The Aston Martin Vantage is not all that it appears. Despite those gentle, rippling lines and subtle styling touches, the latest supercar from the British brand is raw, primal and instinctive. It is, to all intents and purposes, an animal — albeit it one with a high-powered, 4.0 litre twin-turbocharged V8 heart beating beneath its bonnet.
We’ve brought this four-wheeled, natural-born predator to Aynhoe Park; something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing itself. Grade I-listed and surrounded by neatly landscaped grounds, the 17th Century country house may appear to be a garden variety stately home — but step inside and you’ll discover the house has more hidden secrets than the Aston Martin we’ve parked outside.
If, like us, you’re ever lucky enough to visit Aynhoe Park — the house is only available for exclusive hire and parties — you’ll be confronted by some of the quirkiest decor the Midlands has to offer. Vintage frilled lampshades and bright green chandeliers light the space, and the halls are crowded with intricate metal statues and an abundance of various artworks. There’s even a zoo-load of taxidermied animals snarling out at visitors from alcoves and nooks.
A stuffed unicorn sits on a grand piano, a polar bear stands rampant in an arctic explorer’s uniform and a giraffe sails through the orangery suspended by a bunch of huge white balloons. They’re quite the sights; visions that’ll have you second-guessing if you’ve already dipped behind the retro-styled, well-stocked bar. But we haven’t. Not yet, anyway. The sun is barely up, and we’ve got a day of driving ahead of us — taking the vicious new Vantage on a roundabout road trip to do our Christmas shopping at Bicester Village.
And this corner of the country was made for Christmas. Here, on the edge of the Cotswolds, the villages and winding lanes are just a dusting of snow away from looking like a Christmas card, and the crisp winter mist lends itself to some cracking early morning views. So, after one more pinch-me stroll around the decadent decked halls of Aynhoe Park, it’s time to slip back into the Aston’s laid-back leather seats and explore the festivities this area has to offer.
Getting behind the wheel of the new Vantage feels like unwrapping a present itself. The raw athleticism of the car really roars to life on these backroads and, while we may not quite manage its top speed of 195 mph, the 0-60 mph time of just 3.6 seconds is a toy too tempting not to play with. Tearing from Hempton to Heythrop, the road into the Cotswolds unfurls like a ribbon — and the Aston’s 20-inch aluminium wheels take both the bends and bumps with ease.
Before long, we’ve made it to Chipping Norton, and have had time to settle into the sumptuous interior. Aston, which has been somewhat shaky with its cabin designs in the past, has really stepped things up a gear with this new Vantage. Trimmed in full mid-blue leather, equipped with heated seats and fitted with a carbon-fibre steering wheel, this is as comfy a cockpit as you could wish for on a cold winter’s day.
Despite a smaller size than comparative supercars, the Vantage is still a little wide for the cosy Cotswold villages, their one-way systems and tight, sandstone bends. But, once we roll into the bucolic market town of Burford, we’ve mastered the manoeuvring and started to tune out the countless turned heads. Still, it’s time for a break — so we park up by The Angel, Burford’s award-winning gastropub, to take a look at what seasonal trappings it has to offer.
After a rich hot chocolate by The Angel’s open fire, we head back into the cold for our first spell of Christmas shopping. For trinkets and handcrafts, there are few destinations better than Burford’s Christmas Court — a suitably seasonal name for one of the town’s many small alley-set arcades. If you’ve left sending cards to the last minute, or you’re just searching for some singular decorations, this is the best place in town.
After tearing ourselves away from the festive wares and fairy lights, we chart a course across the county to another of the region’s best destinations to visit at Christmas. Taking the A40 eastwards, the Aston deftly skirts around the Oxford on the ring road — the city centre is often too congested at this time of the year for enjoyable Christmas shopping — and makes for Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons. The flairy French tinsel on the Oxfordshire’s tree, Raymond Blanc’s 15th-century manor is tucked away in the picturesque countryside — and proves the perfect place for lunch.
Getting in the festive spirit just in time for Christmas, Raymond Blanc — the establishment’s maître de maison — has cooked up a seasonal lunch menu to offer to guests throughout December. And, after parking up the Aston under a canopy of falling leaves, we must only take a short stroll up a lavender scented footpath to the two Michelin-starred restaurant. Here, world-class gastronomic talents and outstanding organic produce collide together in a tastebud-teasing, bell-jingling celebration of good food.
From Cornish crab with coconut and confit of smoked trout to more festive treats such as roasted clementine duck, truffled hens eggs and salted butter ice cream, Blanc’s festive menu is as good as it sounds. You can even upgrade your glass of champagne to Dom Pérignon for £30 per person if you haven’t got an Aston parked up outside. And why wouldn’t you splash out otherwise? ’Tis the season, after all.
After such a lavish lunch, we were at risk of a post-meal slump. Thankfully, the charming villages around Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons are connected by a series of twitchy, hairpin roads. And, from Little Milton to Great Haseley, there are few afternoon drives more thrilling; few rural twists and racing turns better suited to sharpening the senses.
Even if the route wasn’t this exhilarating, the Vantage alone is stimulating enough to keep us on the edge of our Alcantara seats. The sheer noise of the thing is incredibly exciting; like a brass band warming up before they begin Christmas carolling. It’s a deep baritone rumble that crescendoes up to a throaty shriek as we whip our way towards the day’s final destination; Bicester Village.
A final blast up the M40 delivers us swiftly and stylishly to the doorstep of Oxfordshire’s premier shopping destination. And there is arguably no time better to explore Bicester Village than at Christmas. During December, the village has more celebrations than you can shake a candy cane at; from a night garden parade by the Liverpool Lantern Company to special extended opening hours for late night shopping.
So ready your pen to tick every gift off your Christmas list — because Bicester Village has something for everyone. If you’re looking to invest in a coat to warm you through the winter, head to Moncler or North Face — or dip into Penhaligon’s if the cold weather has you searching for a new aftershave to spritz. When it comes to gifting, there’s even more. If you’re struggling to find the perfect present for the woman in your life, why not pick up a pair of Manolo Blahniks, a bag from Mulberry or something suitable shiny from British jeweller Monica Vinader?
There’s Rapha for the cycling enthusiast in your life, N. Peal for any knitwear aficionados and the Cambridge Satchel Company if you’ve got a stylish student to buy for. There’s Brioni for suiting, UGG for booting and Orlebar Brown if someone’s already looking forward to their next summer holiday.
Even if you’ve already got every present neatly wrapped and popped beneath your tree, Bicester Village is on hand to help with your homewares this Christmas season. Who wouldn’t want a turkey basted and cooked in a Le Creuset roaster? Or to display some festive flickering tea lights picked up at Bamford? If your Christmas list has filled pages and spilled across notebooks, you also need only swing by Smythson to pick up a new one.
Along the way, Bicester Village has warm cinnamon buns on offer from Oliphant’s Bakery; guaranteed to keep you feeling merry and bright as you shop. You should also pop into Pierre Marcolini’s for one of the creamiest hot chocolates you’re likely to have this side of Boxing Day. However, after thoroughly sampling the snacks and seasonal foods, our favourite festive offering has to come from Café Wolseley, where we’re sitting — shopping bags full and stomachs empty — to enjoy a festive dinner before driving home.
There’s a mushroom soup more warming than any hot chocolate, topped with chopped chestnuts for a real crispy Christmas bite. There’s a hearty ribeye steak with honey roasted root vegetables on the side — and The Wolseley crumble with custard to see us through to dessert.
Whatever’s on your menu, just make sure you’ve finished your shopping before you settle in for your festive feast — because this is food so filling that nothing will shake you from your well-fed stupor. That is, of course, unless you’ve got a V8 Vantage warming up outside…
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