Michael Buerk revs up the glam by arriving at plush Hartwell House in a racy hired Jag 

Nostalgia is the only disease of the trainee elderly you can cure in a weekend. It had started on one of those endless motorway journeys to a filming location that, these days, always seems to be Liverpool.

The modern motor was totally anonymous and boringly bland. All you had to do was scratch your head, try not to scream at the smugly superior satnav lady and look forward to yet another night in a Premier Inn.

I began to yearn for yesteryear, for a car with character, that roared and snuffled and leaked; that you had to wrestle with and master. I wanted roads with bends and scenery, where overtaking had all the thrill of Russian roulette.

Dream machine: Former BBC newsreader Michael Buerk and the Jaguar XK150 at Hartwell House 

I wanted a destination at the end of it all reeking with history where we would be treated like minor royalty. And, lo, it came to pass.

The Jaguar XK150 was the last of the grand tourers in the Golden Age of motoring. It was made in the late Fifties for sporting gentlemen, or cads pretending to be one. It wasn’t so much parked, as left crouching at the kerb, haunches ready to spring, like the big cat it was. I had the goggles, but not the pipe unfortunately. Nobody’s perfect.

As a schoolboy I worshipped the XKs. When I was a 19-year-old cub reporter on the Bromsgrove Weekly Messenger I used to take my curling cheese sandwiches and spend my lunchtimes in the cockpit of an XK150 coupe which was on sale, I remember, for £650. I earned £9 12s 6d a week. It was an impossible dream on wheels. It still is.

A really good example can fetch £250,000 or more. But you can hire one for the day, as it happens for rather more than I could have paid to own one back in the mid-Sixties.

It looked broodingly magnificent, it smelled of old leather and polish and it sounded like rolling thunder. Turn the key, press the starter button and it’s as if the devil’s clearing his throat.

OK, the doors shut with a clang not a clunk, you need the leg muscles of a prop forward and the footwork of a ballerina to change gear, and a passing shower is too much for the three little wipers or the pram-like hood. How can that matter when the badge on the back says, ‘Le Mans winner 1955, 1956, 1957’, and everybody stops and smiles as you thrum past like Mr Toad. Parp, parp!

It wasn’t one of the great road trips. Not like crossing Europe in my old Austin‑Healey, my wife Christine hanging on to the hood because the clothes pegs that held it in place had dropped off. Or the time we toured Africa in the VW minibus South Africans call a Kombi and got stuck in the Namib desert.

Not even the hair-raising ride through Death Valley to Vegas with three generations of the family crammed into an old Buick station wagon. It was more the Miss Marple Heritage Trail.

Hartwell House, just outside Aylesbury is a Jacobean-cum-Georgian stately home, now a country house hotel, owned by the National Trust

Hartwell House, just outside Aylesbury is a Jacobean-cum-Georgian stately home, now a country house hotel, owned by the National Trust

We circled London outside the M25 burbling through the lushest corners of the Home Counties, avoiding dual carriageways let alone motorways.

Through the sunken byways of the Surrey Hills we rumbled, down across the Thames and the Royalist bits of Berkshire into deepest Buckinghamshire.

It was all green and groomed, the houses be-beamed, the men all wearing blazers, the women pearls and all the dogs were Golden Retrievers. They knew automobile class when they saw it. Even the dogs waved.

Our destination was Hartwell House, just outside Aylesbury. It’s a Jacobean-cum-Georgian stately home, now a country house hotel, owned by the National Trust and operated by the Historic House Hotels group.

They let us park right by the grand entrance portico, almost begged us to, in fact, right in front of the ‘no parking’ sign. Added a bit of tone, clearly.

The house was built for a family whose ancestors had been there since before William the Conqueror. It has the most dramatic gothic hall, marvellously decorated ceilings and a staircase lined with (frankly terrifying) Jacobean carved figures.

The most famous residents were the future King and Queen of France, who arrived on their uppers after the French Revolution and stayed, in what passes for penury if you’re a monarch-in-waiting, until we toppled Napoleon.

The courtiers were so strapped they set up an allotment on the roof and lived off the rabbits they raised there.

We stayed in the Queen-in-waiting’s bedroom, which was about the size of the average Tesco car park, though much better furnished.

It was once the boudoir of Louis XVIII’s wife, Marie Josephine. She was ugly, unstable and sad. She took to the bottle and died in our room a couple of years before Louis was told — in what is now the bar, downstairs — that he had acceded to the throne of France.

The Queen-in-waiting’s bedroom at Hartwell House, which was once the boudoir of Louis XVIII’s wife, Marie Josephine

The Queen-in-waiting’s bedroom at Hartwell House, which was once the boudoir of Louis XVIII’s wife, Marie Josephine

We decided Marie Josephine didn’t realise how lucky she was. It’s one of the most beautiful bedrooms in Britain, looking out over nearly 100 acres of parkland designed by one of Capability Brown’s henchmen.

Mind you, the food then wasn’t a patch on what chef Daniel Richardson knocks up for lucky commoners today.

The fish especially. A starter of scallops with piccalilli puree and bacon jam, followed by sea bass with crab-crushed potatoes, samphire, lime and asparagus would have cheered her up — even if the glamorous spa, pool and all-round pamper palace would have been wasted on someone who famously rarely washed, never cleaned her teeth or plucked her eyebrows.

It all costs a king’s ransom, of course. But, for once, I reckon it was worth it. If only I could have afforded an XK back in 1966, I could sell it now and we could move in until Christmas.

 

 


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