A hired sports car adds zip to a tour of England's picturesque but rather sedate Cotswolds, writes Kipat Wilson.
Country life in the fast lane
What's the best way to enjoy the English countryside this summer? Rent a cottage, cruise along a canal, catch some village cricket? That's all very nice, but a bit, well ... slow. As a city-lover who likes the fast lane, I'm always terrified I'll get bored by all those cream teas, swan-filled rivers and postcard-perfect churches. Maybe that's why Von Essen, a local collection of luxury country hotels, has just come up with a novel way to add in some thrill - by inviting guests to check in, then hire the car of their dreams. Something like, ooh - a super-sleek Ferrari F430 Spider, that can hit 100kph in 4.1 seconds.
Now this is more like it. As I gun south on the A429 from Stow-on-the-Wold, part of an arrow-straight Roman road built almost 2,000 years ago, I suddenly see that life in the country is perhaps not so bad - when combined with the exhilarating power of a 4.3-litre V8 engine. And guess what? This Ferrari is red. And it's a convertible, natch. The roof folds away with Batmobile precision and the interior is a low-slung cocoon of creamy leather and satisfyingly chunky controls. What's more, this classic Italian stallion is all mine. Well, at least for a day.
The choice had not been easy. I might equally have rented a nippy Aston Martin V8 Vantage Roadster, or a king-of-the-road Range Rover Sport Supercharged HST, which would perhaps be more appropriate for touring the leafy lanes. But hey, this wide-bodied, fat-wheeled, loudly throbbing sports car offers an irresistible mix of the vulgar and the va-va-voom. And yes, there is something strangely appealing about driving one down the mud-filled by-ways, passing munching cows, clattering tractors and prim village greens. The reaction from the yokels - whoops, locals - is amusing. Some wave, others scowl, one man gives a thumbs up. "Is that ecstatic approval," asks my wife, Mehra, "or does he want a lift?" Being polite drivers, we frequently have to slow down to let a magnificently feathered pheasant cross the road, and sometimes we are passed by chronically impatient men in white vans who can't believe their luck. "Hey! Mum! You'll never guess what I've just overtaken ..."
In fact, high-performance cars are far from alien to the money-soaked Cotswolds, a ridiculously picturesque range of hills (wolds) that spreads for 145km through Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. Two hours' drive west of London, this prosperous enclave offers a quintessential display of England at its most splendid, a photogenic parade of thatched roofs, honey-hued stonework, flower-filled gardens and ducks quacking by the water mill. Open the cottage front door and you'll find all the staples of the well-heeled rural life - scrubbed-pine furniture, an Aga, an heirloom grandfather clock, BBC Radio 4 playing on a Roberts radio as a genial Labrador snoozes by the flagstoned herb garden.
Is it pretty? Indisputably. Expensive? Not crazily. Twee? At times, but there is a further lure. The Cotswolds bristles with top-class country hotels, one of the last great things the Brits can still do to perfection. One faultless example is Lower Slaughter Manor, near Stow-on-the-Wold, which fortunately is not named after a nasty accident in the nether regions. Apparently, a Norman knight, Philip de Sloitre, lived here in the 11th century, and I'm sure he'd be very happy to return to this 19-room Relais & Châteaux manor house with its serene lawns, elegant drawing rooms and four-poster beds fit for Sleeping Beauty. The leather-bound menus in its excellent restaurant bear just one word on the cover: Slaughter, and that's fitting when the menu features the finest Scottish salmon, Hereford beef and local artisan cheeses.
It is here that we pick up our Ferrari, and as it's a show-off's car it is naturally delivered right in the middle of breakfast, which turns a few heads and surely wakes up all the others. Being an automatic, there's not much to learn - the boot's in the bonnet and your first 160km is included in the price. But where should we go? A useful starting point is to follow The Romantic Road, two circular routes of around 120km mapped out by the local tourist board that take in many Cotswolds highlights. Another option is to seek out scenic viewpoints, such as Dover's Hill in Chipping Campden, which looks out over the fertile Vale of Evesham. If you like vintage cars, call in at the delightful Cotswold Motoring Museum in Bourton-on-the-Water, which is packed with gems like the sweet little 1934 Riley Kestrel, the streamlined 1938 BMW 327, and a grand 1950 MG Y in two-tone green.
Touring was clearly fun then - and it still is, though the big difference today is that this choice spot of English countryside is now as much about bankers as farmers. The rolling fields are not only home to crops and herds but also chi-chi business parks, upmarket spas and bespoke jewellers. Nothing bears this out better than Daylesford Organic, near Chipping Norton. Created by Lady Bamford, this is a farm shop like no other where, besides buying the very best organic produce, you can also have an ayurvedic massage, learn how to make petit fours and pick up a US$10,000 (Dh36,732) handbag. One's Ferrari feels very much at home here, and it's the perfect place to source ingredients for a picnic at one of the numerous country gardens that open in the summer months. We plump for the early-20th-century National Trust-owned Hidcote Manor, near Chipping Campden, which is designed as a delightful series of "outdoor rooms" that each have their own special atmosphere.
After that, it's definitely time for a cup of tea. We head southwest to Buckland Manor, a secluded country hotel where there's a delicious sense of time travel as we sit in its calm, wood-panelled lounge sipping Earl Grey and nibbling lemon drizzle cake. With restful gardens and good walking, it's tempting to just check in here and forget the world, but the bedrooms are a tad chintzy for us Ferrari-driving classes. We prefer to push on to the nearby bright lights of Cheltenham, a city famous for its horse racing, posh schools and Regency architecture. On its outskirts, The Greenway is another historic hideaway where Elizabethan roots are mixed with 21st-century treats like helicopter transfers and a personal shopper. There are only 11 rooms and a smart restaurant, plus a creeper-clad facade that is just the spot to park the Ferrari for a final commemorative photo in the late afternoon sun.
One word of warning, though - the doors of a Spider are huge and if you open them carelessly you might well hit something. Thankfully, if there's a woman around there is always a solution to everything - including how to touch up an embarrassing little chip in the paintwork of a $130,000 (Dh477,515) supercar just as the rental man approaches with his clipboard. "Oh, let's not worry about that," Mehra cries, reaching for her handbag. And that's the secret to enjoying a thrilling day out in a bright red Ferrari - always pack a matching lipstick.