DEAL (COUNTY KENT) & BENTLEY
Like all of England, the rural landscape is manicured, clean and precise – the habits of an old and fastidious land where the great British tradition of an afternoon tea in a quirky worn-around-the-edges Tea Room is a prerequisite. Driving a Bentley Continental GT Speed (Conti Speed) through the rolling vastness of Kent’s achingly beautiful countryside, I head to Deal and the promise of finding one such remote temple to great tea and ambiance.
The Conti Speed is a snorting attack dog of teeth and sinew. It is also the most devastating production Bentley has yet delivered. It’s a cross between a Rolls-Royce and an Aston Martin on Viagra.
I fingered the start button and slid the gear lever from drive to sport (manual mode is great fun too). I stroked the accelerator with my foot and received an immediate throttle response, delivering face-melting acceleration to a guttural reverberating W12 bass.
Okay, so you won’t be seeing too many of these parked outside Greenpeace HQ but did pull up outside The Black Douglas – a fabulous little tea room in Deal where the aroma of freshly baked cake greets one at the door. It’s a splendid little shop, in a murky sort of way, with books and newspapers strewn around. It’s as comfortable as an elderly relative’s sitting room. It oozes good vibes and is filled with colourful local characters and their pedigreed pooches, making it nothing less than an institution. I ordered a wedge of their chocolate-beetroot cake, which came with heaps of clotted cream and a pot of Ugandan tea.
A patron stands ramrod straight beside one of the large bay windows overlooking the sea, one hand folded behind his back, the other clasping his porcelain cup. Pointing at the Bentley with the cup he announced: “It’s peculiar, this tireless optimism which comes of being British. It may be the very resolve which upholds traditional British design like that Bentley over there. And tea rooms like this.” He settled back down in his chair and continued. “Even with modern Italian style chains threatening to overtake the market, places like this will remain quintessentially British favourites.” He took a long sip then continued. “Since their inception, back in the early 1700s, the sedate ambience of a tea room has changed little and serves as a subtle reminder to perform acts of self-kindness, making the world just a little better. Those are acts of tea.” He considered this statement for a moment then added. “It is only right that a Bentley should be parked beside such an establishment.”
The Black Douglas has reinvented afternoon tea, which is exactly why they’re such a success. Get there early to secure a seafront window seat.
PAS-DE-CALAIS (FRANCE) & ROLLS-ROYCE
Driving a Rolls-Royce gets you noticed – in France, I garnered envious looks from pedestrians and other road users; one mink coated lady with a semi-hysterical pooch, pointed with one hand whilst covering her mouth with the other.
A twenty-minute drive along the ruggedly beautiful Côte d’Opale, a ribbon of coast road tacked onto the cliffs edge, took me past long stretches of soft sand interspersed with quaint villages. The 6.6-litre, twin-turbo, V12 engine of the Rolls Royce Wraith hummed calmly in the background, as if it could hardly be bothered. Down a motorway the unobtrusive heads-up display on the windscreen shows the whisper-quiet engine to be spritely; but even though it is quick and stable through bends, heaving the 2.5 ton Wraith around tight corners just seems wrong. As if it was born for it, the Wraith slips into touring mode and its unique chassis settles into the tyres, begging that I push down on the accelerator. This is no fire spitting, attack dog supercar – but it will hit 60 mph in 4.6 seconds. But that would seem vulgar, nobody boy-races a Rolls.
Taking a left at Wissant I head inland to Wierre-Effroy, a hamlet surrounded by turreted castles, immense farms and grand stately homes. Whilst swathed in the Rolls’ regal isolation l soon reached my destination. On doing so, my seat moved back as the coach door opened, allowing me to step out with finesse.
I checked into Hotel La Ferme du Vert, a 16-roomed Napoleonic country house hotel which exudes a deep-rooted sense of hospitality that’s accompanied by a highly acclaimed restaurant which is much loved by the locals. Directly beside the hotel is Fromagerie Sainte-Godeleine – a family-run fabulous little cheese factory.
I headed back to the village and parked outside L’estaminet du Centre, the village pub. The locals greeted me with huge grins; two youngsters asked if they could take mobile phone photos of the Wraith, which brought forth a deluge of requests from other admirers. It was close to an hour before I managed to enjoy a glass of La Goudale beer.
Across the road from the pub is the village church and cemetery where every year the locals pay homage to a World War II Spitfire pilot who was shot down nearby. Even with Nazi presence, his remains were secretly retrieved from the aircraft’s wreckage and buried in the cemetery. His grave is marked with an RAF headstone and is tended by local hands.
BELGIUM & MERCEDES SLS AMG
I pointed the SLS AMG’s banquet-table sized nose towards the poppy fields and WWI battlegrounds of Flanders then floored it, which instantly filling the cabin with Pavarotti-like acoustics. The massive engine sits behind the front axle and its two seats are an inch from the back wheels – which accounts for the firm road holding. With zero hesitation it took off at Top Gun velocity – all that was missing was fire and smoke.
Ret. (Navy) Lt Cdr Freddy Declerck, Chairman of the Passchendaele Society, knows much about the Great War, in particular the Ypres Salient battlefields. Over a Westmalle Trappist beer and some of Belgium’s finest cheeses he told that here, barely a few kilometres outside of Ypres city centre, this particular battlefield had claimed the lives of more than 500,000 soldiers and that the beautifully manicured Passendale countryside which we were looking across held the bodies of 50,000 more that were yet to be found.
Freddy lowered his aging frame into the Merc’s bucket seat and struggled to reach the handle to shut the suspended gull-wing door. I sunk my foot to the floor and took Freddy on the Mach 1 drive of his life. Within seconds the rear aerofoil popped up (which it does once 100kph is reached) and the car came alive.
Unbeknownst to me, Freddy was a bit of a petrol head. “This 7-speed gearbox is impressive – I think Mercedes are using the same double-clutch system that Ferrari use.” Then, as an afterthought he added, “… and that pronounced transmission whine, its music to my ears.”
We visited numerous WWI sites as well as the Passchendaele Memorial Museum for a personal ‘trenches experience’. Although there are around 150 Commonwealth war cemeteries in the Ypres Salient region, emotionally I could only cope with three – which began with the near 12,000 graves at the Tyne Cot Cemetery – the largest British war cemetery in the world.
In Poperinge, which during WWI was part of unoccupied Belgium and immediately behind the front line, we found the soberly beautiful Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery – the largest WWI hospital cemetery; and finally the simple German military cemetery of Langemark. The sculptures of four bronze soldiers seem to reflect the haunting sorrow of over 44,000 soldiers buried there – most in mass graves.
We stopped off at Café La Poupée, a popular haunt amongst WWI officers who all fell for the charms of the proprietor’s beautiful red-head daughter, Ginger. Over a St Bernardus Abbey beer Freddy spoke of nearby Talbot House.
“In 1915, army chaplain Tuby Clayton and Neville Talbot opened the famous wartime Club, Talbot House. Here soldiers of all rank came to relax. Now it’s a historic building open to the public, complete with wartime relics and artifacts and still offers inexpensive war-time accommodations.”
My sensibilities now overdosed on senseless death, we took off to Ypres – a city reduced to rubble during the war, then fittingly rebuilt using German repatriation funds. Ypres needs no introduction in the English-speaking world as its name is forever linked with the martyrdom of the British Army during WWI.
Freddy and I lunched on the terrace of De Waterpoort, devouring moules and frites (mussels and chips) whilst discussing the city’s numerous Renaissance and Gothic structures, the impressive Cloth Hall Belfry and Town Hall with its row of pointed arched crossed windows – all demanding a visit. As well as Saint-Martin’s Cathedral where Count Robert of Bethune – the Lion of Flanders – is buried; and Saint-George’s Memorial Church, which holds individual memories of WWI.
Later I checked into Ypres’ Main Street Hotel, a luxury six-bed boutique hotel that merges quirky surprises with bespoke and antique furnishings, crystal and silk, stained glass and Flemish champagne breakfasts. Over a welcome drink my hostess, Carine, suggested a visit to the Menin Gate. “Amongst the most famous of all Ypres sites is the Menin Gate, a monument which displays the names of near 55,000 soldiers missing in action. Every evening since 1928 at precisely 8pm, the Last Post is sounded to commemorate the fallen.” It truly is an emotional experience.
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