OK, junkets are junkets, but this was impossible to refuse; four days driving around Norfolk in an expensive classic sports car, no charge.
At Bespokes office in Watford, just north of London, I cast an eye over the selection of rentable classic marques, E-Type Jaguars, Austin Healeys, Ferraris, Aston-Martins, Lotuses, Porsches and Lamborghinis, as a slick operator handed me a bunch of forms to sign.
“Be careful,” he said. “You’ve got The Bullet.”
I took the keys.
“That one over there,” he pointed, “the Griffith.”
I cast a farewell glance at the Lamborghini and settled into the cockpit of the 1998 TVR Griffith 500, a dark blue five-litre convertible sports job worth $86,000 at its launch.
My partner required assistance to get down into the seat which felt about ten centimetres above the road and the scarf wound around her face did little to mask her growing horror.
I did the obligatory run-through of the beast’s features and bid farewell to the slick operator, stabbed at the accelerator and, in about two seconds, The Bullet was about 50 metres down the road.
From the passenger seat there was a deathly stare and a deathly silence. Feeling more confident I pushed a button and the fabric top slithered open. I eased The Bullet into first gear and took aim at the M1 motorway without a clue where we were heading and experienced a spontaneous vision.
It was a retro glimpse of an old FJ Holden I had modified as a teenager with the guidance of the mechanic I worked for on Saturday mornings, a petrol-head who taught me the rudiments of motor racing in his spare time.
I think it was about 1960 when beginners were permitted to test their skills or otherwise on race days at the twisting new Lakeside circuit near Brisbane before the main events began and before a bunch of fun-stoppers known as the Confederation of Motor Sport intervened and tightened the rules.
We weren’t young wannabe Schumachers, Stirling Moss was still the hero, but it did teach a bunch of willing kids road-handling skills designed to see us survive potentially terminal situations in later life. These days it’s called defensive driving and nowhere near as much fun as jetting around a dedicated track like Jeremy Clarkson.
Beneath me on the on-ramp to the M1, the burbling bullet revved and began to vibrate alarmingly like a pit bull locking onto a victim. Seconds later the dark blue missile was still slithering around the on-ramp, its drive wheels spinning hopelessly across the wet surface. Lesson one – TVR Griffith was no FJ Holden.
With skillful planning we finally joined the M1 in the middle of peak hour and became stuck in the slow lane between a semi-trailer and a coach full of geriatric tourists. I spotted an opening that could be our short cut to the fast lane.
“Down a cog,” I murmured and my partner, a stranger to the various thrills of motor sport and unaccustomed to sitting so close to the road, sensed what was coming.
She moaned audibly, stared up at the undercarriage of the semi-trailer almost above us, drew the scarf across her eyes like a chador covering a Yemeni woman of virtue and cringed even further into the soft beige leather seat.
I executed a near perfect double de-clutch. The engine snarled in an instant response. Yemeni Princess did something similar as the tyres suddenly gripped the road catapulting us into the fury of the fast lane.
We had been generously booked into a posh hotel called Congham Hall, a converted Georgian manor at King’s Lynn near the Queen’s Christmas retreat and second posh home, Sandringham, but it seemed stuck in the middle of nowhere so I decided to break junketeer rule number one – never, never, ever cancel free luxury accommodation.
Trevor Forecast ran Congham Hall, a classic car fan himself, he was waiting in the car park hovering around an ageing Ferrari when The Bullet nosed in.
“Ah, seen this one before,” he said. “A lot of our guests are weekend visitors from London who have Bespokes deliver their cars here and collect them when they finish touring.”
Norfolk, he said, remained the last undiscovered area of Britain and ideal for classic car enthusiasts. “The country lanes are a bit like the roads used to be in the forties and fifties when we all used to drive these things,” he said.
I made up a believable excuse, apologised profusely, ignored the silent protestations of Yemeni Princess, feigned angst at being deprived of so much luxury and hit the road.
And at the end of it, one of those impossibly narrow rustic roads that branch around Britain like vascular capillaries, The Bullet burbled into Cromer as the sun burst through a bank of clouds just moments before it set, weaving a spectacular purple and gold tapestry over the genteel seaside resort.
Cromer seemed like a town in a coma, an old dowager lost in her memories gazing wistfully at the North Sea. Her favoured jewel was a wonderful old Edwardian pier with a theatre at the end perched over the pounding sea.
The Pavilion was no ordinary theatre; it’s a national treasure and reputedly the last pier theatre in Britain still performing traditional variety shows.
Each summer, with its lavish sets and costumes, drawing room songs, mime, comedy, dancing girls and magicians, its Seaside Special averages 92% capacity and scores regular rave reviews in the national press.
Acts like Val Doonican, Danny La Rue, Gerry and the Pacemakers have all joined the soft shoe shufflers in top hats and tails to make it one of the most successful nostalgia trips in the country.
On New Street, potential customers wearing the expressions of profound concentration usually associated with wine judges peered into the misty window of the Regency Fish and Chips shop perusing every kind of creature that once swam in the North Sea while the unmistakable fragrance of vinegar hung thickly in the salt air.
Aristocrats restaurant seemed a better choice with traditional English fare such as a farmers’ mixed grill consisting of rump steak, lamb chop, chipolata sausage and smoked bacon for about £9.
We scanned the streets for an interesting hotel. On the lawn outside a dour medieval church, I saw two lovers trying to devour each other in a deep passionate kiss. I looked over the high sea wall, spotted a couple of hardy board riders tackling the surf at dusk in the cool autumn evening and suddenly felt strangely at home.
Then we saw it. Standing tall and stately, gazing over the wind-battered sea was the beautiful old Cliftonville Hotel, one of those elegant Edwardian hotels that are impossible to go past.
In the hotel’s century-old lobby of mahogany and stained glass dominated by a massive oak staircase I broke junketeer rule number two and prepared to pay for accommodation. We found the very excited part-owner, Annette Grundy, grooming her whippet, Barclay. “He’s just got another postcard from America,” she gushed.
“We get a lot of Americans through here,” she added. “Just had a busload check in before. They’re here for some metal detector convention. Ah, you’re lucky, there’s one room left. That’ll be a hundred and thirty pounds a night.”
I was in the lobby bar waiting for a Guinness to settle when a Fernando Lamas look-alike loped in after a run on the pebbly beach followed by an equally urbane Tibetan terrier. Judging by the aroma, they were fresh from a dip in the North Sea.
“It’s a bit quiet around here,” I observed.
“Rubbish,” Lamas replied. “It’s all happening; we’ve been bloody discovered.”
“No, John Major’s just bought a place over at Weybourne for about a million quid,” he said.
“There goes the neighbourhood,” I offered. “What’s the big attraction?”
“Crabs, I suppose,” he said, skolling a neat double gin. “Best in Britain. Come, Terence.”
In the morning sun, a squad of metal detectives had gathered around The Bullet when I swaggered over to remove the top. “What kind of automobile is that?” one asked. “That’s a TVR Griffith 500,” I replied nonchalantly. “Ah.”
Driving slowly west along the A149 into the crisp morning air, past cornfields glowing in the sun, with black headed gulls squawking overhead and The Bullet growling through quaint little villages like an anaesthetised cheetah, it seemed like a hell of a way to make a living.
“Not bad, huh?” I grinned at Yemeni Princess.
“It’s fucking freezing,” she snapped. “Can we have the hood up now?”
Lamas was right; Northern Norfolk was fresh crab heaven. Even late in the season, every restaurant, cafe and takeaway along the coastal road was bulging with crabs – boiled crabs, crab sandwiches, crab pies, crab chowder…and Sheringham was no exception.
Crabs aside, Sheringham, as I discovered, had had only one real brush with fame due to a peculiar train of events that overtook the town’s postman. Allan Smethurst, who had renounced the traditional whistle on his rounds, sang folk songs he’d written instead and released an album in 1966 titled “The Singing Postman – First Delivery”.
One of the tracks, “Hev Yew Gotta Loight, Boy?” made Smethurst an overnight celebrity. He left the Postal Service, left Sheringham and moved his new career to Grimsby where he recorded seven more CDs before disappearing from the music scene.
Smethurst resurfaced briefly in Leicestershire in the 1980s chasing royalties for an advertisement that had used his music to promote a sedative bedtime drink. He died in 1988 leaving eight CDs of postman music, the collection of his life’s work. He’s still fondly remembered in Sheringham, more for his postal duties apparently than for his music.
Five kilometres west of Sheringham another collection proved irresistible. The Muckleburgh Collection advertised exciting military things for all the family to enjoy like tank demonstrations, big artillery pieces, planes, rockets and rides in something called a Gama Goat, an articulated all-terrain vehicle that would have found the going easy in flat Norfolk.
From the road Muckleburgh looked like a battlefield but that was as close as we got. It was closed. “Thank God,” Yemeni Princess muttered. “I’m starving.”
Cley-Next-The-Sea had not just a wonderful name but also a collection of very cute English buildings like Hollyhock Cottage, Gainsborough Cottage, Whalebone House and a wonderful pub on High Street called the George at Cley.
Seared pigeon breast, Morston mussels mariniere, griddled ribeye steak and a seafood platter of Cley smokehouse mackerel, crevette and homemade salmon gravlax headed the list with a good supply of Cley crabs as if to keep up appearances.
Cley, like much of the North Norfolk Heritage Coast, was experiencing a seachange of gentrification. Wells-Next-the Sea, Blakeney and Burnham Market, known to local critics as “Burnham Markup”, were also being relentlessly colonised by London celebs.
They were snapping up weekend retreats and bringing along their favourite boutiques and delis stocked with exotic cheeses and fresh truffles that were gradually edging out the old fish and chip shops to the horror of many locals who resented the escalating housing costs and the BMWs, Range Rovers and TVR Griffiths hogging the limited parking spots.
But there was more to North Norfolk than crabs. For a start it was a perfect place to drive. There were few cars on little roads such as Squelch Lane and Thieves Bridge Road that led through drowsy old villages with names only the English could dream up like Stiffkey, Chittering, Little Snoring and its senior sibling, Great Snoring.
Fishing was alive and well out at sea and off the beaches and there were still broad berry fields where you could pick your own strawberries, raspberries, red currants and black currants and leave the money in an honour box without seeing another soul.
We stopped at Blakeney to dribble ice cream and watch kids get filthy on mud slides sweeping them into a littoral creek.
At Hunstanton there was one of those old English seaside fun parks with dodgem cars, silly music, lucky dips and rides. Tourists boarded an amphibious army DUKW (duck) to cruise the coast looking for seals, while others pigged out in the growing number of gourmet pubs and restaurants or headed for race day at nearby Newmarket where some of the better-heeled punters often dropped in by helicopter.
Back on the M1 in the early morning and heading south again there was surprisingly little traffic. I glanced at Yemeni Princess who was sleeping the sleep of one recovering from indulgence.
I glanced behind me. No ducks and geese, as they say in East London (police). I gripped the wheel with two hands in the classic “ten to two” position we used to adopt at Lakeside and surreptitiously drove the throttle into the floor.
The Bullet bit, revelling at last in the sort of behaviour for which it was designed. It obviously wanted to party and roared effortlessly up to 160kph and beyond in a brief but electrifying episode that left everything else in its wake.
“Jesus Christ!” Yemeni Princess screamed. “What the hell are you doing?”
Story and Images (except Cromer Pier) ©Copyright David May 2014 (Copyright Agency Limited)