The evening before, I had imbibed a cocktail in the velvety Soho cellar where adulterous MP John Profumo used to squire good-time girl Christine Keeler, back when it was called The Pinstripe Club. Now it’s called Disrepute, a nod to the scandals that took place there.
The drinks menu alludes to this celebrity haunt’s naughty past: “He had dined late with his wife. She had grown accustomed to ending their dalliance before his night took on a more business-like tone, descending as it did into hushed voices, influential decision and finally, as the hours grew long, infamy,” reads the description for a Vintage Sour: vodka, sparkling mead, lemon, honey syrup and an egg white. The imagery is all there, but the seediness has been replaced by plush art deco furnishings.
The coffee percolator announces a new day and a white Aston Martin DB11 wakes my neighbours with the bark of its V12. Before aiming the nose towards Taplow I swing by 16 Henniker Mews, Chelsea, to meet the ghosts of its ancestors. It was in this handsome gated street that Aston Martin was established in 1913. The company’s first car bore little resemblance to the 2017 model in which I arrive. It was known as the Coal Scuttle.
Instead, the DB11 is a thoroughly modern-looking GT, albeit one that draws on the design genes of the great Sixties cars styled by Carrozzeria Touring and Zagato.
This mating of Italian style and British taste is reflected in my destination, Cliveden House, which crowns an outlying ridge of the Chiltern Hills. Designed by Sir Charles Barry in 1851, it blends English Palladian with Italian architecture.
The Aston burbles westwards out of London on the M4, taking the turning after Eton towards Taplow. The DB11 swings through the main gates that have welcomed real and Hollywood royalty for a century, passing a huge, ornate fountain on the long, gravel drive until the stately pile’s 100ft clock tower hoves into view and you’re transported from Berkshire to Tuscany.
Its original owner was the Duke of Buckingham, but Cliveden found its social mojo upon the purchase by American William Waldorf Astor in 1893. His daughter-in-law, Nancy Astor, established the “Cliveden Set” of political intellectuals in the Thirties and threw open the doors to some of the 20th century’s most venerable thinkers, artists, moguls, movie stars and, to delve into current parlance, influencers.
I park at Cliveden’s north portico and am shown into the Great Hall, panelled in English oak and featuring a huge 16th century fireplace that was pulled from a Burgundian chateau. Yet despite the grandeur I’m encouraged to feel at home. “Relax and enjoy the theatre of the place,” says Kevin Brook, the general manager. Cliveden, while a National Trust property, has been converted into a luxury hotel. Brook has the privilege of guiding guests through the next chapter of Cliveden’s storied history.
Aston Martin’s CEO Dr Andy Palmer has a similar task. In another Italianate setting, the Villa Collalto in Siena, where Aston launched the DB11 last summer, he described it as the old company’s “most important car ever.”
The Profumo Affair was triggered at Cliveden in July 1961 when a late-night pool party got a little out of hand. This is something the hotel is in no hurry to play down, and they even have outdoor screenings of the film it inspired – Scandal – beside the aforementioned swimming pool, scene of Keeler’s skinny-dipping introduction. Profumo was the secretary of war at the time, and Keeler’s competing lover Yevgeni Ivanov, a Soviet spy.
At the time, the famed DB4 GT Zagato was being built at Aston Martin’s works in Newport Pagnell. The 20 examples are among the most desirable of all cars, and I reckon it’s to this car the DB11 owes many of its genes.
The design has taken cues from the DB10, of which just ten were built for Spectre, 007’s last outing, as well as the £1.7 million Vulcan and the £1.15 million One-77. So, the lineage is every bit as regal as one of Lady Astor’s wine and cheese evenings.
At Cliveden, the bedrooms are named after past guests; Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Franklin D Roosevelt, Rudyard Kipling, T.E Lawrence. I’m in the Henry James suite and, between the two bedroom windows overlooking the vast parterre and its colourful flowerbeds, is a portrait of Miss Keeler. It was painted by Vasco Laszlo, who was friends with Steven Ward, the osteopath who was embroiled in the Profumo Affair and charged with living off immoral earnings. He used to rent a riverside cottage on the the Cliveden estate, and took his own life before the headline-grabbing trial was concluded and the Macmillan government fell.
Cliveden was to be my base for the Henley Royal Regatta, for which Aston Martin had designed a one-off car. Its designer Marek Reichman lives in the Thames-side town, so it seemed an appropriate destination. On tearing out of Cliveden, the car roars down Hedsor Hill and along the Marlow Road; tiny corrections to the direct steering keeping the Aston out of the hedgerows.
At the Regatta, the car draws admiring glances from Sir Steve Redgrave, five-times Olympic gold winner and chairman of the regatta committee. The rakish lines of the company’s newest offering seem at home in this carefully preserved Victorian setting complete with crests, curious nicknames and enviable physiques.
To see out the afternoon’s racing, I point the DB11 towards the neo-classical columns of one of Britain’s most notable country houses, Fawley Court. Created by Sir Christopher Wren and Capability Brown, the house and grounds were the inspiration for Toad Hall in The Wind in the Willows; Mr Toad being among the first wealthy enthusiasts to embrace the motor car. He would, I’m sure, approve of the DB11.
Fawley Court’s vivacious owner, Aida Dellal Hersham, could be straight out of a 007 film herself. She’s even arranged for an amphibious Iguana 29 speedboat to take us along the Thames and cheer on the rowers. Very Bond. Once the boat sprouts caterpillar tracks to haul us up the slipway and into the centre of Henley, onlookers drop their Pimm’s along with their jaws.
The Aston’s V12 triggered, we head back to the Cliveden estate, where dinner is every bit as decadent as you’d hope. Chef André Garrett, who despite the e-acute is from Somerset, reworks culinary classics that are heavy on Englishness but light on texture. The seven-course tasting menu includes crab, foie gras, turbot and rack of lamb, washed down with an innovative pairing of fizz, cider and fine wine.
Modern reinterpretations of British classics with zingy chasers; sounds a little like the goals of DB11 designer Reichman and chief vehicle attribute engineer Matt Becker. Pinching Becker from Lotus three years ago has helped establish Aston as a supercar maker that can rival Ferrari in more than looks and prestige. Becker’s dad, Roger, is said to have had the most sensitive bottom in the motor industry and, after 43 years of setting the handling benchmark at Lotus, entrusted the mantle to Matt. There’s no doubt you can feel the soul of a Lotus under the Aston’s deep carpets and Bridge of Weir leather.
The Beatles shot their video for Help! in the grounds of Cliveden, which is a word that comes to mind when you floor the DB11. Under the bonnet: 12 cylinders and 5.2 litres, twin turbos, an all-alloy, quad-cam, 48-valve masterpiece, developing 600 of Her Majesty’s stallions, not to mention a whopping 516lb of torque.
The last generation DB9GT showed its age in the acceleration stakes yet the DB11 forces Aston drivers straight into the premier league. There a 70 per cent increase in lateral stiffness over the DB9 and the rear now has multi-link suspension, a sublime ride on every surface the Thames Valley throws at it.
As a GT, it’s a thrilling all-rounder and, because of the emotional connection an Aston has over, say, an AMG-tweaked Mercedes, it has magic that can’t be manufactured.
It is a renaissance marque at home in front of Cliveden’s renaissance architecture. The British establishment and a state-of-the-art rebel all in one.
Aston Martin DB11 V12
ENGINE 5,204cc V12
TOP SPEED 200mph
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 3.9sec
FUEL ECONOMY 24.8mpg (EU Combined)