Somerset’s Great Drive: At one with nature

PUBLISHED: 10:25 03 January 2017 | UPDATED: 10:35 03 January 2017

Blagdon Lake (c) acceleratorhams / Thinkstockphotos

Blagdon Lake (c) acceleratorhams / Thinkstockphotos

acceleratorhams

Mark G Whitchurch enjoys a Great Drive from a man-made reservoir that nature has made its own to a spectacular display from the orient

Longleat hosts the largest Chinese lantern festival in EuropeLongleat hosts the largest Chinese lantern festival in Europe

Taking its name from the Blackdown Hills that tower above it, the village of Blagdon was transformed in the 1890s when a dam was built to create a man-made lake to provide the local villages with drinking water.

Today it remains an integral part of Wessex Water’s infrastructure as well as a haven for birds and wildlife. Park your car by the entrance to the steam powered pumping station, which is open to the public during the warmer months, and take a brisk walk along the dam with its honed from solid Victorian architecture.

From the far end of the dam is a picturesque walk along the lake’s shoreline and through the adjacent woodland. Look out for roe deer, badgers and foxes, as well as otters and wetland birds. On reaching the northern tip of the lake, bear to the left, across a couple of fields before strolling back down Blagdon Lane and the dam.

Back in the car we head to the hills; Station Road takes you back to the heart of Blagdon village, with Street End, Rhodyate and Two Trees lanes taking you up to the B3134 and the top of Burrington Combe.

Turn left to enjoy the fast flowing B3134 to the junction with the B3135, where it’s right for more of the same, before the road tightens and starts to descend into Cheddar Gorge. Cruise down through this natural wonder with its imposing near vertical cliff faces of limestone rock. On reaching the bottom, maybe pause for a coffee and a stroll around the tourist shops.

From Cheddar, the A371 passes through the hamlets of Draycott, Rodney Stoke and Westbury-sub-Mendip as it hugs the foothills of the Mendips and onwards to Wells.

Travel through this charming city with its beautiful cathedral and on towards Shepton Mallet via Croscombe with its picturesque architecture. On reaching the A37 it’s tempting to pause at Kilver Court and the Mulberry factory outlet.

Back on the road, continue on the A361 in an easterly direction, one of Somerset’s most enjoyable roads. Pass the East Somerset Railway at Cranmore and the hamlet of Leighton. On reaching the market town of Frome, follow the A361 via two major roundabouts to locate the A362 that ambles its way to Corsley Heath and past Cley Hill, looked after by the National Trust. At the next roundabout, follow signs into the Longleat Estate.

First held in 2014, Longleat’s Festival of Light has proven to be a massive success for the estate. The largest Chinese lantern festival in Europe, after dark more than 20,000 individual lanterns inspired by the Qin and Tang Dynasties of ancient China, illuminate this beautiful landscape. Held between November 11 2016 until January 2 2017, the event forms part of Longleat’s 50-year celebrations that marks half a century since the estate opened its doors to the public as a wildlife attraction.

The McLaren 650S in front of Blagdon LakeThe McLaren 650S in front of Blagdon Lake

The car: Mclaren 650S

With a rich history in Grand Prix racing stretching back 50 years, including 180 Grand Prix victories, eight constructors and 12 driver championships, McLaren was well placed to convert its technical prowess from the track to the public roads.

The company’s first attempt at a road car in 1992 with the radical F1 was the stuff of legends, a car to dominate the supercar scene for over a decade as well as winning the 24 hours of Le Mans, headlines that will surely never be repeated.

Whilst the Woking-based company may have slipped back from the front row of the Formula One grids, its range of supercars is again leading the way in transferring cutting edge technology from the track to the streets. The McLaren 12C, originally launched in 2011, took the fight to Ferrari. The 12C has evolved into the McLaren 650S that I have the privilege of testing. First impressions are that they have done it again.

This is a dramatic car to admire, elegant and sophisticated where a Ferrari looks aggressive. The company’s now-signature headlight design, borrowed from the P1 and mimicking the company’s emblem, really helps the 650S stand out from the competition. Dramatic vertically opening doors only add to the theatre of this very British supercar.

Lower the 650S’ efficient folding hardtop and you have arguably the best convertible supercar this side of £220,000. The interior lives up to the visual sensation of the exterior. Fewer complexities than a Ferrari, the 650S is very much about providing the driver with ergonomic access to driver systems, using the best of materials. A design that distinctly feels that it has been taken straight from the race track, the centre rev counter flanked by support data is fronted by a flat bottomed steering wheel beautifully crafted with alcantara and carbon fibre detailing. A centre console with Sat Nav and infotainment systems adds a level of civility to the package.

Thumb the start button to stir the twin turbocharged 3.8 litre V8 engine into life, a suitably aggressive burble is emitted from the high rise exhaust pipe to broaden the smile upon your face. Pull the steering wheel paddle to select first in the seven-speed dual clutch gearbox and choose your driver modes for engine and suspension tuning.

You will not be surprised to hear me say the McLaren 650S is fast. Up to 100mph, it is nothing short of spectacular, faster than a Ferrari F12 and as fast as the legendary McLaren F1. Capable of breaching 200mph, the 650S is in a league of its own.

However it’s not the 650S’ sheer power that struck me, it was the ease in which you could access the performance and how with a touch of a button you could transform this stunning looking machine from a track day hooligan into a car you can take your wife to a concert in. Whilst most dreamers will focus on those magic performance figures, there are times when you want calm and whilst you will never get normality in a supercar, this is the McLaren 650S’ USP and the reason why I didn’t want to give it back.

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