In darkest Exmoor, Adam Hay-Nicholls finds a pimped, £210,000 SUV to be the perfect ice-breaker with a publican yet to embrace electricity.
Straddling Devon and Somerset, the rolling hills of Exmoor are precisely where you’d expect a muddy Range Rover to look at home. Yet I have headed to the sticks in its most scandalous derivative. I may be wearing my tweeds, but the customized Overfinch Range Rover I’ve borrowed is less Hunt Ball and more Mayfair roubles laundrette. With an aggressive grille, carbon accents and spoiler, heavily-tinted windows and Lunar-grey paint it has a whale-like quality. Inside, it has seats made from ostrich. It’s a supremely comfortable place to sit and, one assumes, deal drugs.
I was therefore a little tentative as to the reception I might receive from country folk when spotted crossing the badlands in the baddest 4×4 in existence. I’d already heard tell of the dislike the locals here have for London-arriviste Damien Hirst, with his flashy fortune and the fact he’d bought a trio of shops in Ilfracombe and has kept them closed, denying the township a butcher. In short, his neighbours hate him and, one assumes, anyone who looks like they might splurge several hundred grand on polka-dots or formaldehyde-soaked taxidermy or, most wastefully, a pumped-up SUV.
The 525bhp 5-litre V8 has its practicalities and drawbacks. Connecting the Bristol Channel with the moor, Porlock Hill has a 1:4 gradient and is the steepest A-road in the United Kingdom. The 2.5 tonne Overfinch makes short work of it but fuel economy hits terminal velocity, the dashboard screen reading 1mpg!
Still, if you’re willing to pay £210,000 for a Range Rover there’s a high chance your portfolio includes oil wells. It’s a long way from the original Range Rover, to which these Leeds-based tinkerers first fitted a Chevy V8 in 1975. The classic Range Rover, which debuted in 1970 as a two-door, was designed to carry sheep in the daytime and your date to dinner. The Overfinch version has got progressively luxurious but at its heart has always been the noise. Put your foot down and it sounds like Brian Blessed gargling with lighter fluid.
My search for rural pubs led me to meet a church warden, Jonathan, and his original ‘72 Suffix-A Range Rover, in white and going by the name ‘Diana’. We decided to photograph our era-spanning steeds together, traversing the ancient ford that crosses Badgworthy Water at Malmsmead.
This valley was the setting of Exmoor’s most famous work of fiction, RD Blackmore’s Lorna Doone. The Doone clan were outlaws (in fact, it was said to be Ned Kelly’s favourite book) and, were it set in the 21st rather than 17th century, one can imagine Carver Doone trading up his stallion for an Overfinch and driving like a lunatic
While the rural landscape on Exmoor has barely changed since the Triassic period, the pub scene has, and not for the better. There are very few inns on the headland and those off to the sides are largely derivative. The Lorna Doone Inn at Malmsmead has become a bleeding tea shop. The 13th century Blue Ball coaching house on Countisbury Hill isn’t bad, but it’s full of tourists tucking into their venison pies. Where do the farmers go? That was my mission.
I have discovered two gems. The first is The Royal Oak in the tiny village of Withypool. There are many Royal Oaks on Exmoor because since Saxon times the forests had been the hunting grounds of the king. Withypool’s 300-year-old boozer is by far the best; the kind of place you might find a poacher with an eel stuffed down his strides. Most interestingly, it was once owned by a man called Maxwell Knight, the spymaster who inspired the 007 character ‘M’. General Eisenhower also popped in for a pint while the Allies practised D-Day manoeuvers on the moor.
Churchill’s preference, though, was the second establishment of note: The Poltimore Arms. This place is off-the-grid. There is no phone, and certainly no website. It has no address, you need GPS coordinates. It’s in an area called Yardedown, between Simonsbath and Brayford off an unnamed road, and caters for a mix of farmers, gamekeepers, landowners and, at lunchtime on the weekends, hunting toffs. Prince Harry once visited after a shoot and, as the regulars tell it, they didn’t treat him differently to any other barfly. Some have actually entered the main bar on horseback. They were already drunk.
This is also quite probably Britain’s most eco-friendly pub. There’s no mains electricity, only candlelight. A tiny generator powers the essentials for a few hours a day. The décor hasn’t changed in a century. There’s a ‘dead wall’ of pictures of past punters and, in the saloon, a brace of Victorian pianolas. But the star piece of furniture is the eccentric landlord, Steve, who is registered blind, switches between insulting customers and giving them free ales, and runs all of his business decisions past his cat. The cat is called Fred Hitler, and the cat is always wrong. The mark of a great publican is he introduces everyone to everyone, and by the time Steve is done the entire community and I are like old friends.
Following an evening of generous refreshment, I returned early the next day to take Steve for a spin in the Overfinch. A couple of last night’s characters were asleep by the fire and Mr Hitler has left them a present of a dead rat.
Steve claimed to have not left his pub in five years. At first, he wasn’t too sure about the Overfinch’s body kit, saying it was a car “for rich twats”, which I wasn’t going to argue. However, on hearing the engine’s guttural bark and feeling the thrust of its acceleration he quickly changed his tune. “This is faaantastic!” he beamed.
Despite it being a four-hour drive from the capital, I have started to treat the Poltimore Arms as my local. The only issue, apart from the distance, is that each time I return I must bring an even more expensive motor to impress the publican.