It started as a naval thing. Where to drive the last of Aston Martin’s Dreadnought class, the 600 PS, VH-chassied Vanquish S? Magnificent, but very much the end of the line as the new DB11-inspired chassis takes over. There was, in fact, a naval ship called HMS Vanquisher, a V-class destroyer (such perfect auto-logical names) that saw action in both world wars. But the Royal Navy’s strength is much reduced from those heady days, currently mustering a mere 19 ships.
How different things were in 1155, when the East Sussex towns of Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich signed a Royal Charter to maintain their ports and provide up to 57 ships with crew for an annual 15 days of service to the king. In return, these Cinque Ports were granted tax-free status, permission to levy tolls, limited legal powers of conviction and punishment and legal possession of flotsam and jetsam — as well as waifs and strays. In other words, the state was turning a blind eye to smuggling and low-level piracy.
We turn the Aston’s handsome nose south-eastwards. This required more investigation — the perfect excuse for a coastal drive.
Clearly no one has told the Vanquish S that it is the last of the breed. Press the crystal key into the dash and it booms its defiance at the world in general and settles into a growly idle as the naturally aspirated V12 warms. Hand built in Cologne, these engines were originally designed as the Cleveland V6 for more humble fare, but the development engineers were as skilled and dedicated as any, not to mention the consultancy from Cosworth on that original unit. Its first introduction as a V12 was on the 1999 DB7 V12 Vantage and then, in tuned 460bhp form, on the 2001 Vanquish, which also debuted the bonded and riveted VH platform topped off with Ian Callum’s toothsome aluminium/carbon composite body. Over 2,500 of these amazing cars were sold in standard and 2004 S forms. That first Vanquish ceased production in 2007 and while few doubted the name had disappeared forever, it took until 2012 for the Mark II to appear. This time, with Marek Reichman’s all carbon fibre coachwork replacing the original’s aluminium and with 573 PS on tap, there was also much more power.
Traditional clinker-built fishing boats are hauled up on to the beach when not at work
Four years on and we are welcoming the new “S” derivative, with the engine now producing 595bhp (only in Europe, the rest of the world gets 580bhp) at a shrieking 7,000rpm and 465lb ft at 5,500rpm. That’ll spirit you, licence longevity notwithstanding, to 201mph with a 0-62mph in 3.5 seconds. The transmission is a rear, transaxle-mounted ZF eight-speed automatic with steering-wheel change paddles and a limited-slip differential. There’s also a launch control, but, along slippery Kentish and Sussex lanes, threading through tiny villages, you’ll have to forgive your correspondent for not exploring that particular part of the dynamic envelope.
We’re hardly the first to explore this convoluted coast. For many, this landscape and these towns represent a rough and ready counterpart to England’s bucolic image, a working coast that mixes stark beauty with the prosaic surroundings of naval industry. It’s a place shaped by political and technological shifts, its influence waxing and waning as the centuries marched on. It’s also a coastline of mystery and intrigue, its byways and beaches populated by smugglers and other shady operators. In the 1820s, William Cobbett, radical writer, farmer, sometime MP and jailbird, rode along here for his book Rural Rides. By Cobbett’s time, tides, storms and the Tudors had reduced the Cinque Ports to little more than a footnote to the Plantagenet monarchs. In their pomp, the original five Ports had been added to with, at one time, up to 42 towns belonging to this tax-free looting and wrecking club. Silting had taken its toll of the seaboards of New Romney and Sandwich; Hythe had lost its port to the beach and most of Hastings had been taken by the sea in the great flood of 1287. In addition, the government had largely eroded the ports’ privileges and naval shipbuilding had moved elsewhere.
The coast’s proximity to France during the Revolutionary Wars of the early 19th century gave it an enormous strategic importance; the government raised taxes to build 74 defensive Martello towers costing many thousands of pounds each (26 survive), along with defensive redoubts and a military canal in Hythe. Cobbett saw red, bemoaning William Pitt and “his loyal Cinque Ports” for spending millions on these fortifications against Napoleon’s Jacobins. The towers were eventually taken over by excise men who clamped down on all the duty-free privileges that Cinque Port inhabitants still saw as rightfully theirs. By the time he got to Dover, Cobbett rather liked this strange and somewhat isolated area. Indeed he observed that Dover was “much cleaner than most sea ports” he’d been to, “with less blackguard people in it...”.
The engine will spirit you, licence longevity notwithstanding, to 201mph with a 0-62mph in 3.5 seconds
The road to Folkestone sweeps east out of London past Ashford and Charing, where in Ian Fleming’s Moonraker, James Bond races his Bentley 4.5-litre convertible in pursuit of Hugo Drax in a Mercedes 300S, crashing when Drax’s henchman cuts the bindings on a truck load of newsprint rolls in front of Bond. The Vanquish S is imperious, burbling menacingly, its kingfisher-blue coachwork flashing in all-too brief glimpses of sunshine. The cabin picks up the theme in navy blue leather with white stitching, matching the strakes of the winged bonnet badge and showing the presence of a craft-trained hand.
We don’t hang about in Dover, choosing instead to motor west along the coast road, past the long shingle beach of Hythe with its terminus for the 88-year-old, narrow track, one-third size Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway. This diminutive track chuffs along the shingle banks and marshes all the way to the promontory of Dungeness. It was inspired by wealthy racing drivers Captain John “Jack” Howey and Count Louis Zborowski, who designed and built Chitty Bang Bang (sic), which inspired Fleming’s similarly-titled children’s book and the subsequent movie. Zborowski was also one of Aston Martin’s earliest patrons, racing them at Brooklands and the 1923 French Grand Prix. The little railway had a serious purpose, too, since it carried materials for the construction of the earliest early warning system of air attack, the curious concrete sound mirrors at Denge, near Greatstone and New Romney.
The Vanquish’s big Pirellis roll past the starkly beautiful shingle beaches and steel-grey seas of Dungeness, with its beachside retreats in the shadow of one of the UK’s 15 operational nuclear reactors. In stark contrast, the cabin feels leathery and cosseting, the detail and craft evident on every square inch.
And so to Tilling, redoubt of those fearsome fictional battleaxes, Mrs Emmeline “Lucia” Lucas and Miss Elizabeth Mapp, brought together for the first time in EF Benson’s 1931 novel Mapp and Lucia, although he had written copiously about both before. Tilling, of course is Rye in East Sussex, while Riseholme, the original home of Lucia, is thought to be Broadway in Worcestershire.
Nothing much happens in these much-loved books apart from the sort of confabulated plot lines over bridge parties, bogus gurus and sheer one-upmanship that would have novelists Michael Frayn and PG Wodehouse green with envy. Benson was mayor of Rye from 1934-37 and lived in Lamb House (formerly owned by author Henry James), which was a model for Mapp’s “Mallards” home — a Second World War bomb took out the famous Garden Room. Benson can’t have had a very high opinion of his townspeople — he paints them as vapid ciphers, simpering acolytes, or vindictive spinsters.
Thankfully the characters have been regularly updated in film, the most recent being Steve Pemberton’s deliciously scripted Mapp and Lucia triptych produced by the BBC in 2014, with Anna Chancellor as Lucia and Miranda Richardson as Mapp. The team even gained use of Lamb House (now owned by the National Trust) for filming, and walking up Mermaid Street and into West Street, you can vividly recall the hollow boom of the vintage Bentley they used in the series.
We stop at The Mermaid Inn, a renowned smuggler’s haunt dating back to 1156 and rebuilt in 1420, whose leaded windows will have seen carousing by the most feared smugglers (or “free traders” as they were known) in the area. It is also the basis for The Gay Dolphin Adventure, Malcolm Saville’s children’s mystery of 1945, which, like The Mermaid, is full of secret passages, lost treasure and adventure. As Rudyard Kipling’s poem, A Smuggler’s Song, which is reproduced on The Mermaid’s wall, states:
If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet, Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street, Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie. Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by.
From here we cross the foggy marshes and reach the welcoming lights of Hastings, last of the original Cinque Ports, with the Stade, a traditional working beach, and evocative black tar varnished fishing-net shops. There’s plenty of fun to be had in the Old Town, with its winding paths, ancient pubs and hidden stairways, while the clean, dark lines of the Jerwood Gallery of contemporary art opened to much acclaim in 2012 and is credited with changing the perception of the town. Hastings still has its traditional charms, however, and rooting around for old vinyl records in the junk stores is a particular favourite, while fish and chips don’t come much fresher than here.
As the big engine cools, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that while this might not be one of the greatest routes to exploit the full capabilities of such a magnificent road burner, it’s certainly one of the greatest historical byways that England has to offer. And, for the last of the line of these extraordinary and influential Aston Martins, also strangely appropriate.