Three long days working this week and a chance to get re-acquainted with Transit vans (its been a while since I drove the larger ones):-
Monday: Volkswagen Golf 1.4 TSI (125hp) DSG (auto), Kettering, Northants to Dereham, Norfolk
Wednesday: Ford Transit 350 (the big one!), Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire to Woodford Green, Essex
Friday: Ford Transit Custom (the “traditional” size Transit), Rotherham, South Yorkshire to Southampton
There was a comment in response to last week’s diary asking if I was going to review the BMW X5 40e plug-in hybrid (two of which I drove that week). It is, after all, an interesting car so here goes ….. well, from what I could tell, it was very nice! It pulled away satisfyingly on electric power only and stayed on electric until I had to accelerate up to 65/70mph on the motorway or dual carriageway (on each leg of my round trip that was only a few hundred yards from my starting point!). Everything I said about driving the Mercedes C-class plug-in hybrid on electric power applies here – eerie, silent, satisfying and, for me, still a fascinating novelty. When accelerating up to motorway speed, the two litre, turbocharged four cylinder petrol engine cut in without any fuss, the car felt quick (I have included some anorak data at the bottom of this post) and the eight speed automatic box was as smooth as frog’s fur. When cruising at motorway speed, the petrol engine was virtually silent, possibly because it was only ticking over at about 1500 to 1700 rpm so I assume the electric motor was helping. You do notice road noise but may be because the power unit is so quiet! Negotiating curves (a total of two roundabouts), the X5 felt as if it was quite nimble, certainly far more so than the lumbering Range Rover that I drove the following day. Inside, there was an upmarket and quality interior that you would expect from a £60k BMW and you would not be disappointed in terms of comfort. And that’s about it! Other than to say that the gentleman to whom I delivered the X5 loan car (I took his week-old X5 hybrid back to Leicester to have a small paint chip sorted) confirmed what I said about upmarket hybrids and tax in my Mercedes C-class post. His new hybrid X5 uses more fuel than his old diesel X5 – so it won’t save the planet – but it will save him over £400 per month in tax!
Sorry I can’t say much more about the X5 but I only drove each example about 35 short miles between Leicester to Kettering, almost entirely on motorway and dual carriageway. The only time I turned the steering wheel was when negotiating those two roundabouts (OK, I had to park them as well). Had the journey been any shorter I could probably have left the cars plugged in! Now my childish imagination starts to run riot. Suppose the X5 had one of those self-retracting cables like an old vacuum cleaner (and could reach from BMW Leicester to Kettering)! When I got to Kettering I could have rung up the BMW dealer, asked them to unplug the cable and give it a little tug (reminding them to let go sharpish). The plug and cable would then have raced off down the street like a demented snake (hopefully without BMW salesperson in tow) snapping at the heels of startled pedestrians who would leap out of the way with a shriek. Cars would have screeched to a halt at green lights as the snake hurtled through on red. Then it would have flown down the M1 and A14 passing all the other traffic and just a few seconds later it would have raced towards the X5 and disappeared into a recess in the bodywork. Before disappearing, the last couple of feet of cable would have flicked furiously up and down like the tongue of the aforementioned demented snake, just as if the car were vigorously sucking in the tail end of a strand of spaghetti. While standing nonchalantly checking the latest cricket scores on my phone, I would have casually closed a flap over the recess, wiped off any excess bolognese sauce and carried on with whatever. This is, of course, all fantasy but there are electric vehicles on our roads that do have cables long enough for their entire journey – they are called trams. Shame we abandoned them in the UK for decades before re-discovering the benefits. The new tram system in Nottingham, for example, is rather good. If you ever go to Nottingham, give them a try. You may have the privilege of travelling on the likes of Robin Hood, Torvill and Dean or England cricketer, Stuart Broad. (Sorry – I know I have some readers in Australia so mentioning Stuart Broad may be insensitive after what he did in the fourth test of the last Ashes series.)
Once upon a time, Leicester had trams.
If you are not convinced about trams, you need to visit the National Tramway Museum (https://www.tramway.co.uk/) in Crich, Derbyshire – it’s brilliant. If you are visiting Matlock or the south eastern side of the Peak District National park, you will not be far away. Please be assured I am not a tram spotter nor tram aficionado but my family and I have visited this place two or three times over the years and really enjoyed it. The museum is set in a period village where original buildings have been transported and re-built brick by brick, including an old pub. You can ride trams up and down a length of track (all day if you want – there’s no extra cost), peruse the splendid indoor exhibits, lose the kids in the outdoor or indoor play areas, try to lose them again in the woodland walk and sculpture trail and then eat and drink yourself silly. Here you are spoilt for choice – the period tea rooms, the pub, ice cream parlour or traditional sweet shop (or all of them if your diet is starting the next day). Or, you can take your own pork pie or corned beef sandwiches and enjoy the picnic area with views over the Amber Valley at the far end of the tram line.
A Leeds tram (left), I believe and a seaside special – an old Blackpool tram
Indoors where exhibits are arranged chronologically from the earliest horse-drawn trams onwards
We first went to the museum many years ago when our kids were very little. It was near Christmas and we had a hearty roast turkey lunch served in giant Yorkshire puddings. Then we met Santa riding on the tram but I must have been naughty because I don’t remember getting a present (the kids did though). The last time we went was four years ago and it was a 1940’s theme day. What a great atmosphere! Loads of people dressed up in period civvies or military uniforms. And you have to admit, the trams themselves – many of them brightly coloured and/or with acres of highly polished wood – do look rather magnificent.
1940’s theme day at the museum. You can’t keep soldiers away from a pub!
All change! It costs one old penny to ride the trams. But don’t worry they give you that when you arrive.
I’ll have a quarter of, erm, those … no, those … no, wait…. Like a kid in a sweet shop.
ANORAK’S CORNER: BMW X5 xDrive40e M Sport – 0-60mph, 6.8 seconds; top speed, 130mph (limited to 75mph on electric only); total power (combined petrol engine & electric motor), 313hp; combined MPG, 83.1 (ha ha); range on electric-only, 19 miles.


An interesting week:-

Monday: Vauxhall (Opel) Astra 1.0T SRi, Knebworth, Hertfordshire to Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire; Peugeot 108 1.0 Active, Leighton Buzzard to Bruntingthorpe, Leicestershire

Tuesday: Audi A4 2.0TDI S-Line, Leicester to Loughborough

Thursday: BMW 430i Gran Coupé auto, Coventry to Derby; BMW 420d Coupé manual, Derby to Nottingham

Friday: BMW 420d Gran Coupé xDrive auto, Derby to Ilkeston, Derbyshire.

A BMW 4-series fest! The 430i was particularly nice. The Astra was interesting, might be a full post about that soon.

We had a pleasant day out in London last weekend. My wife and I set out on a mission to walk the length of four of the Royal Parks – St James’s Park, Green Park, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. En route, we had a small diversion to have a little nose at St James’s Palace and Clarence House and found ourselves on a film set! On the quiet street behind these two houses we spotted a line of 1960’s vehicles and lots of film company vans and lorries. There was another building (Lancaster House) with lights and cameras pointing at a grand looking balcony. Turns out they were filming the Netflix series, “The Crown” with Lancaster House doubling as Buckingham Palace.

The Crown - extras
Extras for the Netflix production, “The Crown”!

We had another diversion, south past the Albert Memorial and Albert Hall and down through Kensington to find somewhere to eat. We plumped for a smart looking French restaurant, L’Etranger (amazed they let us in!) where we had an excellent and surprisingly good value meal – two courses for £20 each. Three courses could be had for £25 but we were too full! Star of the meal was a basil sorbet which accompanied my wife’s mozzarella and “heritage” tomato starter. The sorbet and mozzarella worked deliciously together (doubt if Peter Kaye’s dad could have coped with basil ice cream). Back on the march, we reached our destination, Kensington Palace. Home to several members of the Royal Family, including Wills and Kate, Prince Harry and Princess Eugenie, I have to say it is rather uninspiring from the outside! You can go in but we had to leave that for another day. Instead we turned around and headed back to St. James’s Park but choosing different paths for our return hike.

It was quite surprising how far you can walk across this green landscape and all in relative tranquillity in the heart of one of the world’s great cities. There are ornamental gardens, open parkland, monuments, lakes, a surprising variety of bird life and, at this time of year, carpets of daffodils to enjoy. Crossing these four parks from end to end is almost three miles with only the crossing between Green Park and Hyde Park bringing you to into contact with the hustle and bustle of the concrete jungle. With our various diversions and seeing other parts of the city, we walked about 10 miles that day. Exhausting but definitely well worth it.

IMPORTANT NOTE: It was quite sobering listening to the radio on Wednesday afternoon in the aftermath of the terrorist attack in London. What I didn’t mention above is that we had been in Parliament Square and Westminster (the scene of the attack) twice last Saturday. My daughter went to a blogging event in a conference centre just off the square; we left her there to set off on our walk and met up again later in the day. Parliament Square was buzzing. Loads of people attending an anti-racism event. There was a stage, live music, banners and people of all shapes, sizes, creeds and colours. This event was all about harmony, tolerance and inclusion. What a sad and tragic irony, the sickening attack that happened in the same place just a few days later.

I did wonder whether it was appropriate to describe our happy day out last Saturday, but then I thought – why should I change what I was going to do because of the acts of a terrorist? Who would be the winner? On the radio, a former London mayor called for Londoners to carry on. I’m sure he would want people up and down the country to do the same. As Winston Churchill would have said: “KBO!”. Keep Buggering On or, in my case, Keep Blogging On.



A busy week!:-

Monday: BMW 330d auto saloon (2014), Rugby to Whitchurch, Shropshire

Tuesday: Nissan Qashqai N-connecta 1.5DCI, Liverpool to Birmingham; Renault Megane Signature NAV 1.6 diesel estate, Birmingham to Leicester

Thursday: Vauxhall Corsavan, Gloucester to Tidworth, Wiltshire; Peugeot 207 van Tidworth to Blackbushe, Surrey.

Friday: Mercedes GLC250d AMG Line 4MATIC, Leicester to Thurgoland, South Yorkshire; Audi A4 Avant 2.0TDI 177hp (2013), Thurgoland to Birmingham.

I passed a 1920s/30s Bentley on the motorway yesterday (British racing green of course). It was charging along with its two occupants wrapped up in fur-lined flying jackets. Probably not quite as comfortable or quiet as a Mulsanne Speed but it was a magnificent sight.

Speaking of magnificent sights, last weekend we were privileged to see an elusive amphibious deer (Latin: cervus moistius).  We were very lucky because this majestic animal is rarer than a bandy legged mermaid (or any mermaid come to think of it). I managed to get the photo below but I couldn’t get too close. These are very skittish animals and will submerge at the slightest hint of danger. So, you cannot see the gills or the webbed feet that distinguish this animal from its landlubbing cousins but you can make out its unusual duck bill-shaped  head. Amphibious deer have been known to dive to depths of at least six inches and they use their “bill” to forage underwater for their favourite gillyweed and watermoss. And where did we see this amazing creature? At Wayne Manor, home of Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne. This impressive stately home is also known as Wollaton Hall in Nottingham, star of The Dark Knight Rises. Rather appropriately, there is a place called Gotham just a few miles south of Nottingham so the caped crusader doesn’t have far to commute. He is probably best mates with Nottingham’s other legend, the hooded crusader.

Amphibious Deer Wollaton Hall
This photo is honestly, truly genuine!

Changing the subject somewhat, do you ever have to pop out to the shops to purchase two or three things that you suddenly have urgent need of? Have you ever stopped to think how bizarre these small selections of items may seem to other people? Have you ever stood rather self-consciously next to the conveyor belt in Tesco’s as your fellow customers ponder what circumstances led you to need a tin of custard, a cucumber and a pair of washing up gloves? I had to make just such a foray to the shops on Wednesday. My mission was successful and I returned home with the required bunch of flowers, two scotch eggs and a pressure washer. Sorry, that may not be very interesting.



This week I drove:-

Monday: Mercedes C350e saloon (plug-in hybrid), Leicester to Derby

Wednesday: Mercedes C350e saloon (plug-in hybrid), Derby to Leicester

Friday: Volkswagen Caddy, Kettering to Bury St. Edmunds

The Mercedes plug-in hybrid was interesting – might be a full post in due course.

Meanwhile, we had a day out in the Cotswolds last weekend, an area of south central England famous for its quintessential Englishness. Rolling green countryside and picturesque towns and villages whose buildings have been chiselled out of solidified honey. We stopped in a couple of the more well-known places, Moreton-in-Marsh and Bourton-on-the-Water, the charms of which are well-documented. However, I will mention the rather brilliant Cotswolds Motor Museum and Toy Collection in Bourton, a wonderfully ramshackle place where you are guided through the history of motoring from its earliest days to the 1960s and 70s.

The cars on show include Austins, Morris’s, MGs, Jaguars, Rileys and a 1938 BMW 327. The information accompanying the BMW explained that the first BMW cars were Austin 7s manufactured under licence. Every day an education! The car that caught my eye, simply because of its name, was a 1911 Alldays and Onions. These were probably manufactured under licence from the German company, Jedentag und Zwiebeln GmbH. Or was it the French company, Chaquejour et Oignons SA? Not quite sure.

In addition to cars, there are motorcycles and old caravans and an astonishing array of memorabilia and old enamel signs covering virtually every inch of the walls. The memorabilia and signage are not just limited to cars. There are artefacts and advertisements for all sorts of things, plus of course the substantial collection of old toys. This is not just a journey through motoring history but a truly atmospheric and nostalgic look back at life in bygone eras.

Away from the bigger villages/towns, we also came across a couple of interesting places off the beaten track that are probably missed by most people:-

Longborough. This was really the main purpose of the trip – to look around the church in this quiet, pretty little village. My wife and daughter are heavily into genealogy and had traced some ancestors back to Longborough in the 18th century.  These ancestors went by the family name of Tombs. So there we were looking around a graveyard for Tombs. I kid you not. Apparently, there was a Scottish branch of this family – the MacTombs – who were well-known race horse owners in their day. Unfortunately, the search was in vain because the older gravestones had eroded very badly. However, the village was charming and came complete with an inviting looking pub – the Coach and Horses Inn – but we had no time to sample it.

Donnington Brewery. En route from Longborough to Bourton-on-the-Water we drove down some interesting, narrow country lanes. Descending a small hill, we glimpsed what we thought was a large old house below us. It was nestling snugly between the hill and a lake. As we drove past, we saw a sign “Private Road Brewery Only” and then “Donnington Ales” on the side of the building itself. Wow! Is this the UK’s most scenic brewery? We didn’t stop but I have since looked it up. It is based in a 13th century watermill and the mill wheel is still used to drive machinery. The same family has brewed beer there since 1865. Unfortunately, there are no tours of the brewery  but, according to their website, you can stop there and buy the beer! There is also a 62 mile circular walk (the Donnington Way) which goes past the brewery itself and 15 of the brewery’s tied pubs. Might be a bit wobbly by the end. The abovementioned Coach and Horses Inn in Longborough is a Donnington Brewery pub.





This driving work is not all glamour. It’s not every day that I breeze into a swanky car dealership pursued by the paparazzi and a bevy of young ladies to pick up a Range Rover or Merc and waft away under blue skies and a warm sun. Some days, I find myself in some God forsaken place in the middle of nowhere and it is cold, damp and grey. And do you know what? I still enjoy it. One morning last November was a case in point. Myself and a colleague were deposited on a very foggy Thurleigh airfield in Bedfordshire to collect a couple of cars. Problem was, we were deposited at the wrong place on the airfield (and airfields are big places). My colleague had a vague recollection of having picked up a car there before and thought we needed to be somewhere near the control tower. Now a control tower is a big thing and usually a prominent landmark on an airfield. However, on that day it was completely invisible due to the fog! Thanks to a lone passing car amidst a motley collection of buildings doing an impersonation of the Marie Celeste, we found where we were supposed to be – over a mile away round the perimeter track. Quick historical note: Thurleigh is an ex-RAF base used by the USAAF during World War II from where they flew B-17 Flying Fortresses. Today, at one end of the airfield is Bedford Autodrome, a race track designed by ex-F1 driver Jonathan Palmer (father of current F1 driver, Jolyon). The other end is used for mass storage of cars. Which brings me back to the main subject of this post….

After a brief wait (in the right place), a rare splash of vivid colour appeared against the airfield’s monochrome backdrop. It was a very bright red Ford Focus ST which I was to deliver to Northampton, about 30 miles away. This was the diesel model with 185 horsepower compared to the 250 horses of its petrol-engined sibling (so slower on paper but far better fuel economy). It looked rather splendid and, of course, red cars go faster than cars of any other colour.
I snuggled into the extremely comfortable Recaro driver’s seat and set off. I have to say I was surprised – the engine was extremely quiet and refined and the ride  was pleasingly pliant. Given the ST’s hot hatch billing, I was expecting a rather rock hard ride. My comment about the quietness of the engine may not thrill the boy racers among you but please remember I have to drive these cars carefully. For all I know it may make the right sort of noise when pushed. And then there is that Recaro sports seat (rest assured, the Focus had two of them but, funnily enough, I only used one). I would venture to say that it was the most comfortable driver’s seat I have come across in a long time. It cosseted my sometimes troublesome back perfectly and the high sides gripped me snugly.
Now this puzzled me. I am just about of average height but comfortably below average weight, especially for someone of my age who can (just about) remember ten shilling notes, Pogle’s Wood and cars with trafficators. So streamlined am I, that I have to walk around in the shower to get wet. When I’m in trouble with my wife (e.g. for leaving scatter cushions in random places), I stand behind a standard lamp in order to become invisible until her anger has subsided. So if the Focus’s seat gripped me so snugly, how would more generously proportioned people (a significant portion of the adult population, especially males) even fit in them? I’m happy to say that the new owner of the car seemed to be able to get in, and more importantly, out of the driver’s seat with ease and without any sort of creaking noise followed by a large pop.

The drive from Thurleigh to Northampton was not the most exciting but the few bends and roundabouts I negotiated definitely gave the impression that the Focus had loads of grip and little body roll. More interesting was my destination which, quite appropriately, was located right next door to engine manufacturer, Cosworth which has a long history of making things go faster, including hot Fords.

After leaving the Focus with its new owner, I jumped into his old BMW 320d to take that back to the car auction site at Bruntingthorpe airfield near Lutterworth in Leicester. By comparison with the Focus, the BMW seemed very rattly and noisy but to be fair it was about 4 years old with over 79000 miles on the clock! It was not a bad companion to handle the twisty country lanes approaching Bruntingthorpe.

Bruntingthorpe, like Thurleigh, was cold, damp and grey. It is an interesting place though. Again, a wartime bomber base, after the war it was used by Sir Frank Whittle’s Powerjets company for the development of jet aircraft and today it remains one of the largest operational airfields in the UK. From 1993, Avro Vulcan XH558 was based at Bruntingthorpe where it was restored and returned to the air in 2007 (the last airworthy example); sadly it is now grounded. Bruntingthorpe is also home to the Cold War Jet Collection which includes Buccaneers, a Nimrod, Hunter, Canberra, Sea Vixen, Starfighter and more. The oddest exhibit is probably the supersized Super Guppy which was used to transport (very large!) parts of Airbuses. Look across the airfield and you can see several of the aircraft near the main hangar which now houses the car auction. Walking back to the main gate (where a SEPECAT Jaguar stands guardian), I came within touching distance of an English Electric Lightning looking in very good condition.


Also like Thurleigh, Bruntingthorpe is in the middle of nowhere so it was a call to nearby Lutterworth for a taxi, a couple of buses, before home and a nice cup of tea.