Test drive a Mazda MX5 – no number

On Sunday I did something I wasn’t expecting so didn’t put it on my list though I wish I had. Adding an item after I’ve done it seems like cheating so I can’t add it but I will write about it anyway. I might add a couple of ‘mysteries’ to the list for future surprise events to cover this sort of situation. But that would still be doing it after the event on this occasion so in the spirit of not cheating I won’t do that either!

A bit of background to the day – we were heading off to the MX5 owner’s club rally. Our MX5 is a 10th anniversary edition mark 2.

Well, when I say our, I mean my husband’s of course. A few years ago, my husband changed job roles and no longer needed a car so handed back his company car. For a little while we were a one car family but my husband had other plans.

Nissan Figaro, for a long time my husband's favourite quirky car

Nissan Figaro, for a long time my husband’s favourite quirky car

He had always rather fancied a little Nissan Figaro but after a test drive decided that it didn’t really have quite enough umph for him and that there could well be a big problem with rust. A series of other possibilities were thought through, MG, maybe even a Boxter? But eventually the Mazda MX5 was the winner. Then ensued the hunt for the perfect MX5. Much internet searching, Auto Trader scrutinising later and my husband found the car he wanted to call his. In North Wales. Some 180 miles away. On a dismal day in late November 2012 my husband set off on the train to Wales to pick up what he hoped would be his new pride and joy. November isn’t usually a good time to head out for a spin in a two seater soft top but this was hailed as the ‘wettest week in 50 years’ by the Met Office with the suggestion that ‘folk stay at home’. Hmmmm…

Left at home to ruminate, I set about finding a name for our new family member. Yes, I know she’s a car but she really is part of the family so needed a name. And anyway, every car I have owned has always had a name (and they’ve always started with an ‘H’!), so this is a task I take seriously. I had a little look at baby names websites for ideas and felt that something Welsh would be suitable.

Our very own numbered edition

Our very own numbered edition

Whilst the Mazda may be Japanese by birth, our MX5 has Welsh heritage. And then there it was, the perfect name jumped off the screen at me, Myfanwy. It told me the name means ‘my woman’ in Welsh which seemed just perfect. Clearly this new little MX5 was going to get a lot of my husband’s attention so she would be his ‘other woman’. Further research indicates the name actually means ‘my dear one’ which is even more appropriate as she gets a special rub down after every outing.

Back to the day in question, Myfanwy’s grand day out! We went to the rally last year when Myfanwy had scored 278/300 for her condition. A great score but she did not win any prizes. A lot was learnt from this experience and the last year has seen a lot of cleaning, polishing and putting little things right. Much excitement greeted this new rally in the hope that all this work my earn a prize.

Front page of the programme

Front page of the programme

My husband arrived at the arena (well fields…) at Kelmarsh Hall with cleaning equipment to hand and immediately started polishing and buffing. I arrived a little later and the judges had been on their rounds but the results were not yet known, we had to wait until mid-afternoon for that. We set about enjoying the day, having experienced a fairly dismal summer, this September Sunday was treating us to spectacular sunshine and perfect blue skies. There were plenty of cars to look at and a jousting show which was impressive and funny in equal measure.

Mazda UK had brought along 5 of their new mark 4 MX5 for people to test drive. You needed to get your name down early as the slots disappeared very quickly. To my surprise, my husband had put my name down for this – I just had to go along, show my driving licence and sign a disclaimer. Just before my allotted time we discovered that Myfanwy had won second prize in her class – excellent result!

A proud second, my husband with Myfanwy and bears Maurice and Friendly

A proud second, my husband with Myfanwy and bears Maurice and Friendly

Though, of course, my perfectionist husband felt that anything less than 1st for his beloved Myfanwy wasn’t really how it should be… We would get the score later.

With slight trepidation I headed to my test drive. I would be accompanied by a professional Mazda driver and was a touch worried that my driving would be under scrutiny! In fact, the Mazda driver took to the wheel first to ‘show you what the car can do’. Ooer…

Being driven out of the field by the professional

Being driven out of the field by the professional

We trundled out of the field and once on the road he put his foot down, immediately my head hit the headrest and we were flying along! Another Mark 4 was in front of us with another professional driver giving it the same treatment. As a rear wheel drive car the corners can be fun, at least if you know what you are doing. For inexperienced RWD people like me it also means you can lose the back end! My driver sped round some corners and demonstrated its acceleration very well. I made the comment, ‘I might drive a little more sedately…’.

Before long it was my go. My first challenge was to get the seat in the right place. I sat in the seat and my feet couldn’t even find the pedals. Pulling the seat forward so that I could use the clutch meant the steering wheel was nearly under my chin. Maybe I’m not quite the right shape for the car. You can adjust the steering wheel but I didn’t for such a short drive. Finally strapped in it was time to give it a go. 30mphI was starting out in a 30mph zone so had a good excuse to take it slowly. It felt incredibly smooth as I pulled away and despite having a very small gait in the gears these were also very smooth. The accelerator was responsive under my foot and as we approached the 60mph zone I decided to see what happened. It is such a small car compared to what I am used to, so very low to the road and its 2-litre engine ensures it goes like….well the proverbial off a shovel! I quite got my confidence zooming around the Northamptonshire countryside and was amazed at the smoothness of the ride and how little road noise there was. We did of course have the roof down – how could we not on such a glorious day! I was pleased to keep up with the chap in front (of course, they too had swapped over so it was not the professional driver), though I’m sure the occasional village we went through with the 30mph restrictions helped. Far too soon we were turning back into the field and I had to leave the little car behind. A fine drive, yet quite intense with such power under foot.

Heading back to Myfanwy who now had a rosette and a trophy and found out she had scored a very fine 288/300 and the winner has pipped her to the post by 2 small points. My husband had warmed to the idea of a second deciding it wasn’t that bad after all.

Presented with the trophy, a knight on hand just in case

Presented with the trophy, a knight on hand just in case

If you want to read more about Myfanwy and her adventures this is the place to go Mazda MX5 10th Anniversary Edition

Visit Highclere Castle – number 21

We have just returned from a lovely weekend away and properly immersed ourselves in Downton Abbey mania. We got into Downton quite late, it was not until series three was about to air that we started watching it. Fortunately, ITV3 re-ran the previous two series in the lead up so we were able to catch up quickly. Our favourite is, without a doubt, Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess Grantham and the great put down lines that were written for her. But we love the pace of life, tracing the differences between today and then and of course the story lines.

I’ll come back to Downton in a moment. It seems only right and proper to tell the weekend as a whole. It started on the Saturday and we headed down towards Wiltshire. We chose for some reason to go M1, M25, M4.

The Road to Hell...

The Road to Hell…

Well, the M1 was ok but the M25 was, well I suppose normal! Chris Rea was right, it really is the ‘Road to Hell’. We persevered, our only other choice was to head through Watford and that really didn’t appeal. Eventually we found the M4 and guess what? More speed restrictions and we queued to get on it. Grumpiness was building but thankfully the bottle neck was short lived and we were able to finally get out of third gear! However, the breakfast time pot of tea was starting to take its toll and a pit stop at the services was needed. We turned off and into…another queue! I have never seen such a busy services and the layout and parking was atrocious. It was a quick in and out to queue again to get back on the motorway. Relieved we trundled on hoping that would be the worst of the traffic over, and thankfully it was.

Our first excursion for our weekend was at Avebury, somewhere I have never been though I have visited it’s slightly more famous nearby cousin of Stonehenge. Although still stone circles, Avebury is very different to Stonehenge and what is most pleasing is that you can get right up to the stones and touch them.

6000 years standing - wow!

6000 years standing – wow!

There are many theories as to how and why these stones were placed where they are, but in my opinion nobody knows for sure and that I find rather satisfying. Our ancestors from thousands of years ago, and very probably over a period of 1000 years, built something amazing and that has lasted far longer than anything we build today is likely to. The why doesn’t matter to me, it is just their being that is amazing.

Having walked through the stones we then headed to our B&B, a spacious yet cosy loft area. Being intrepid explorers (erm…!?!?!?) we decided to walk to the pub for our dinner. This involved tramping over fields in the fading light with little knowledge of where we were going. Still, it was only a mile. Fortunately I had brought my umbrella and some walking shoes and the directions given to us were easy to follow. It took a little longer than expected and we arrived at the pub a little damp and very ready for our dinner. Except, they had a big party in and couldn’t fit us in, at least they couldn’t take our order for another hour or more. So we headed back out into the damp to find the next pub, another mile down the road. We arrived damper and even more ready for our dinner and thankfully they were able to accommodate us.

Suitably refreshed after our dinner and a good night’s sleep we headed to Downton….sorry Highclere! I have been looking forward to this for a long time, but really to see the inside of the house. I have never felt that Highclere is the best looking house. I am spoilt really, living so close to Woburn Abbey which is a very beautiful building and another of my favourites is Castle Howard. Both are sprawling houses, inviting your into their grand entrances and most definitely built to impress. Highclere Castle is very different Victorian Gothic (or Jacobethan) architecture, very square and on the TV not so imposing. I was in for a very pleasant surprise as we drove along the drive through the rolling countryside and the house came into view.

Highclere Downton Castle Abbey

Highclere Downton Castle Abbey

Every bit as imposing as Woburn and Castle Howard, Highclere sits magnificently in its surroundings rising up proudly to greet you. I was so very glad to be there and experience this house for real. It is in some ways more compact than other big houses but in many ways this makes it more accessible. We were able to walk all the way round it, admiring the arches and intricacies all the way round. A pleasing cup of tea in the coach house preceded our amble around the fine grounds. A word about the cup of tea (or coffee for himself), in most places like this I come away feeling robbed the price is so high, but not here, £1.50 for a pot of tea and another £1.50 for a filter coffee. It made it taste even better!

Our trip inside the house was after lunch. No photography was allowed inside which is a great shame on the one hand, but on the other made sure we concentrated on what we could see and just enjoyed the experience. Walking in was just like heading onto the set of Downton, it was grand, beautiful and familiar all at the same time. I love that this house is lived in, I love that a TV programme has enabled the family to stay, live there and carry out renovations. There are lovely family pictures all around the house (not all grand paintings!) and a real fusion of the old and the new. They make the most of the Downton connection (and why shouldn’t they?) but it is clear that this is the Carnarvon’s house. Upstairs was a bit busy as we queued in the narrow corridors to peek into the bedrooms. It must be amazing to sleep there (as they are clearly still in use) but most odd to get up in the morning, tidy everything away in the knowledge that a huge line of people will come peering in. I’m glad my bedroom isn’t quite so scrutinised.

We discovered the Downton kitchen is a set, but the visit downstairs at Highclere was no less interesting for that. Here, the Egyptian connection manifested itself in a wonderful exhibition. A 5500 year old sarcophagus with exquisite detail decorating the outside, colours that were once probably incredibly vibrant still radiated their beauty. It is very humbling to see such amazing work carried out so very long ago.

King Tutenkhamen's mask © Mohamed Soliman

King Tutenkhamen’s mask © M Soliman

The next room held memories of the unveiling of the tomb of Tutankhamen. Everything is a replica (the originals are quite rightly in Cairo) but this did not detract from their beauty. What a moment that must have been when Howard Carter looked into the tomb and relayed to the 5th Earl of Carnarvon  up above that he could see ‘many wonderful things’.

The 5th Earl was clearly quite a character with his Egyptian adventures and escapades in motor cars. Despite all the danger he put himself in it was an infected mosquito bite that killed him (unless you prefer to believe the curse of King Tut…). I’d had such a wonderful day I was inspired to buy the two books written by the current Lady Carnarvon. The first is about Lady Almina, wife of the quirky 5th Earl and inspiration for Lady Grantham in Downton. I’m looking forward to reading this (in fact I’ve started it!) but I have three other books to get through first!

This had been a wonderful day, we returned to our B&B with the rain falling again but with smiles on our faces. The first thing we did….order the box set of Downton on DVD. Well, we have to watch it again now don’t we?