From monks to Moneypenny: 007’s car and an Oxfordshire barn

“Were you born in a barn?” was a question irritated adults used to ask during our childhood, if we left a door open and the cold came inside.  The question probably didn’t have a specific barn in mind: certainly not the barn you find 200 yards down a turning, near the war memorial, in the small Oxfordshire village of Drayton St Leonard.  This barn – as we discovered on a snowy March afternoon – is the custodian of one of the greatest motoring marques of them all.

The barn itself has been there for half a millennium; the monks of Dorchester Abbey built it.  Since its restoration, almost twenty years ago, it has housed the Aston Martin Owners Club and an associated museum of cars, trophies and artefacts.  Aston Martin was the inspiration, just over a century ago, of Robert Bamford and Lionel Martin, who decided to make their own cars and won a hill climb race near Aston Clinton, just over the border in Buckinghamshire, hence Aston Martin.  Who knows whether a firm called Bamford Martin would have become so famous?  Over the years, the company has moved around – and went bankrupt seven times.  Its greatest breakthrough arguably came in the 1950s when the DB range began to race at Le Mans and, unforgettably, when James Bond drove a DB5 onto cinema screens in Goldfinger in 1964.  (There’s a parallel here with the exploits of the Mini at Monte Carlo and on screen in The Italian Job.)

Now, with the Aston Martin brand firmly associated with luxury cars, you can get up close to some of its history here.  There’s the A3, the oldest Aston Martin in existence, dating back to 1921 and as charming a piece of heritage as you could find. Or you can sit in a Vanquish Volante, a recent joint venture with Red Bull.  Just to give a bit of Top Gear madness to the idea, there’s a video of Daniel Riccardo racing his fellow F1 drivers around the track in Austria… while towing a caravan.  Collectors of toy cars will find countless examples of model Aston Martins, and there are various racing overalls, trophies and other items – careful you don’t trip over the engine sitting, top-heavy, at one end of the museum.

There is an explanation of how Sean Connery ended up driving a DB5, complete with ejector seat, machine guns and revolving number plates, but you won’t find the car itself – not a full-scale version, anyway – or 007.  As Bond tends to cause havoc wherever he goes, perhaps it’s just as well for the barn and everything inside that he isn’t here. We like to imagine that, before things got nasty, he might have taken Goldfinger for a spin in his pride and joy.

“Do you expect me to talk?”

“No, Mr Bond. I expect you to drive…”

Evelyn Waugh drank here, often

For some pubs, ninety years is barely a snap of the fingers – they’ve been around a lot longer than that.  For the Bell at Aston Clinton, it might be an eternity for all that the casual visitor would know.

Their website certainly doesn’t reveal any information about the heritage of the place, simply describing it as a unique country pub.  Once you’re inside, the dark wooden alcoves of the front of the pub lead you towards the lighter, airier restaurant area at the back.  The food is very good – try the sticky toffee pudding for an excellent indulgent treat – but it’s modern informal, not the upmarket, silver service destination it used to be. Near the toilets, a few pictures of ducks give a hint of history; the pub was renamed the Duck Inn for a while, some years back, before reverting to the name deriving from the large bell outside.

But you’d never guess that one of Britain’s most famous novelists spent his evenings in here, drinking away his despair. He was filling in time as a schoolteacher and writing the book which would make his name.

When he came to Aston Clinton in 1925, Evelyn Waugh had spent just over a year teaching at Arnold House at Llandulas in Wales.  Waugh had been hoping for a job in Tuscany and had resigned from the school – only to find the job was no longer available. A friend told him that a ‘crammer’ school in Aston Clinton was looking for a teacher of English, History and Art at a salary of £160 a year.  Waugh got the job; the location was agreeable, being within easy reach of family and friends in London, where he had grown up, and Oxford where he had studied.

Waugh’s stay in Aston Clinton got off to an inauspicious start. His diary entry for 24 September 1925 records that he arrived at the school very late for dinner, due to problems with the car in which two friends had given him a lift:

“After a wretched dinner we took Richard’s car to have the wheels mended and sat for a little huddled over the fire at the Bell, all three of us deeply depressed. Soon Elizabeth drove back to London and left us to a house of echoing and ill-lit passages and a frightful common-room.”

Waugh remained at the school for just over a year.  For a summary of his time there, the diary entry for 2 October 1925 serves well: “Taught lunatics. Played rugby football. Drank at Bell.”

In the end, he and a fellow master got the sack, for a combination of persistent drunkenness and making a pass at the school matron.  But Waugh hadn’t wasted his time; using his experiences at Arnold House, he had worked on the novel which became Decline and Fall, published to great acclaim in 1928 (and the subject of a very good recent BBC drama adaptation).

No doubt the Bell, like society itself, is very different now from its 1920s incarnation.  And that’s a good thing, in almost every respect; a family-friendly pub and restaurant is probably more useful today than a watering hole of the old type, where men could take refuge from women (or, in Waugh’s case, his day job) and talk about manly things.  Even so, it’s just a little sad that the Bell seems to have airbrushed its history so completely. Even a small plaque could do the job: “Evelyn Waugh drank here, often – 1925-7.”