I’m bombing across the chartreuse-coloured hills behind East Devon’s Jurassic Coast. My destination is the dining table of top chef Michael Caines and, as I like to match my vehicles with whatever’s in store for the knife and fork, I have chosen the Range Rover Velar for the journey: A luxurious status symbol steeped in country cred, but one which is silkily contemporary and reductionist from every angle.
Could this be the best-looking car of the 21st century so far? I would certainly class it as the world’s most gorgeous SUV. Ever. Land Rover’s design director Gerry McGovern is a man who wears shirt collars like Harry Hill and lives in a house called McGovern House. Yet he’s managed to design this incredibly tasteful piece of kinetic art.
Having left the A303 near Ilminster, I pass through Chard and Axminster and meet the English Channel’s Lyme Bay. From Seaton, the road leads to the seaside village of Beer – no doubt an epicentre of pint Instagramming – and my favourite pub in the county sits in the valley just beyond, in Branscombe. Here, at the 14th century Fountain Head inn, a large pig is rotating above a log fire and the lunchtime locals – mostly farmers – are queuing to get their baps filled. CAMRA voted this place their 2018 Summer Pub of the Year thanks to its cosy and rustic character, Branscombe Vale ales and, as evidenced, generous porcine feasts.
The picturesque cliffs and pebble beach of Branscombe form part of the 95-mile long 185-million-year-old Jurassic Coast, site of many a sea monster and dinosaur fossil find. Branscombe hit the headlines in January 2007 when the container ship MSC Napoli was beached here following a storm, attracting hundreds of scavengers. Among the floating loot were 17 BMW R1200RT motorcycles.
There’s nothing lifted from elsewhere when it comes to the Velar, much less prehistoric. The interior, in particular, is a milestone of clean, modern and ergonomic design. There are very few buttons; almost everything is controlled by two high-resolution gloss-black rectangular screens on the dash, with motorised angle adjustment and touch and voice activation. It feels like it should have an Apple logo on the steering wheel rather than the Range Rover badge, which was first seen in the 1970s on a car designed for transporting sheep in the daytime and your date to dinner in the evening. The Velar can do the latter with panache, but I can’t really imagine putting livestock in the boot. Plus, the lack of a split tailgate – a defining Range feature – is a missing chromosome, like a Rolls-Royce without suicide doors. The woolly beasts wouldn’t have as far to jump, though. The Velar sits much lower than expected for an SUV. Its scale is more akin to an estate than a 4×4. It’s only 10cm taller than an Audi A6 or BMW 5-Series, while the ‘proper’ Range Rover is nearly 40cm taller.
The 296bhp petrol four-pot is peppy and the ride is as good as any mid-range executive saloon. It feels pretty sporty in the corners, though the Jaguar F-Pace is sharper. A supercharged V6 might be nice, but that’s another £5,000. At £65k my P300 HSE is already a very expensive bit of kit. The V6 F-Pace is 14 grand cheaper, yet the Velar is so desirable it’s justified.
I take the narrow farm lanes in the direction of Sidmouth and, from there, join the A3052 towards Exeter and then south along the A376, with a view of the River Exe to the west. The early evening sunlight hits the placid estuary, which is the colour of my car. It’s called Aruba Gold, but as far as I can tell it’s actually silver. Light colours work best on the Velar. My general preference for Range Rovers is government-issue black, but on this model you’d lose many of the slick design details.
The chequered flag on the Velar’s sat-nav marks Lymptone Manor, which sits atop a hill overlooking the estuary at Exmouth. It was built in 1760 for the Baring banking family but, in the last couple of years, has been skilfully revamped and extended by Michael Caines MBE, previously of two Michelin star Gidleigh Park fame. Caines, 50, an orphan from Exeter who lost his right arm in a road accident, left Gidleigh in 2016 to pursue his dream to create Britain’s finest foodie hotel, boasting 25 uber-talented chefs and 21 beautiful suites. A man of ceaseless determination, it’s not a surprise to find he’s succeeded in his ambition.
I’ve known Michael for several years from the Formula One circuit. As petrolhead and Porsche 911 loyalist, with a GT3 in Lympstone’s driveway, he devises the Williams team’s hospitality menus and mans the kitchen himself at several races each season.
The Georgian mansion is the colour of vanilla ice cream, and the interior is paired-back chic in hues that mimic those of the Exe estuary. But, unlike other recent country house reboots, the character of the place fizzes. Its seductive yet unpretentious elegance is aided by superb lighting designed by American firm Restoration Hardware, and an example of its playful originality are the pretty watercolours of estuary birds on wallpaper hand-painted by local artist Rachel Toll. Between the house and the water slopes a vineyard planted in 2016 which will soon yield Michael’s very own bubbly. As if the hotel isn’t sparkling enough. And the food is sure to earn Caines another two – maybe three – stars in the very near future. The highlight of my eight-course tasting menu is Cornish duckling on orange-braised chicory with anise-scented jus, knocked back with a glass of Sangiovese.
Lympstone Manor and the Velar are just as complimentary. Very British yet bang up-to-date; an artistic country estate that’s supermodel chic. Come the arrival of the petits fours, or your destination, you’re left beyond satisfied and planning your next trip back.