Mansions with a feminist history and Hockney-inspired tea rooms: Traveling through the British countryside | Travel

Driving experiences are becoming one of the most exclusive forms of travel, in which the journey is not a mere formality but rather plays a crucial role. Each year, Bentley organizes a series of three- to five-day events for drivers, Bentley enthusiasts and anyone who wants to get to know these cars better. They are journeys of discovery that offer access to normally unattainable experiences. The brand has already planned a total of six experiences around the world (called Extraordinary Journeys), from New Zealand to New Mexico. Probably the most comprehensive one takes place in Great Britain, where participants discover unique places in the Scottish Highlands, sleep in treehouses in the middle of a forest, and sit down to eat dinner on the banks of a river. The pleasure of driving in a convoy through the UK’s first national park, traversing the picturesque Yorkshire countryside — the same landscapes that inspired Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice — and sipping tea at Grantley Hall in a room inspired by the works of Yorkshire-born artist David Hockney, are some of the draws of an itinerary that is also worth doing on your own.

The first day on the road includes a visit to the Bentley factory and its iconic CW1 House showroom in the town of Crewe. There, one can see firsthand the craftsmanship that goes into each vehicle. Before Ian Fleming’s James Bond’s iconic Aston Martin, 007 drove a Bentley. If Paris Hilton’s existence is defined by pink and diamonds, it was inevitable that when the hotel-empire heiress acquired her Bentley Continental GT in 2008 for $480,000 she would deck it out in the purest Parisian style. In addition to changing the color scheme to an exclusive shade, Baby Pink, she added pink wheels with her initials, a pink and black interior with a personalized diamond-encrusted dashboard and rhinestones on the gearshift; it’s an ode to four-wheeled maximalism.

Because no car is more tailor-made than a Bentley. A visit to the factory in Crewe (where it employs more than 4,000 people) is enough to understand this. Fine craftsmanship is the basis of the process, from woods that come from all over the world to make up Bentley interiors to the delicate hand stitching that connects the leather parts of the steering wheel and the lacquer that is achieved by polishing the bodywork for 12 hours with sheep’s wool to give the brand’s famous mirror-effect finish. Bentley has even catered to the most unlikely whims of its customers, like the client who went to Bentley one day to have a car made in the same color as the nail polish she was wearing. In addition to the exclusive colors, the brand-new owner is in charge of pressing the button that gives rise to an aerial mating ritual, in which the body connects with the chassis in an almost religious act. On our visit, the evening at the factory concluded with dinner in the assembly hall itself.

Dinner on the banks of the Teith River.
Dinner on the banks of the Teith River.Tom Kahler

The trip’s real attraction begins the next morning: driving through the Peak District National Park — England’s oldest — stopping at Grantley Hall for tea. The peculiarity of the place is that it has become a bastion of women’s rights in the United Kingdom. It was owned by the Nortons and tells the story of Lord Grantley and his brother George’s siege of the latter’s wife, the talented writer Caroline Norton. Despite her wretched marital life because of her husband’s alcoholism, Caroline began to shine in her own right. She soon became known as the “perfect high society hostess” and had contacts in both the political and literary worlds. One of her best friends, Mary Shelley, had just written the novel Frankenstein. Caroline wanted a divorce; that was the beginning of her ordeal, and her husband made her life impossible. She wrote several letters to Queen Victoria and got many of the abusive laws governing wives repealed. Today, the property is owned by another woman, Valeria Sykes (who purchased it with the money she got following her own divorce). The day ends at the luxurious Middleton Lodge, the ideal setting for a dinner of local seasonal produce.

The next morning, the convoy heads into the northernmost reaches of the Pennines, the so-called “backbone of England,” and Northumberland National Park, before heading into Scotland, where guests occupy Lanrick’s treehouses, surrounded by the greenery and wildlife of the Perthshire wilderness. Here, the first Scottish dinner is served by award-winning chef Nick Nairn beside the River Teith; diners enjoy seasonal produce while watching the sunset.

One of the treehouses in Lanrick, Perthshire, Scotland.
One of the treehouses in Lanrick, Perthshire, Scotland.Tom Kahler

The journey continues, stopping in the northeast at Britain’s largest national park: the Cairngorms, with a stop at the exclusive Fife Arms Hotel, located in the small Scottish village of Braemar, a locale frequented by British royals that is located near Balmoral Castle. The place houses a treasure trove of 14,000 works of art, ranging from a Brueghel to a Picasso to Lucien Freud’s portraits, Queen Victoria’s drawings, and Charles III’s own watercolors.

One of the rooms at the Fife Arms, a hotel with 14,000 works of art in the Cairngorms.
One of the rooms at the Fife Arms, a hotel with 14,000 works of art in the Cairngorms.Tom Kahler

Incidentally, to celebrate the coronation of the new King Charles III and Queen-Consort Camilla, Bentley created three days of cars with cushions embroidered on the seats by the factory’s craftsmen in custom colors. Each cushion took more than three hours to produce and used hides from northern Europe, where the mild climate and absence of barbed wire reduces the risk of accidents and damage to the animals’ skins. At Fife Arms, one must enjoy a cocktail at the bar inspired by designer Elsa Schiaparelli and contemplate the paintings in the lounge by artist Zhang Enli, who painted them while lying on a scaffolding as if he were Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel.

The Macallan distillery, located in a modernist building in Speyside, Scotland.
The Macallan distillery, located in a modernist building in Speyside, Scotland. horst friedrichs (Alamy)

The end of the adventure includes one of the best driving routes in the Highlands: road lovers are sure to be delighted by the winding roads and landscape of wide skies and broad mountains. The private tour of the Macallan distillery — which is affiliated with the whisky brand of the same name and located in the heart of Speyside, the liquor’s homeland — is another of this trip’s highlights. The evening is the icing on the cake: a culinary experience that includes Sherry Oak, a tribute to one of Spain’s most famous drinks in a selection of whiskies matured in exceptional oak casks that previously contained oloroso sherry produced in Spain.

A bit of history: The birth of Bentley and the Bentley Boys

   From left to right: Frank Clement, Sir Henry Birkin and Woolf Barnato, three of the so-called Bentley Boys, in the 1930s.
From left to right: Frank Clement, Sir Henry Birkin and Woolf Barnato, three of the so-called Bentley Boys, in the 1930s.National Motor Museum / Heritage Images / Getty Images

1912. In the same year the Titanic sunk in the icy waters of the North Atlantic, the Bentley family acquired a small French company dedicated to importing cars. The young Walter O. Bentley visited the factory and when he noticed an aluminum paperweight on a table, he had a brilliant idea: replacing iron with lightweight aluminum to build the pistons of the engines. The idea was stymied by World War I, but W.O. Bentley remained obsessed with building the best car ever made.

At the end of the war, the mythical English brand was born, and since then its fame has been unstoppable, backed by the famous Bentley Boys, a gang of mischievous millionaires, drivers, playboys and investors who revered the company’s cars and achieved amazing results in competitions. They were the ones who inspired a whole generation of Bentley drivers and fans with their passion for driving. Captaining Bentley cars, they dominated Le Mans with five victories in just eight years. There were legendary duels such as the one between Mercedes-Benz driver Caracciola and Bentley’s Sir Tim Birkin, who had a flamboyant moustache and a blue polka-dot handkerchief. Four of the Bentley Boys lived in adjoining apartments in the exclusive Grosvenor Square in London’s Mayfair district, where their legendary parties — which lasted for days at a time — are still discussed. It was common to see their cars lined up in the southeast corner of the square, which cab drivers in the British capital know as “Bentley Corner.”

The 1930s brought numerous challenges for Bentley. Despite racing achievements and public recognition, Bentley Motors was plagued by financial difficulties, and in 1931 Rolls-Royce acquired the company and it was relocated to Derby.

The brand’s move to Crewe in 1946, after World War II, brought in a community of highly skilled engineers and mechanics who migrated to this busy industrial center during the war and made the company what it is today.

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