Words by Sally Meeson
As the long days of summer draw to an end, choosing where to spend those precious last mild weekends becomes all the more pressing. But today I feel I might have just dropped on the perfect place to celebrate everything which is elegant… and eccentric… about British summer time.
Firstly, I’m in the breathtakingly beautiful gardens of a royal palace – Hampton Court Palace to be precise. And dotted amongst the giant yew trees and soaring fountains which surround this Tudor masterpiece are some unexpected visitors.
From vintage Ferraris to bespoke Bentleys, 60 of the rarest cars in the world have gathered for Concours of Elegance – an annual celebration of exquisite motors, some of which have never before been seen in the UK.
After a short walk through the palace itself I arrive at the gardens, and find myself in a world of ladies in wide brimmed hats, gentlemen in jackets and straw boaters, and row after row of stunning vehicles. A group have gathered around a car with its engine running, which is causing quite a stir.
I squeeze in and discover an olive green, open top, Stanley Mann Racing Bentley with a bright Union Jack painted on its door. And while Mr Toad of Toad Hall wouldn’t look out of place in this charming vintage motorcar, I soon realise the driver is someone far more important. Prince Michael of Kent (the Queen’s cousin and patron of the event) is sitting at the wheel with his wife and children in the passenger seats.
In fact the whole event has a sense of aristocracy and old money (it’s basically Downton Abbey on wheels!), as owners proudly show off their gorgeous vehicles, some of which are over 100 years old and have been in their families for decades.
There’s a world-first display of each and every Aston Martin Zagato variant ever built (18 in all) plus a gathering of Ferrari barchettas, including the 1949 Le Mans winner which is considered the most significant Ferrari of all time. From Bentleys to Bugattis, cars old and new line the pathways of the grounds, some of which are completely unique and worth millions of pounds.
And a summer event such as Concours wouldn’t be complete without some high end hospitality. After admiring the vehicles I wander to an enclosure run by Tom’s Kitchen which is providing the catering for the three day event.
A 100 seater restaurant is serving up a menu specifically designed by renowned British chef Tom Aikens – but I opt for their delicious takeaway picnic to enjoy in the gardens instead. Created with products from Tom’s Kitchen Deli I tuck into a flavoursome vegetarian main course, followed by a cheese and fruit box and a strawberry and white chocolate dessert.
And then what better to wash down a picnic in a palace garden than champagne?! Over at the VIP enclosure, which is being hosted by Charles Heidsieck Champagne, there’s a marquee and garden with amazing views of the cars as they drive up to the winners’ stand (the event includes a competition which tours the world).
I’m met there by Willem Pincon, the Senior Brand Manager for Charles Heidsieck, a flamboyant character with a fabulous French accent, who is hosting a champagne tasting. I sit down at a long outdoor table and am taken through three of their finest: a refreshing Brut Reserve, a slightly richer Rose Reserve and finally their piece de resistance: a 2008 vintage Brut Millesime which is currently only stocked at The Ritz and Fortnum and Mason.
As we drink Willem takes us through the history of the man who created the brand in the 19th century – from introducing the Americans to champagne to inspiring the phrase “Champagne Charlie”. Sipping bubbles, surrounded by vintage cars and vintage champagne bottles, I feel there can be few finer places to spend a Saturday as the sun starts to set on summer.
Main image credit – Tim Scott