Who drives these cars?
Let’s discount good looking Italians, young or old, who’d make a combine harvester desirable just by sitting behind the wheel. The BBC’s go-to silver fox, Francesco da Mosto from Venice, has just purred through all of Italy in a bright red Alfa Romeo Spider. “My fantasy car” he declares with the wind in his hair, before confessing that all Italians fear Venetian drivers. No practice roads, you see, just rather attractive canals.
Probably the DINKY demographic, trustafarians, or hedonists. Not me, (too tall), although until recently I had access to Maggie, a classic jet black Alfa Spider which, when driven by her equally attractive owner, was a real head turner. Less so when I towered behind the wheel, but still good fun. Possibly not so much when trying to move furniture. Or animals.
By chance, Maggie has just been sold to a collector – it was a tearful farewell – just as I was road testing Fiat’s 124 Spider. Arguably a family relative, (the Fiat group includes Alfa Romeo), it’s the giddy aunt’s naughty nephew. Zippy, with precise featherlight steering, the whole thing is bantamweight, but it still turns heads in London, particularly in bright red.
In the absence of a Rome/Fiumicino beach autostrada, I headed up country, to the frequently sunny Yorkshire coast. Whitby, to be exact
The body lines bulge a little, hinting at muscle rippling under the bonnet rather than it’s forebears’ feminine sleek. Yet it’s not a hugely powerful engine – 1.4 with turbo charge which gets you from A to B fast enough, or 0-60 in 7 seconds as motoring journalists like to say.
Budget has reined in costs in the cockpit, leather steering wheels across the range but it’s the more expensive versions that offer full luxe. However everything required for modern driving is present and correct – deep bucket seats (good for tall people), keyless ignition, a roof that flicks back to lock with ease, a smarter than the average bear satnav, and a nine speaker sound system. Plus that modern UK essential, windscreen wipers on auto start.
The six speed manual transmission (automatic is available on the top model) is surplus to requirements in London since getting to thirty in third these days is a rare event. So in the absence of a Rome/Fiumicino beach autostrada, I headed up country, to the frequently sunny Yorkshire coast. Whitby, to be exact.
Apparently the Spider does 134 mph but as England’s fastest road, the M1, takes the form of a solid traffic jam rolling along at 60mph I had no need to break the law. Heavy lorries bear down intimidatingly, but even with the roof open, the fiery shrieks and yells of the Godfather, James Brown, can still be heard above their roar. That sound system works.
I drove straight to Helmsley, as devotees of Withnail and I minutae might appreciate. Local legend has linked a pub in the town square to Bruce Robinson’s alcoholic comedy, but since I don’t actually like the film, and being the designated driver, I swept straight through, to the dismay of my Yorkshire colleague Damien, who has a penchant for bucolic mythology.
We were headed for Harome, the next village several miles into the middle of nowhere. Out by the moors.
Let’s get the excessive use of the word “star” over with quickly, shall we? The culinary star of Yorkshire has been, for many years, Andrew Pern who dominates gastronomy hereabouts with four restaurants, three of which have the word star in their name. Here at Harome, the Star Inn has been around for two decades and has, ahem, a Michelin star.
With its thatched roof and beams, wonky bar and floor, its own real ale (yes, yes, it’s called Star something) it looks like a pub and indeed is, until the arrival of the menu, a fulsome exercise in local sourcing prepped by experts in the kitchen. You could stay in the bar, but there are two seductive dining rooms plus an occasionally sunkissed garden terrace overlooking the vegetables you’re about to eat.
Back in Helmsley we had passed the Pern Butcher and the Pern Deli. The wine list (which includes the estimable Rolly Gassman Gewuztraminer) is selected by a long standing merchant friend and the seafood comes from the boats at nearby Whitby, Andrew’s home town. The supply chain is short and sweet.
The Star (sorry) Inn is, obviously, an English establishment but owes more to a French auberge, reflecting the passions of le chef patron: the walls are awash with photos, certificates, letters, paintings, carving and trophies, all personal. It’s not ego, more regional prowess, in this case Yorkshire rather than the Rhone Valley or Gascony. In its early days, Michelin was a guide to out of the way places like this for gastronomic adventurers seeking provincial excellence, rather than simply a book nodding approval of pink napery.
Despite my Yorkshire colleague declaring his lobster salad with grilled watermelon and gazpacho the most delicious crustacean starter ever, I bested it with a luscious puck of foie gras, sandwiched between slices of home made black pudding and apple from that garden. Had it been sunny, the more summery shellfish ensemble might have won, but it was momentarily tipping down so my deeply savoury tian seemed more fitting to the moment.
Game is a big deal here. Breast of potroasted grouse (from the moor outside and served on a bed of heather) was unfeasibly tender: a side of potted leg and liver was immersed in a whisky infused haggis whip. My local deer was by comparison subtle, but also rare, equally tender and utterly delicious..
In between, a curate’s egg: a mix of poor man’s poached smoked haddock, rich man’s langoustine, and millionaire’s caviar. The shellfish from Whitby was spankingly fresh (it was still alive in the kitchen when we ordered). The caviar, the real thing from sturgeon, is farmed on an estate outside Leeds. Garforth may not sound as exotic as the Caspian Sea, but it’s a sustainable product which doesn’t involve killing the fish. Ee bah gum, the modern world.
The Spider was a terrier let loose, racing across the flatland, curling around bends
After lunch we set off across the North Yorkshire moors, several hundred square miles of barely uninterrupted bright purple heather, it’s irridescence straight from Hockney’s palette. Descending into one steep sided dale, patchworks of farmed emerald green and lime seemed familiar too. Maybe Hockney didn’t import all these sunshine colours in his head from Los Angeles after all.
The Spider was a terrier let loose, racing across the flatland, curling around bends, stopping only to let a succession of elderly motorists, clinging for dear life to their steering wheels, pootle along the centre of the road, scowling at us modernists.
At Whitby, our final destination, the seagulls squawk and the smell of fish and chips fill the air, but Andrew Pern has colonised this, his home town, too, by opening up on the harbourside. Yes, it’s called The Star (what else?) and 120 covers a night clamour for fresh fish, oysters, and whatever else appears on the quayside. We asked where our lobster was from and the waiter pointed vaguely at one of the boats outside the window. “There. This afternoon”
I’m still not sure who drives these little runabouts but they’re exciting, sporty, and eye catching. For the return journey to London I chose the much quieter A1(M) which is filled with roundabouts, junctions and had a distinct absence of lorries. By ‘eck it was fun. C