Cliveden House: An estate synonymous with the swinging Sixties; of power, sex, class, beauty, and the corruption of the British establishment itself. An Aston Martin seemed the perfect car with which to visit.
The evening before, I had been imbibing cocktails down in the velvety Soho cellar where adulterous MP John Profumo used to squire good-time girl Christine Keeler, back when it was called The Pinstripe Club. Now it’s called Disrepute, a nod to the scandals that took place in this and doubtless hundreds of other premises here in London’s W1B. Softcore pornography, well-thumbed, lies on the bar top while the drinks menu describes tipples along the lines of a pulp-noir thriller.
“He had dined late with his wife. She had grown accustomed to ending their dalliance before his night took on a more business-like tone, descending as it did into hushed voices, influential decision and finally, as the hours grew long, infamy,” reads the description for a Vintage Sour: vodka, sparkling mead, lemon, honey syrup, egg white.
The imagery alludes to this celebrity haunt’s naughty past, but the seediness has been replaced by plush art deco furnishings. If Bertie Wooster were to bed down in an air raid shelter I would imagine he’d have specified it thus.
The coffee percolator announces a new day and a Morning Frost white DB11 wakes my Pimlico neighbours with the bark of its V12. Before aiming the scarab badge towards Taplow I swing by 16 Henniker Mews, Chelsea, to meet the ghosts of its ancestors. It was in this handsome gated street that Aston Martin was established in 1913. The company’s first car bore little resemblance to the 2017 model in which I arrive. It was known as ‘the Coal Scuttle’. Instead, the DB11 is a thoroughly modern-looking GT, albeit one that draws on the design genes of their Carrozzeria Touring and Zagato sketched cars of the 1960s.
The mating of Italian style and British taste is reflected in Cliveden House. Crowning an outlying ridge of the Chiltern Hills and designed by Sir Charles Barry in 1851, it blends English Palladian architecture with the Italian Cinquecento, rendered in Roman cement.
The Aston burbles out of London on the M4, taking the turning after Eton towards Taplow. The DB11 swings through the principal gates that have welcomed queens and Hollywood royalty for a century, passing a huge and ornate fountain on the right, before squaring up and getting the stately pile in its sights. As the DB11 crunches down its long gravel drive and the 100-ft clock tower hoves into view you’re transported from Berkshire to Tuscany. You would imagine the name Medici was on the doorbell.
In fact, the original owner was the Duke of Buckingham, but Cliveden found its social mojo upon the purchase by American William Waldorf Astor in 1893. His daughter-in-law, Nancy Astor, established the ‘Cliveden Set’ in the 1930s – a group of political intellectuals – and threw open the doors to some of the 20th century’s most venerable thinkers, artists, moguls, movie stars and, to delve into current parlance, influencers.
I park at Cliveden’s north portico and am shown into the Great Hall, paneled in English oak and featuring a huge 16th century fireplace that was pulled from a Burgundian chateau. Yet despite the grandeur I’m encouraged to feel at home. “Relax and enjoy the theatre of the place,” says Kevin Brook, the general manager. Cliveden, while a National Trust property, has been converted into a luxury hotel, you see, which is fabulous news for those with the means who wish to become part of the Cliveden Set 2.0.
Kevin, whom I first encountered a few years ago when he was overseeing the equally stunning Aman Sveti Stefan in Montenegro (a favourite of Francois Pinault and Salma Hayek), has the privilege of guiding guests through the next chapter of Cliveden’s storied history.
Dr Andy Palmer has a similar task at Aston Martin. In another Italianate setting – Siena’s Villa Collalto, where Aston launched the DB11 last summer – the company’s CEO described to me how this was Aston’s “most important car ever.”
The Profumo Affair was triggered at Cliveden in July 1961 when a late-night pool party got a little out of hand. This is something the hotel is in no hurry to play down, and they even have outdoor screenings of the film it inspired – Scandal – beside the aforementioned swimming pool, scene of Keeler’s skinny-dipping introduction. Profumo was the secretary of war at the time, and Keeler’s competing lover Yevgeni Ivanov a Soviet spy, while in Newport Pagnell the DB4 GT Zagato was being built at Aston Martin’s works. The 20 examples are among the most desirable of all Astons, and with its swollen grille I reckon it’s to this car the DB11 owes many of its genes.
The design has taken cues from the DB10, of which just ten were built for Spectre, 007’s last outing, as well as the £1.7 million Vulcan and the £1.15 million One-77. So, the lineage is every bit as regal as one of Lady Astor’s wine and cheese evenings.
At Cliveden, the bedrooms are named after past guests; Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Franklin D Roosevelt, Rudyard Kipling, T.E Lawrence. I’m in the Henry James suite and, between the two bedroom windows overlooking the vast parterre and its colourful flowerbeds, is a portrait of Miss Keeler. It was painted by Vasco Laszlo, who was friends with Steven Ward; the osteopath who was embroiled in the Profumo Affair and charged with living off immoral earnings. He used to rent the riverside Spring Cottage, on the Cliveden estate, and took his own life before the headline-grabbing trial was concluded and the Macmillan government bit the dust.
Cliveden was to be my base of operations for the Henley Royal Regatta, for which Aston Martin has designed a special one-off ‘Q-branch’ car. Designer Marek Reichman lives in Henley, so it seemed like a suitable DB11 road-trip destination. On tearing out of Cliveden, the car roars down Hedsor Hill and along the Marlow Road; tiny corrections to the close ratio steering keeping the Aston out of the hedgerows.
At the Regatta, the car draws admiring glances from Sir Steve Redgrave, five-times Olympic gold winner and chairman of the regatta committee. Astons and strong blazer game seems like a natural partnership. The rakish lines of the company’s newest offering seem at home in this carefully preserved Victorian setting complete with crests, curious nicknames and enviable physiques.
To see out the afternoon’s racing, the Aston and I head past the land upon which former McLaren boss Ron Dennis plans to build his new Bond Baddie lair and up to the neo-classical columns of one of Britain’s most notable country houses, Fawley Court. Created by Sir Christopher Wren and Capability Brown, the house and grounds were the inspiration for Toad Hall in The Wind in the Willows; Mr Toad being among the first wealthy enthusiasts to embrace the motor car. He would, I’m sure, approve of the DB11. But for some reason I see him more as a Rolls-Royce Wraith kind of amphibian.
Fawley Court’s vivacious and voluptuous owner, Aida Dellal Hersham, could be straight out of a 007 film herself, bearing more than a passing likeness to Monica Bellucci. She’s even arranged for an amphibious Iguana 29 speedboat to take us along the Thames and cheer on the rowers. Very Bond. Once the boat sprouts tank-like caterpillar tracks to drive us up the slipway and into the centre of Henley, onlookers drop their Pimm’s along with their jaws.
The Aston’s V12 triggered, we head back to the Cliveden estate for more boating. We pass Spring Cottage aboard a vintage launch, the Suzy Ann, while quaffing Taittinger and interrogating the boatman for guest gossip. Apparently, Robert Redford and Simon Cowell have both recently rented the infamous bolt-hole (at £2,055 a night).
Dinner is every bit as decadent as you’d hope. Chef André Garrett, who despite the e-acute is from Somerset, reworks culinary classics that are heavy on Englishness but light on texture. I indulged in the seven-course tasting menu which included crab, foie gras, turbot and rack of lamb, washed down with an innovative pairing of fizz, cider and fine wine.
Modern reinterpretations of British classics with zingy chasers; sounds a little like the goals of DB11 designer Marek Reichman and chief vehicle attribute engineer Matt Becker. Pinching Becker from Lotus three years ago has helped establish Aston as a supercar maker that can rival Ferrari in more than looks and prestige. Becker’s dad, Roger, is said to have had the most sensitive bottom in the motor industry and, after 43 years of setting the handling benchmark at Lotus, entrusted the mantle to Matt. There’s no doubt you can feel the maverick chassis soul of a Lotus under the Aston’s deep carpets and Bridge of Weir leather. Lotus and Aston: James Bond’s preferred automobiles. Fusing the two marques’ best characteristics is like the perfect Martini.
The buzz of lawnmowers reaches the open windows of the Henry James suite, signaling that it’s time to get up, shovel a stately breakfast down the old gullet, and then reignite the V12.
The Beatles shot their video for Help! in the grounds of Cliveden, which is a word that comes to mind when you floor the DB11. Gently squeeze the right pedal and hold on because it immediately lets you know you’re conducting a symphony of horsepower which wants to be heard. Under the bonnet: twin-turbo, all-alloy, quad-cam, 48 valves, 5.2 litres and 12 cylinders, producing 600 of Her Majesty’s stallions and a whopping 516lb of torque, making this the most thunderous prêt-à-porter Aston yet.
The last generation DB9GT showed its age in the acceleration stakes yet the DB11 forces Aston drivers straight into the premier league with 0-60 in 3.7 seconds and a top speed of 200mph. There is dynamic torque vectoring as standard and a 70 percent increase in lateral stiffness over its predecessor. The rear sits on multi-link suspension for the first time, giving the car sublime ride on every surface the Thames Valley throws at it.
As a GT, it’s a thrilling all-rounder and, because of the emotional connection an Aston has over, say, an AMG Mercedes, it has magic that can’t be manufactured. It is a renaissance marque at home in front of Cliveden’s renaissance architecture. The British establishment and a state-of-the-art rebel all in one. The DB11 is a seductress, and invites the driver to be royally scandalous.