Gaydon, Warwickshire: an automotive farewell symphony

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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

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What is it about French discos?

The modern discothèque was invented in Paris in the early fifties, when Régine installed coloured lights and twin turntables in a place called Whisky a Go Go.

France’s contribution to dance music did not end there. Daft Punk are French. Voyage were among the classiest Eurodisco acts of the late seventies and they were French, though they recorded their oeuvre in Soho. I’m reasonably certain Amanda Lear is French too, though ‘I’m reasonably certain’ is not a phrase commonly associated with Ms Lear.

Without Ottowan, would we have ever known how to spell D.I.S.C.O?

I’m getting that out of the way now because the rest of this may not be as relentlessly positive as the lovely people at Maison de France would like.

I spent much of the summer on the Riviera researching the upcoming edition of the Rough Guide to Provence and the Côte d’Azur – a hardship posting, to be sure – and once again found myself pondering what it is that makes French nightclubs so very, very odd.

Go anywhere else in the western world and you know pretty much what to expect: a gaunt, slightly tatty vastness in a redundant cinema or factory, ear-splitting volume, iffy loos and a doorman with the physique (and capacity for self-deprecation) of an armoire.

There are individual national characteristics, of course. In San Francisco they loved my accent. In Sydney they regarded drug taking as a competitive sport, and were tireless in their efforts to snort harder, party longer and fly higher. In Germany they take a redundant factory, replace it with a bigger, newer, shinier, more profitable one, then fill the old place with an electronic approximation of men hammering on pipes. In Spain, it’s compulsory to have a skinny tranny dancing on a box. In platform boots.

And then there’s France.

French discos want to be restaurants when they grow up. Most – in the south of France at least – are already more than halfway there, with elegant dining sections in shades of white and more white that are light years from a sweaty German techno hangar. The French seem to believe the perfect preparation for a night of throwing shapes is to wash down three courses of foie gras, truffles and tournedos Rossini with a cheeky bottle of Cheval Blanc ’82.

Why this should be so is not entirely clear.

Dancing and eating are odd bedfellows. Strobe lighting does not flatter your food. And the food in the average discothèque – even the average French discothèque – does not enjoy the best of reputations. Even if Alain Ducasse peeled the potatoes, there’s an obvious mismatch between stuffing your face and strutting your stuff. Does it matter how refined the food is, if you crown your night of Riviera fun by hurling expensively over your shoes?

In part, the intention is surely to intimidate. If you’re worrying about a little thing like the APR on that Cheval Blanc you’re clearly too impecunious for clubbing in Cannes or St Tropez. Spirits are priced by the bottle. It keeps the cheapskates at bay, while promoting the emetic effect of dancing on a full stomach.

Of course, I’m being disingenuous. The ideal customer is not a dancer at all, but a spender. Which explains the roués’ gallery that is the photo section of the club’s Facebook page, full of the sort of men who have known business or creative success, the joys of golf club membership and the tribulations of white loafers without socks. They may not dance ’til dawn, but their credit rating will keep them in €140 bottles of vodka a good deal longer.

I can see the business case for all this; I just can’t see what might make it enjoyable. If I want to eat out, I’ll go to a restaurant. If I want to dance, I’ll skip the foofy gastronomicals. The last people I want to bump into at five in the morning are Bono, Berlusconi or anyone who looks remotely like them in the dim light of a Caves du Roy dawn. And if I want the heady sensation of money sucking out of my account so fast I can hear the sloosh, I will give my bank details to a polite Nigerian businessman who just wants to deposit a few million in my account for a while. Or seek out one of Islington’s excitingly expensive parking spaces.

So sorry, France. I’m sitting this one out.

Belgium. So much more than Death Race 2000


Belgium requires concentration. I cross it by car four or five times a year, zipping through to Aachen from Calais or Dunkerque, usually on my way to Austria. The Belgians have their own special driving style, which combines a lemming-like fondness for following their neighbour with a carefree approach to pulling out that always ensures a lively, exciting ride. It’s no surprise that the road death statistics are roughly twice as bad as those for the Netherlands, a country with which Belgium shares a language, a border, a landscape and a population density usually found only in flash mobs.

Just across the border from Dunkerque the motorway does a slight kink to avoid the town of Veurne. And perhaps it’s merely the novelty of having to turn the wheel, but Veurne always registers in a way so many of the Belgian towns I speed past fail to. It helps that the traffic isn’t as fearsome as the Death Race 2000 rerun that is the Brussels Ring. Plus, there’s a promising-looking cluster of spires and belfries roughly where the signs suggest Veurne will be.

So this time I gave in to my curiosity and pulled off the motorway for a closer look. And do you know what? Veurne is lovely, with one of those step-gabled Flemish market squares that calls for chips all round and a trappist beer or three. It has a Unesco world heritage site, no less.

So here’s a tip. When you’ve been cut up by an apparently suicidal Fleming in a dented Peugeot for the umpteenth time, do yourself a favour and pull off the motorway.

It may save your life. It’ll certainly transform your impressions of Belgium.

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.

The elusive magic of a French fishing village

I cut my teeth as a guidebook writer one humid, horizon-expanding summer along the Côte d’Azur. And ever since I have been susceptible to the will o’the wisp charms of the French fishing village. Perfection for me doesn’t involve too much piscine authenticity: I require neither fish processing plants nor rusty Russian factory ships. The stench of rotting fish heads fails to make it onto my ticklist.

What I want is a café-lined harbour, grilled loup or daurade with a glass of rosé, a bit of a beach and enough cultural associations to pass the time while the tan peels off.

Aha, you may think. St Tropez!

Er, no.

Though it’s just about bearable in May and occasionally magical in September (when Les Voiles fills the harbour with beautiful sailing yachts) Saint-Too-Much long ago became de trop, full of needy B-listers silently screaming LOOK AT ME. In high season the harbour is a hell of enormous motor yachts and enormous crowds. On the quayside, pseudo-artists sell execrable paintings of places like St Tropez in the sort of toxic colours that are usually on special offer. Giles the hedge fund manager guns the motors on his yacht to give the people on the café terraces their daily dose of particulates. The yachts berth stern-first; their exhausts point inland. So the espresso-sippers get it with both barrels. They get it in the wallet too, mugged for the audacious price of a cup of coffee. In short, St Tropez is what happens to a fishing village when it has botox and a boob job.

But if not there, where then? Villefranche? Charming, but a bit too sanitised. La Ciotat? Lovely, but the view from the quay is of ships getting their bottoms scraped.

I thought for a long time that it might be Cassis. This little outstation of Marseille really is lovely, sandwiched between the bone-white rocks and turquoise waters of the Calanques and the vertigo-inducing cliffs of the corniche des Crêtes. It has a modest crescent of beach, and a rather more immodest line-up of restaurants on the quayside. But alas, Cassis is these days no undiscovered secret: the property prices climb ever higher, and on summer weekends the village is a traffic jam in search of a parking space.

This summer, however, I think I may have found what I was looking for…

The perfect French fishing harbour…Sanary-sur-Mer

In Austria, when the cows come home

In Austria – and all across the German-speaking northern flank of the Alps – it’s more than just an expression. Each autumn the cows really do come home, as the grazing season on the high alpine meadows comes to an end and the seasons prepare to turn. The Austrian autumn is glorious – long, warm and settled – but winter can come with brutal rapidity in the mountains. One day the weather can be teeshirt-and-sunglasses fine, the next bleak and snowy.

God bless the cattle

Each year the cows are brought down to the valley in a festive procession known as the Almabtrieb. Elaborate headdresses adorn the cows and the cowherds wear traditional lederhosen.

In Russbach near St Wolfgang in the Salzkammergut, the headdresses are richly-decorated works of folk art. When the procession reaches the village, the cows are put out to pasture while the serious business of eating, drinking and celebration begins. If the weather is as glorious as it was in 2012, it’s a fine opportunity to enjoy one of the last warm days of the year.

For young and old alike, it’s also a chance to wear traditional costume and show off traditional local skills.

There were ‘live’ displays of woodcarving, rug-weaving and broom-making

But the young dancers in lederhosen or dirndls were the main focus of attention. The sun shone all day, but the next day the heavens opened, it rained incessantly and summer suddenly seemed a distant memory. It wasn’t quite yet the start of winter, but a useful reminder that the Almabtrieb is a practical necessity as well as a much-loved seasonal ritual.