The Chilterns and Cotswolds give Adam Hay-Nicholls an ideal platform for the Bentley Continental GT, a car with all the qualities of a quintessentially British grand tourer.
It’s one of those perfect English days with the scent of lavender on a light breeze and barely a cloud for miles. Luncheon is being prepared in Lady Bamford’s Orangery and I’m working up my appetite by buzzing around Chiltern and Cotswold lanes in the most quintessential of grand tourers. A car as handsome as the Bentley Continental GT deserves a verdant and organic destination of aristocratic virtue.
Stourton, which is 12 miles west of Banbury along the B4035, is home to the Cotswolds Distillery where the Bentley’s headgear is on point. We drop by to enliven the taste buds before lunch, albeit accepting the proffered spittoon. As well as single malt, they produce dry gin and absinthe here using locally-grown herbs and traditional methods. The gin-making copper pot still and tanks, transferred from Germany and Scotland, look rather steam-punk, not unlike the Conti’s interior cues. Just a sniff of one of the tanks – known as Dolly because she works nine to five – is all it takes to make my voice hoarse. It’s 63% alcohol in there.
A 20-minute dash along the scenic A436 takes us to Daylesford, the organic farm and shop favoured by the Chipping Norton Set. Deep in its gardens, the Orangery was Daylesford’s Chelsea Flower Show display from 2008 and now serves as the most beautiful epicurean folly, built from stone and muted wood and set among ornamental sculptures and flowering bushes. Daylesford’s visionary proprietor, Lady B, opens it up for special guests and, following the most Instagrammable spread of cucumber-covered cold poached salmon and vibrant side salads, her head gardener Jez takes us around the sprawling vegetable patch to explain the revolutionary methods they’re using here.
The 28-piston Bentley mightn’t be as sustainable, but innovation is on the menu here too. The Continental is so advanced it requires five miles of wiring, hidden away behind nine cows and ten square metres of wood, of course. The leather is shaved to a thickness of just 1mm in order to save weight. The diamond-patterned embroidery, which in addition to the milled-aluminium details lends to the Aviator atmosphere, requires 310,000 stitches per car. And adding to the serenity are the custom-made Pirelli P-Zero tyres that are designed to be noise-cancelling.
Alex James is propping up the bar in the nearby Wild Rabbit inn. The Blur bassist turned cheesemaker, who became a founding member of the Chipping Norton Set having shifted from his bar stool in Soho to a 200-acre farm in Kingham, reckons he’s just lucky with his timing. “We bought the place the minute Carole Bamford started Daylesford and the whole area just took off. Suddenly we found ourselves in this foodie haven, an epicentre of organic enterprise. As fate goes, it was exactly like the time I met [Blur guitarist] Graham Coxon on our first day at Goldsmiths College. Both those moments changed my life”. And henceforth, he swapped stadium rock for Roquefort. Alex is an engaging raconteur, funny and self-aware, and he makes absolutely fabulous cheese. He serves me a generous slice of his honey-coloured Glastonbury brie, positively oozing around the knife. It is tangy and melts in the mouth.
The A424 leads us south through the picture-postcard town of Burford and on to the Thyme Hotel near Lechlade; a converted medieval barn and stylish farmhouse, and our lodgings for the night. At its heart is its cookery school, where chefs Charlie and Dylan teach me how to execute and dress a crab. The humane method: Hammer a large nail straight through its cranium. Dinner is served across the road at the snug and bucolic Swan pub which, same as the hotel, is owned by Charlie’s mum, Caryn Hibbert. The pièce de résistance is our crab salad.
The following morning, we crunch back down the gravel drive and head for the Chilterns along the A40. The Bentley’s cabin is just a joy to cruise within. It blends vintage luxury, modern technology and rakish sportiness. One of the most unusual gimmicks is the world’s first three-way rotating dashboard. This triangular motorised panel has three different faces; blank wood veneer, 12.3-inch infotainment screen, or three analogue dials displaying the outside temperature, a compass and a chronometer. The action is rather reminiscent of 007’s number plates, slowly spinning around with an imperceptible whirr. It offers a welcome digital detox.
Not paying attention to the sat-nav, we nearly overshoot our destination. Radnage, near High Wycombe, is home to the boutique Daws Hill vineyard which, thanks to climate change, is riding the wave of brilliant English sparkling winemaking. The owner, Holly Morgan, is the daughter of the founder and she jacked in her party lifestyle in Ibiza upon the death of her dad a year ago. In that short time, she’s learned everything there is to know about making brut, blanc de blanc and cider and is hands-on in producing every bottle. With the promise of free wine long into the night, she entices the whole village and her friends down to help pick the grapes. It’s a really joyful place, and I find myself volunteering for the next vendange.
The Sir Charles Napier pub is my final destination before handing the key back to Bentley, just a couple of miles from the vineyard down Sprigs Holly Lane towards Chinnor, which is notable for another top bassist; U2’s Adam Clayton was born here.
Spilling onto the Chiltern Hills, the Charles Napier’s garden is idyllic and lunch is served by its long-time owner Julie Griffiths under a flower-laden pergola. Gastropub is too ugly a word to describe the genteel perfection of this place, yet the Griffiths family invented the concept here 51 years ago. I choose the refreshingly-chilled pea and mint soup with goat’s curd and radish, followed by pink lamb rump with braised shoulder. It’s a satisfying sign-off for this most utopian of road trips.
Likewise, the Continental GT uses quintessentially British ingredients, albeit with a bit of help from the Germans. Its superb eight-speed auto ‘box and suspension are Porsche-derived but Bentley-perfected, and are a one-up on Aston Martin’s use of AMG Mercedes’ special stuff. The Conti has better cruising composure than the DB11, while the Rolls-Royce Wraith would be left for dead in the corners.
The only Grand Tourer that can match the Bentley is the Ferrari GTC4Lusso, which is £39k dearer and its styling divisive. A gastronomic tour as pretty as this requires a GT that lives up to the pulchritudinous surroundings. The Bentley excels.