Tag Archives: England

My Millbrook Driving Experience

8 Apr

Thursday 29th March saw me venture out of the office, driving two hours north of London to visit the private grounds of the Millbrook testing facility. Millbrook is a 700-acre development with various testing facilities in the one place that will test any kind of road going vehicle through its paces before we (the public) know about it and see it on the showroom floors. Milbrook was constructed in the late 1960’s by General motors and is still today owned by them. Not only Vauxhall, GM’s British representative, use the testing facility. In fact you can see Ferrari, buses, campervans, army trucks, Nissan and of course Aston Martin using this facility to test their latest creations. Aston Martin however is the only manufacturer to have a private building on the testing grounds where guests attend private driving days, which I am attending today. Aston Martin is also the only manufacturer to allow customers to drive their vehicles on the facility, a very special experience indeed.

Milbrook Testing Facility from above

Arriving at the gates to the ‘proving ground’ I am directed to a designated Aston Martin parking zone and then asked to climb aboard the shuttle bus which escorts me to the private Aston Martin building. As I sit in the van looking out of the windows, I am struck by the feeling that I am an undercover photographer working for a magazine about to capture photos of the mini SUV’s driving around the grounds, all disguised in black and white wrap. I then remember that my camera is left in the car because cameras and camera phones are forbidden while in the grounds. In fact, my iPhone gets a little red sticker over the camera just in case I get the urge to take a pic (this is all so top secret, I LOVE IT).

As I and the other eleven guests sit down to lunch we chat about where we are and what we are all about to witness this afternoon. Afterwards, we listen to introductory messages from our hosts as they explain the proceedings of the afternoon and introduce us to the professional drivers who will be accompanying us on the courses.

First course up for me is the ‘Outer Handling’ course where I will be a passenger in the new V8 Vantage S. This course is made up of fast-flowing rises followed by 90 degree corners all driven on undulating concrete road surfaces to test the overall handling of the vehicle. Hard braking and accelerating into and out of these corners and riding the bumpy surfaces are a great way to test the overall handling package. As I slide around on the leather seats, listening to the screeching tyres on the road surface, the late braking into the apexes and fast acceleration is the cause for the huge smile on my face. This was a perfect course to begin my afternoon as I now have a better understanding for how these cars handle and how hard they can be pushed.

The second course I was to try was the ‘Hill Route’ (Alpine Circuit) in which I would get to drive the four-door Rapide. Driving this car around the city, it feels big and heavy, but here on the hilly terrain with ever changing gradients and tight corners, it handles just like the other two-door coupes. I was instructed when to brake and when to accelerate hard and when to turn into the apexes, even when you could not see them over a rise, all to get the better line and performance from the car. This is truly an amazing four-person sports car that handles and drives just like its two-door brothers.

The third course to drive was the ‘City Course’ in the new V8 Vantage. This course is designed for the little cars of the world where they can really shine and prove superior to the big powerful sport cars. In the past Aston Martin use this course for their luxury city car the ‘Cygnet’ but this time around I drove the 420bhp V8 Vantage as quick as I could and keep it between the lines of a single lane.  The conception is that big powerful engine cars are difficult to steer as the steering becomes heavy with ever changing directions due to the weight and power up-front used to drive the car. This course proves this to be incorrect as the steering in the V8 is a constant weight felt through the wheel, making opposite lock turning fast and responsive whichever way and at whatever speed you are driving.

The fourth course I was to attack was the ‘High Speed Bowl’ in the new 490bhp Virage Coupe. This two-mile (3km) circular banked circuit used for high speed testing consisted of five lanes, each at different degrees of banking. Each lane had a set speed to drive at in order to get the best feedback from the testing. I began in the bottom lane at 40mph and then made my way to the top lane in which I was instructed to hold the speed at 100mph / 160kph (no such thing as cruise control in these cars). Once at this cruising speed, I was asked to take my hands of the wheel, in which I did. At first it seemed daunting but after about 10 seconds, I could feel that this car was extraordinarily comfortable at this speed and proved very safe. After about one minute I was asked to return my hands to the wheel and increase the speed to what I felt was comfortable. At this time I increased my speed to 140mph / 225kph to feel how stable the car is at this top speed. The self-levelling adaptive suspension in this car constantly reads the road to adjust the stiffness of the suspension to make it comfortable and controlled at these top speeds. At the speeds travelled I gained further confidence and knowledge of how safe and capable these sports cars really are, and equally, how much I really want one.

The fifth course I attacked is the ‘Alpine Circuit’ and this time in the epitome of Aston Martin, the DBS coupe. To attack this circuit in this car feels twice as exciting for the following reasons:

  1. This car is the model used by James Bond in Casino Royale
  2. The scene in Casino Royale where the car rolls, just missing the person laying on the road, was filmed at this location and I get to drive the same circuit in the DBS. Look out James Bond!

As mentioned above the Alpine circuit is made up of rises, valleys, blind corners at the top of rises, bumpy tarmac and undulating road surfaces, but what better car to do it in than the DBS. I drive one lap of the circuit reaching fast speeds and hitting as many apexes as possible. The handling of this car in sport mode is unbelievable and not once did I feel unstable when pushing it as hard as my nerves let me. Once I completed my lap I swapped over to be a passenger as my professional driver took me for a ‘flying’ lap as it seemed compared to mine. The adrenaline rushing through my braced body in the leather seats, as he attacked each corner with fierce braking and sharp cornering, meant that when the lap was over, it left me wanting more chances to attack the circuit again with me behind the wheel. But as they say, all good things must come to an end.

The final course I was to attack was the mile long straight in the V12 Vantage. The idea of this course was to reach my top speed in the 510bhp sports car and then apply fierce braking to stop before the banked curve at the end of the mile straight. The first run I was the passenger as the professional driver showed me how to attack the straight and when to brake. After his run we swapped over to allow the carbon ceramic brakes to cool. Next up it was my turn. I drove the car back to the starting line where I would turn the car onto the straight in second gear, and with a rolling start, I flattened the throttled to the floor. As the engine revved out to 6,500rpm I quickly changed the gears manually (this car is only available as a manual). As I change into sixth gear and the final few seconds of acceleration, I glimpse at the digital read out of my speed and realise I am doing 162mph / 260kph. At that split second my instructor says ‘BRAKE’. I quickly move my right foot to the brake pedal and apply pressure. These carbon ceramic brakes are amazing and the speed in which I slow is mind blowing and I feel this through my neck. I cannot explain the pressure that my body felt when braking the car from that speed, but my whole body moved forward from the back rest of the seat and I had to make every effort to push it back. My adrenaline was now well and truly flowing through my body and asking for more. Thankfully I was able to have another go. I drove the car to back to the beginning of the straight at 50mph allowing the brakes to cool before I went for it again. My instructor was very happy with my gear changes but asked that I change it just a little bit before 6,500 as it will get me faster to the top speed. Setting off down the straight I quickly change up through the six gears in which I see the white broken line on the middle of the road turn into what appears as a solid white line. Again my instructor asks me to brake but this time I also use the gear changes to slow the car. I stop in what feels like a shorter time and with the amazing sound of the V12 roaring on each down shift. Again I hit 162mph and now swap back to the professional for him to kindly do one more run for me. He checks to make sure we have enough fuel left and away we go down the straight again. On this run he hits his best top speed which is 164mph before also using the brake and gear down changes to slow the car. On our way back to the others, we talk about how the car handles and how amazing these sports cars really are.

When I return to the building I sit with fellow quests and we reminisce what we have just witnessed and what it feels like to be able to drive such amazing automobiles. All of us could not wipe the smiles off our faces and couldn’t stop talking about the things we felt when driving the cars through each course. Once everyone was completed their courses we all climbed into the shuttle bus to be taken back to our road cars for the journey home. For some it was not far but for me, a two-hour long trip in a Toyota IQ was certainly an interesting comparison to what I have driven that afternoon and gave me plenty of time to reminisce.

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London at Night!

11 Mar
Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace

Tower Bridge Lifting

Tower Bridge

Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square

Hungerford Bridge, Waterloo

Hungerford Bridge, Waterloo

London Eye and Houses of Parliament

London Eye and Houses of Parliament

Embankment along the River Thames

Embankment along the River Thames

Westminster Bridge, Big Ben and Houses of Parliament

Westminster Bridge, Big Ben and Houses of Parliament

Big Ben and Westminster Bridge

Big Ben and Westminster Bridge

London Eye and County Hall

London Eye and County Hall

St Pauls Cathedral

St Pauls Cathedral

England has nice places too!

25 Oct

We have seen the English countryside before, but it’s always very beautiful to look at no matter how many times we’ve laid eyes on it. It’s always something of an interesting patchwork of different coloured fields with dry wall or hedge fences making the division between green fields for the cows or sheep and neatly planted rows of wheat in the block next door clear. On our most recent trip we drove around England with a plan to see more of our temporary home country and where we could see plenty of this landscape. We soaked it all up as if it was the last time we may be immersed in pure, beautiful Englishness.

Up until this point, a lot of people have told us to “see England, not just Europe” or “England has nice places too!”. Lectures heeded, we planned an itinerary and set off to see what we could while we still had the chance. We planned a trip that took us to the small village of Summerseat; the beautiful (and very wet) Lakes; and the towns of Newcastle; Durham; York and Cambridge.

We loved something different about each place we visited. We loved Summerseat, just north of Manchester, for its ‘quiet homely village’ feel (and for our family friends Joe and Jennie who welcomed us into their home for a night). We loved the Lakes for its resolute natural beauty and romantic poetic history (think Beatrix Potter and numerous other writers who called the Lakes home). We loved the Lakes for being true to itself as one of the wettest places in the UK by raining 99 per cent of our time there – walking in the pouring rain can be fun if you keep telling yourself it is! We loved Newcastle for its utter urban edge and bridges galore for trains, traffic and people. It’s beautiful in a very raw and urban kind of way. We loved Durham for its European feel (and Harry Potter cathedral). We loved York for its freaky, medieval-ness – walking around the historic centre at night and you can feel the hairs stand on the back of your neck as you think about the 504 ghosts that call York home. It’s true – the ghosts have all been ticked off and accounted for, making York the most haunted city in the world! It’s also the home of the notorious Guy Fawkes (who plotted to blow up London parliament, who failed and was hung, drawn and quartered as punishment. England celebrates every year with fireworks on November 5th). And we loved Cambridge for its students who we learnt are not allowed to work during term. We loved the town for it’s very laid back and chilled-out attitude.

We also came across a couple of other pleasant surprises along the way, including the scary Hardknott Pass in the Lakes (maybe not so much for Matt). I had no faith in our car’s brakes as we came scarily close to the edge of the road, with another car coming in the other direction in the rain, wind and fog with nothing but a cliff to my left! The views were great though. We also came across the Irish Sea at the town of Maryport in the north as our gps took us on an unexpected trip to the coastline. We could see Scotland in the distance. We stopped by Hadrian’s Wall close to Newcastle, a Roman wall that extended across the north of England. Parts of the wall still exist today. And we saw the Angel of the North – a giant, 200 tonne angel statue with a wingspan of 54 metres that is one of the most viewed pieces of artwork in the world. We also found ourselves driving through Nottinghamshire, aka Robin Hood country, so we stopped off at Sherwood Forest which was allegedly once the home of the man who wore green leggings and his merry men. And of course, we drove past that endless beauty, the English countryside and the patchwork quilt of fields. I just wonder how many more times we can sneak a peek before we leave this country?

Thank you for getting me across the finishing line!

16 Oct

The sea is cold but every muscle in my body relaxes and is soothed by the salty water and I feel elated to be in this very spot at this very moment. It took three days and 100 miles on foot, bicycle and kayak through the beautiful countryside of Somerset and Devon to get to this point in the Wild UK Adventure Challenge for The Prince’s Trust. It also took months of preparing – a challenge itself having done not much extreme activity for months before I decided to sign up in a team with my work colleagues Sarah, Olivia and Catriona. I was simply proud of myself for getting through the exercise and being able to run up to six miles in one training session, let alone completing the 100 miles for the actual challenge. I could save a lot of time for both myself and you as a reader and just say exactly how I feel about the whole challenge in four little words – it was bloody tough. But I’m going to attempt to describe exactly how tough it was, you know, so you can be sure that those sponsorship pounds didn’t go to waste!

For starters, our very first challenge on the very first day was colourfully labelled as a 10 mile “hill race”. A hill race it was where we had to race the 38 other teams to the top of the highest point in Exmoor, Dunkery Beacon; time limit, two and a half hours starting near Dunster Castle on the Devon coast and making our way through small villages, forest and then eventually over the mountain to come down the other side for lunch. For extra points, we needed to collect Scavenger Hunt items like a feather, pine cone, sheep’s wool and other natural items along the way, which I feel was little more than a distraction to keep our minds off the climb we had to endure. With challenge one complete, we were then faced with a 10-15 mile navigational hike that afternoon. We were given Ordance Survey maps with a number a checkpoints, all worth varying points according to the difficulty to reach them. We started off slow, a false sense of security that we’d have plenty of time to get through but we quickly realised that after an hour of trekking and only having reached two checkpoints, we had to get moving. We moved faster, slogging through peaty mud, across farmer’s fields avoiding cow pats and sheep poo, down bridle trails and then up bridle trails, over hills, through cutesy villages, through national forest, along main roads and country lanes, dibbing into the checkpoints and then heading on our way again. We had to complete extra challenges at each checkpoint – mental challenges like word puzzles and the like, and after five hours, we made it to the first camp at Wimbleball Lake. But the trek had taken its toll on myself, my team mates and many other participants in the form of horrific blisters and sore and aching muscles. But I had trouble with my knee, which the medic put down to a damaged ligament. She prescribed, ahh… ‘rest’. Proud of our enthusiasm, determination and hard work during the day, our team was announced as sixth overall that night. We were doing well.

Our wake up song on day two was U2’s Beautiful Day. Not totally inappropriate for the kind whether we woke to, but completely inappropriate for what we were about to go through. The first challenge we faced was a 3-7 mile kayak around Wimbleball Lake, followed by another 4-7 mile trek around the lake, both challenges we had to reach as many checkpoints as we could to collect as many points as we could in one and a half hours each. My knee started giving me grief again so I got it strapped for the trek, but still I hobbled along behind the three girls trying to keep up with them so we could keep our position against the other teams. But the pain wasn’t over. After a quick stop for lunch and a change into dry clothes following the wet kayak challenge, we were on our bikes, heading off for a 25-36 mile cycle from Wimbleball Lake to Thorverton, a small town in Devon. The toughest of all the challenges, we cycled down narrow country lanes and then on several off-road sections through muddy trails and streams. We were faced with 17 per cent incline hills and all the while navigating our way to checkpoints to collect points. I think we were pushing our weary selves and our bikes up the steep inclines and through the muddy bits more than we were actually cycling. I can’t remember the China challenge being this tough! But fellow participants gave us strength, particularly one guy who, while we were all walking up a massive hill, was giving out jelly babies… the sugar was a life saver. The day also came with its share of hiccups. Not forgetting the dangers of actually racing through the countryside on a bicycle, we came across a fellow challenge participant who had come off his bike, hit the bitumen and needed several stitches. And, ever so slightly dramatic, one of our own team members had a fall into a hollie bush, but thankfully the Skype team behind us stopped to help fix her bike. We repaid them in our chocolate supplies we packed for the day – a small price to pay for the gratitude we felt for them. If one of our team members could only push her bike, it would mean we’d slip further and further behind. But we still had another setback to come… after having made it to some of the most difficult checkpoints, we came in 10 minutes late at a compulsory checkpoint half way through the challenge and lost 50 points, taking away most of the hard work we just did the couple of hours previously. Demoralised, we begrudgingly trooped on and made it to camp at Thorverton by the required time of 6pm. We hadn’t lost any more points thankfully. We dropped to 10th place when the scores were announced that night at dinner. Game plan – we were determined to stay in the top 10!

“Only one day left” was all I could think when we woke on the final day of the challenge to our wake up song, Final Countdown. Yes indeed, the countdown was on and we were excited to see the light at the end of the tunnel! Our last challenge was another cycle, but this time, we were making our way through a more urban environment as we were getting closer and closer to Exeter and then our final destination, Exmouth. Distance; 20-30 miles with a time limit of four and a half hours. Our bodies in pain, we got back on our bikes, this time in the rain as the weather had turned nasty on us. Today, we would have wet pants and muddy faces for the rest of the day! Again, we had to make our way to various checkpoints for the points, and just in case we weren’t quite mentally and physically exhausted enough, an extra challenge of a rock climb was thrown in half way for additional points. At last we were making our way downhill towards the sea, and after we got lost in the town of Exmouth, we finally came to the beach and saw the branded flags of the challenge in the distance. As the finishing line came into clear sight, we cycled harder and got more excited about the fact that we would be getting off our bikes and having a shower to clean the mud we collected on our faces from the rain that morning. We had made it! We dumped our bikes and jumped into the sea – cool and refreshing – and collected our medallions. I can’t remember another time that I was so glad to see the end of something.

While the whole challenge was a memorable experience, I’ve completed it and won’t be going back for more. Don’t get me wrong, it will be an experience that I will always remember as it’s those things that are the most difficult that remain in your memory as something that you got through and all in good spirit. I think if I were to revisit the challenge, I would go back as a volunteer. They really did make the tough hill climbs easier with their cheering and heartfelt encouragement. I don’t think we would have made it through without them. The bonds we developed as a team was also a plus – we saw the worst and best of each other and in the end we made it through together and came out 11th team overall and 2nd out of all The Prince’s Trust teams. Not bad considering we were up against mixed teams with burly men and toned women. I think we were one of two all-women teams and we didn’t do too badly we think. And let’s not forget the whole reason why we signed up for the challenge – to spread awareness about The Trust helps disadvantaged young people to get their lives back on track. It was a fantastic experience and was certainly a weekend to remember!

Thanks for all your sponsorship – we made it to £1875 in total!

We made it!

Five things… we love about living in London

16 Aug

1. Underground buskers… Get off the train, ‘mind the gap’ and walk the mile (as it feels like sometimes) to our next underground line and in the distance we hear the sound of the bagpipes, or it might be a tune whistled by a very talented guy, or, it’s the strum of a guitar or the powerful voice of an opera singer or the soulful tunes of a jazz musician. The underground buskers are amazing and they lift your mood at the start of another work day. Or, it’s the perfect end on the way home from a night out.

2. A city for walking… and aimlessly at that as you never know what you’ll come across in the diversity of neighbourhoods that make up the great city of London. From fashionable Soho with it’s variety of trendy bars and cafes; to Hampstead and Belsize to rub shoulders with incredibly old and beautiful suburbian London with it’s massive Hampstead Heath; to East London with it’s markets and famous Brick Lane; to Surrey Quays, our home and a not too shabby walk along The Thames. There is nothing more we love than going for a walk on a lazy Sunday afternoon, discovering new gems and embracing what London has to offer.

London 'street art' off Brick Lane. You can find street art everywhere in London - you just have to keep your eyes open for it.

3. The seasons… OK, not so much to do with London, but with the country we’re living in. There are four distinct seasons. Blossoming spring; intermittantly hot and more-often-then-not, rainy, summer; golden autmn and cold and dreary winter. It makes for an interesting year rather than moving from hot to not-so-hot back home to mark the beginning of winter. Even as we approach mid-August, if you look hard enough, some leaves are already starting to hit the ground.

'Our park' along our street. These golden leaves will cover the ground soon enough.

4. Majestic sights… Sitting on red double-decker bus #188, we drive past Waterloo, over The Thames, past London parliament and Big Ben, through the city streets to Russell Square. Look left and you can see the London Eye, look right and there is Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. The dome of St Paul’s cathedral can be seen poking out of the city skyline across the river. Living in such close proximity to these absolutely amazing sights gives us butterflies in our stomachs. We actually live in this city and we can see these most famous sights whenever we please. It’s such an amazing feeling and I think we will miss this when we eventually have to leave the great city of London.

The view from the bus. We'll never get sick of this.

5. Parks… in all their beautiful, green glory. Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, Kew Gardens, Regent’s Park, Southwark Park… all beautiful spaces with neatly manicured gardens. London’s parks are home to squirrels who scurry across the path in front of us as we walk through, with gravel paths that take their walker between flowering garden beds and giant trees standing tall and magestic.  Strolling through these parks and gardens is the perfect way to spend a lazy Saturday and the perfect way to get amongst London at its very best.

Hyde Park in Spring.

When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. Boswell

“If music be the food of love, play on”

29 Apr

It is this famous Shakespeare quote that is written on the magnet Matt and I bought to remind us of our day trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon in the UK. There are many other famous quotes from the man himself, which the five of us – Geri, Kristy, Jo, Matt and I – cited (quite dramatically as well) as we drove into town on a sunny Saturday morning in early April. We were there to explore the town where Shakespeare was born, where he died and is now buried.

The town itself is really quite pretty – situated along the river Avon with a lot of green space with a typical old English village feel to it. We followed our own walking tour Jo found on the official tourist website. It lead us to Shakespeare’s birthplace, the house where his daughter grew up, the house he died in at the ripe old age of 52, the Grammar School where Shakespeare is believed to have gone to school (which is still the Boys Grammar School today), and the Holy Trinity Church, where the big S now rests, along with his wife Anne, daughter and son-in-law. At the Holy Trinity Church, a nice old man came up to us and started telling us a story about Shakespeare’s life, the town of Stratford-Upon-Avon and he pointed out the birth and death registries where Shakespeare’s name is recorded. He was such a charming chap, full of life and he told the story in such a dramatic way, it was almost like he was the official narrator of Shakespeare’s life.

It was also during our very own walking tour that we came across a Barclay’s Bank (could it have been the bank where Shakespeare kept all his money?);  a ‘Bright Ideas’ shop (perhaps where Shakespeare came up with all his plays?); the ‘One Stop’ shop (he may have bought his groceries here… you never know!); and we think, that just mayybbee, we saw (although it could have been a fragment of our imaginations), Shakespeare himself, sitting on a bench, just taking in life in his town. Of course, we’re making this up, but we had fun strolling around the town, coming up with elaborate stories of where Shakespeare spent his time and how he lived his life. Don’t worry, we know we are fools. What fools these mortals be! I believe that is an official Shakespeare quote!

After having a good laugh about all the stories we came up with, we had lunch in a lovely pub with two names – The Black Swan and The Dirty Duck, depending on which way you approach it. Walk from the Holy Trinity Church and the sign says The Black Swan. Walk from the town, and it’s called the other. No sense to it, but it’s kind of Shakespearian, don’t you think?! We also made a visit to Anne Hathaway’s cottage – not the actor, but Shakespeare’s wife. It’s a beautiful, thatched roof cottage just outside of the town with a beautiful garden. We didn’t make it inside, but we did sneak some photos through the bushes.

On the way home, all four girls slept, while Matt, our trusty driver, drove us back to London. Don’t worry, he really misses driving and never passes up an opportunity to be the designated driver on our road trips. We stopped off at Warwick for a quick look at the castle there before heading down the highway, back to the hustle and bustle of London town.

today was meaningful

a collection of thoughts, life lessons, and days full of meaning.

Liv Hambrett

An Australian Writer in (North) Germany

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