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The McLaren of Jane Austen or The Pie, The Bull and other things…

Think of Jane Austen country and what comes to mind, a landed gentry, leisurely strolls through verdant pastures, sheep, cattle and, of course, the horses? But just how many breeds of horses are hiding out in those peaceful, green, gentle hills? And better yet are they all of the four legged variety? Sense tells us it is prime horse, cattle, and sheep country, what if sensibilities were interrupted by the roar of something that travels on four "legs" of a different form?

I cut my teeth on National Velvet.  One of my favorite daydreams was of me riding The Pie across a pasture, wind whipping my short hair and Mi coaching from along the fence line.   When the opportunity arose for me to actually spend some time in the English countryside, I jumped.  When I found out that the village of Bentley, where I would be staying, was in Jane Austen territory, the only minor adjustment was to trade in Mi and The Pie for Colonel Brandon, Mr. Willoughby and romance.  Ok, I’m not 12 anymore; I was up for the challenge!  I wanted the opportunity to meld into the community, meet the locals, to feel as if I belonged.  My reason for traveling to this area was to observe the shakedown of an MP4/3 McLaren at the famous Donington Park racetrack, along with a photo shoot of a Jaguar XJ and a bright yellow Porsche 997 Carrera.

Jane Austen country, so steeped in history, was soon to provide some modern surprises, and the contrast between historical and modern would prove pretty striking.   As mentioned, there were several reasons to be in Jane’s neck of the woods.  First was the MP4/3 McLaren.   A Formula One racecar with historical significance and modern interest.   The second was to spend time with the Jaguar and the Porsche; these fine carriages were provided by the manufacturers.  Both were delivered to Heathrow airport after a redeye flight on Virgin Atlantic.   Our destination was the Bentley Mill. It was dark as we rolled into the outskirts of Bentley and after a few false starts, along with an unplanned tour of the small village, we arrived.  Ann and David Hallett, proprietors of the converted mill were exactly what we Americans of the Modern English era envision. A paper mill, originally built in 1640, the Bentley Mill is exactly as the name purports, and eventually became a corn/flour mill.  The Mill sits virtually atop The River Wey.  Ann and David are a cross between English country gentlemen/women farmers and yet extremely well traveled, to the point that one would not consider them tourists, well, travelers.  In spite of the comfort and quaintness of their establishment, there was also an air of quiet sophistication...breakfast was on par with most five star temporary abodes.   A short walk from the Mill sits the Bull Inn. It is the quintessential English Pub, right down to the fireplace, the locals and the ambience. The Bull Inn serves breakfast, bar snacks, drinks and dinner.  Oh, heaven!  Or as Jane would say, “one half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other”.  I wanted to experience another world firsthand, one that is only read of by most!
Sandy, who is an occasional bartender at the Bull, is the perfect character to stand behind said bar, a lot of fun and Sex In the City has nothing on her. Grant Edmead, the owner of the Bull Inn, should be an old curmudgeon, but no, he is an ultra modern sophisticate; drives a Porsche and vacations in Vail, Colorado.   The regulars have the personalities one would expect in a PBS Masterpiece Theatre production but have modern professions….marketing specialist, to name one.   One evening at the Bull Inn was topped off by a dinner with that renowned race cartoonist and artist, Jim Bamber and his wife Sally…a perfect evening.   In order to access the town of Bentley from it’s Mill Inn, one has two choices; get in a car and travel the A 31….or, the best to any traveler……walk out the front door of the Mill, turn right on the narrowest country road ever and hit the footpaths through the pastures.  Bentley was meant for strollers and the juxtaposition of historical cottages and new mansions was marked as I ambled along through different farms.  The destination was the same, the imagination, however, was well exercised with the journey.
Like Jane Austen, I preferred “taking a turn in the shrubbery”.   It was easy to feel as if I might encounter one of Ms. Austen’s characters at any time as I traveled the footpaths to the little village of Bentley.

Even though Hampshire’s countryside is historical, there is a definite mixture of the old with the new.   A day trip included a visit to Jane Austen’s house in Chawton, where she lived the last eight years of her life and wrote some of her best works.  The house is now a museum.  A trip to the town of Winchester also provided some contrasts that really showed that I was certainly not in Kansas anymore.   It was quite cold in December, but there was a Christmas Market going on at Winchester Cathedral.  Parking was an issue, just as it would be in the U.S., and all street parking was taken, but there was a modern parking structure and while the Jaguar XJ is a proper British car, it was bigger than most on the road and parking was an interesting fete.  The Cathedral, the festival and the town did not bring me down as goes the song…..walking through the festival, with the dreary, cold weather, it was no stretch at all to feel transported back in time.  Yet, the shopping was modern, the buildings historic.  As I walked into Winchester Cathedral, as always in Europe, I was struck by the history, the humanity who had trod these floors before me.  The library, with the Winchester Bible, a 12th century illuminated work that remains unfinished, is a ‘must see’, and to my mind, the best part of the cathedral.  The gift shop, along with the cafeteria, are in sharp contrast with the historical/ medieval feel of the Cathedral, while located only a few yards away from the ancient marvel. Shopping once again paired the old with the new.    The norm for any area at Christmastime: folks meandering from shop to shop, street musicians performing on the sidewalk outside of a Starbucks, a modern drug store in an aged storefront, only serves to highlight the architecture of the buildings and the historical significance of the region.  However, leaving Winchester in the comparative safety and luxury of a new Jaguar XJ is also far from the norm.

Speaking of architecture, The Bishops of Winchester inhabited Farnham Castle in the village of Farnham, for over 900 years. Bentley is just a stones throw from Farnham.   But wait, besides being home to a castle, is there more to Farnham than meets the eye?  The peaceful, “All Creatures Great and Small”, James Herriot feel that we Americans want to experience caused me to look for Mrs. Pumphrey and Tricky Woo, maybe I wasn’t’ in Yorkshire but ……it felt right!

As my Bentley countryside reverie was to be interrupted, combined with, or attached to, a trip to the neighboring burg of Farnham, I began to wonder just what Farnham would bring to the table.  How could it possibly compete with Bentley, and Ann of the Mill, and Sandy of the Bull Inn, of sheep in the pasture, of ancient bibles, and, well, all of it?   Really, as the purpose of the trip was car stuff, what could complete it more than a trip to the ‘shop’ of a major historic racecar player??   Once again, the contrast took my breath away.  Obviously a horse and cattle operation at one time with a fantastic barn, which has been restored to its original splendor, what was behind the wooden barn doors?   A fantastic collection of vintage racecars!  Vintage, in Jane Austen country, is relative term.  What constitutes a vintage car?  Well, cars are a relatively new creation and Ms. Austen would not have known them, so we are modern/historical in a relative sense.  Our prejudices are just challenged.   We are there for a photo shoot of McLaren MP4 Porsche powered F1 rolling stock…and eminent race car photographer, John Brooks, is there with all his paraphernalia, along with racecar historian Kerry Morse, to record the event.  Their goal?  To photograph the McLarens, in the mist, in the cold, in the historic setting……to capture the sense of the cars and the people who influence racing.   It was cold, it had the perfect feel, but, wait, there was more to come!

Did I want a ride in an F1 GTR McLaren?  The ex Ray Bellm 1996 F1 GTR still in Gulf Oil colors?  Of course!  Did I realize what I was getting into?  Of course not!  This fabulous looking McLaren was rolled out of the shop…. Still wearing its championship Gulf colors of blue and orange it was, well, romantic and loud and full of horsepower of the more recent type.   Oh, it was Colonel Brandon, it was The Pie, and it was in Jane’s countryside…..it was a steeplechase, it was a need I felt to cut my hair short and pretend!  Did I turn down the ride………of course not!   I pried myself around the roll cage and into the little racing seat located to the left of the driver, as the McLaren is a center steer. Strapped into a seat that allowed for NO movement, there and then, I decided it was up to my driver for my safety, I figured it would be over quick.   I decided these cars are built for catastrophe, and, hey, this guy knew what he was doing. I put on my best happy face and we were off.

There is nothing to compare to a drive through the English countryside in a McLaren “streetlegal” racecar with a proficient driver.  Behind us was yet another McLaren F1, this example being of the production type and then Brooks and Morse in the yellow Porsche 997 trying their best to keep up with the McLaren duo. I could barely turn my head, partly out of fear, partly out of, well, the inability to turn my head.   Feeling a bit like Plato’s workers in the Allegory of the Cave, I was only aware of what was going on directly in front of me.  Conversation with my intrepid driver was not possible.  He couldn’t hear my silent screams and his reassurances would fall on deaf ears.  I could see, in my peripheral vision, people looking at the ride, but I was focused on the road ahead…..it seemed to go on forever.   We finally left the village of Farnham, and there is nothing more interesting than traversing speed bumps in front of a school in an extremely cool and fast car.   As we left and went into the countryside, I was able to see cows, sort of………. they went by so fast!  I felt as if the cows were tigers about to be churned into butter.  Finally, we pulled into what looked like an upscale dairy.  Upscale, indeed, it was a warehouse that was the home to what seemed like a million (ok, I am prone to exaggeration) very cool, historic racecars.  Let’s see, historic racecars in a modern warehouse in the middle of land that makes me think that all creatures are truly great and small.   Cows, horses and sheep grazing quietly in a pastoral setting, not even glancing up at the roar of the McLaren. Old, new, old……..wow, forget Mi and Colonel Brandon even Mr. Darcy……bring me Mr. Firth, bring me Mr. Rickman!   Somehow I knew I had to come back to reality, to my half of the world, which was waiting.  I had to say goodbye to Ann and David of the Mill, Sandy of the Bull Inn and then Brooksie…..the ‘other half’ of SportscarPros.   I do have a bit of a confession to make; the countryside, the Jag and the sightseeing took precedence over Donington. While the hardworking crew of SportscarPros was shooting away at the track, I was tooling around in either a beautiful black Jag or in my own black riding boots, which doubled as walking boots.  After all, as Jane once wrote, “Why not seize the pleasure at once, how often is happiness destroyed by preparation, foolish preparation?”

En route to Heathrow the next morning, after saying my goodbyes to Ann and David, after one last coffee at the Bull Inn, after a short detour thru a neighborhood near Heathrow, one which seemed to have an inordinate population of the elderly, and a trip on the shuttle to the airport (one last chance to visit the other half in the form of a shuttle driver who should have been in movies)…..I was struck by the thought that my modern trip was now to become history and that lurking in the Hampshire countryside there truly was more horsepower than just that of the equine variety.
                                                                                    Lizett Bond

                                                                                     July 2008

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