the real star, with market stalls taking pride of place in the main market square and huddling in the lee of the twin churches of St Petri and St Patrokli.

How to get there: Easyjet (easyjet.com) fly to Dortmund, from where it’s just 40 minutes to Soest by bus and train.