Currently reading: Festive road trip: Christmas hamper hunting in a BMW 520d Touring
Christmas hampers can be a minefield of culinary disappointment. So we decided to build our own by way of a national road trip in an everyday all-rounder

Taking reprieve from a festive fug of fortified wines and gin, it was the Victorian ruling class that struck upon the idea of a Christmas hamper: an annual gift of seasonal goodies for its servants. Things are a little less formal in the Autocar office these days, but master of the house Tisshaw has nonetheless tasked me with sourcing a cache of yuletide treats for the team this year.

Hamper champs Fortnum & Mason charge up to £6000 for filled baskets, but we reckon we can build our own for considerably less than that, even accounting for the overheads of a nation-wide road trip. And so it is that photographer Max Edleston and I set off from Edinburgh driving an everyday hero that ticks all of our mission’s boxes: a BMW 520d xDrive Touring. In its generous boot sits an empty hamper, ready to fill with the finest local produce we can find.

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There’s a bassy rumble from the 19in run-flats as we skip over the West End’s cobbles, but having slacked off the adaptive dampers (a worthwhile £985 option), we first sample the car’s talent for comfort, which soon extends to a northward motorway blast into Perthshire. The tyres pipe down and the punchy 187bhp engine settles at 1600rpm in top, the 5 Series channelling the spirit of the 7 Series limo with which it shares many innards.

Our first stop is the Innis & Gunn brewery on the edge of Perth. Inside the high-roofed industrial unit and among huge, gleaming, 30,000-litre tanks, office co-ordinator Neil Everett shows us one of the company’s defining secrets – an ‘oakerator’ that percolates the beer through wood chips made from ex-spirit barrels. A few days of this transforms a red beer into ‘Blood Red Sky’ with the help of rum-soaked chips, while ‘The Original’ uses toasted bourbon casks to make a sweet, rich, buttery ale. Everett recommends ‘Vanishing Point’, an 11% ABV stout mellowed in bourbon casks for 12 months, as a Christmas alternative to port, so we grab a couple of bottles among others including the Inveralmond real ales also brewed here.

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With the hamper clanking, we break west in search of an even stronger poison. The back road to Crieff is well-surfaced and open enough to merit the BMW’s Sport mode, toggling the damping, steering, transmission and engine into their most aggressive settings. That’s a relative term, of course, because while our car carries M Sport spec, comfort is never abandoned. Still, we’re able to carve enjoyable lines and carry ample pace beneath the autumnal canopies, red squirrels diving from our path.

Just past Crieff we park alongside the rushing River Turret, where a cluster of ancient, postcard-ready white buildings wear the pagoda tops that mark out Glenturret as a whisky distillery. Officially they first made the national spirit here in 1775, although illegal production began in 1717, arguably making it Scotland’s oldest distillery.

Traditional methods prevail: general manager John Laurie shows us the 6000-litre Douglas fir washbacks where yeast ferments the warm, malted barley solution into booze. Carbon dioxide oozes from it, and a large bubble pops just as my colleague hangs his head in for a peak, almost flooring him. A worker named Grace Gow perished that way in 1870 and today a single cask whisky is named for her, but thankfully the ‘Edleston 22-year-old’ remains unbottled for now.

We see the chubby copper stills that help produce a smooth, light whisky, and meet the mouse-hunting Glenturret cats that bask in their warmth. Then we learn about the bourbon barrels and sherry casks of American and European oak that, in time, lend flavour and colour to the spirit. All are used to create the sweet and fruity ‘Triple Wood’ single malt, so that’s the bottle we leave with.

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Another short westbound hop comprises generously wide A-road, along which the 5 Series bounds effortlessly below the seasonal tan, titian and tangerine of Perthshire’s rolling hills as the eight-speed auto ’box melts between gears.

We turn onto the River Earn floodplain at Comrie and soon find Cultybraggan – a vast WWII POW camp of 100 Nissen huts built to hold 4000 of the Wermacht’s deadliest. It fostered its share of horrible wartime histories before becoming a training camp that hosted almost every Scottish army cadet for decades. I earned an exemption (pipe band duties, not bone spurs), and a peek inside a peeling, unrestored hut makes me glad.

The camp is now community-owned, reborn as both a tourist attraction and a home to 31 diverse small businesses – one of which is Strathearn Cheese, which uses local milk to make up to 200 cheeses daily from a tiny room in what was the camp guards’ kitchen block.

Co-owner Drew Watson greets us while hand-turning truckles of ‘Wee Comrie’, a pleasantly mild, buttery cheese named for the nearby village. But his star product is ‘The Strathearn’ – a rinded cheese repeatedly washed in whisky from our friends at Glenturret while maturing for a month. It won gold at the World Cheese Awards shortly after production began in 2016.

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A sniff of the chilly maturing room’s regulated atmosphere gives a preview of The Strathearn’s ‘robustness’. Then we try a sample, prompting Edleston’s face to fold, while my tongue takes a conniption. It’s addictively flavoursome and we buy some immediately. Watson throws in some oatcakes and we procure a complementary tomato chutney at nearby Hut 17.

Taking to the moorland south of the camp, we trace the River Knaick while birds of prey circle overhead. The car’s Adaptive mode gets a workout over the undulating twisting B-road, predictively adjusting the Drive Control settings to deliver swift, composed progress, then it’s an easy, half-hour main-road amble to Callander, just south of the Highland Boundary.

The town is home to the Campbells Shortbread bakery – the oldest in Scotland – which has been run by seven generations of Campbells since 1830. We’re tight for time so buy some from a shop on Main Street: a tin for the hamper and a pack for immediate sustenance, which charges us nicely for the final stint to an overnight stop near Glasgow.

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We take the indirect route, skirting Lochs Venachar and Achray as the sun sets somewhere unknown among the cloud bomb above us.

It’s dark by the time we reach the Duke’s Pass, catching only glimpses of its heathy beauty as the optional adaptive LEDs squint into each bend. In Sport mode there’s a muted growl as revs are kept usefully high to help punch out of corners, but the apices tighten and body roll escalates, so I ease off in favour of passenger comfort. It’s the first time the car has felt its 1810kg kerb weight. Civilisation is soon re-joined at Stirling, then it’s a hushed and painless 26-mile motorway tab to our overnight stop in Uddingston.

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Day two is my Charlie Bucket day, for Uddingston is home to Tunnock’s, the glorious maker of the sweet treats I’ve adored since I was a sugar-charged ankle-biter. In a towering brickwork factory on Old Mill Road, 600 staff are working around the clock to make 13 million Teacakes, Caramel Wafers, Caramel Logs, Snowballs and more every week.

Our guide is Tunnock family member Stuart Loudon – coincidentally an accomplished rally co-driver who has competed in 22 WRC events. We pass huge tanks of chocolate (20 tonnes are made daily), then see boilers turning out molten caramel that’s cooled into thick cables that disappear tantalisingly through the floor.

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Arcing conveyors slowly waft freshly baked wafer sheets that are dispatched to assembly stations where each is smothered in caramel before the next layer is hand-placed. The enormous sandwich is then chopped into bars before entering an ‘enrober’, coating them in chocolate.

The whole place is a buzz of machines and stripy-coated workers, with sweet aromas ranging from roasting coconut to baking biscuit swirling all around. Some parts are top-secret – such as the custom-made contraption that de-peaks the blobs of mallow – but we can photograph others.

Many are electronically controlled, but the machine that individually wraps 420 Caramel Wafers in foiled paper each minute works via a blur of gnashing, manually adjustable metal cams. Another sensor-driven station uses robotic carbonfibre arms tipped with super-soft vacuum cups to neatly place each Teacake into a pack of 12. It’s both mesmerising and mouth-watering, and we leave with a generous haul of goodies in tow.

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The M74 provides an express conduit to our next stop at Moffat, but before reaching town we switchback onto the A701 to enjoy the sinuous stretch leading to the dramatic natural hollow of the Devil’s Beef Tub. It’s damp, but the xDrive system staves off understeer to make for confident fast cornering. A truly engaging drive would need a bit more keenness from the engine, gearbox and steering but in the context of this trip, I’ll take those slight concessions. Presumably the Police Scotland 5-Series Touring training vehicle we encounter was chosen for similar reasons.

In town we collect some Moffat Toffee from the eponymous shop. These boiled, pearlescent golden lozenges sold in distinctive houndstooth packaging have been made by the Blacklock family since the late 1800s using a secret ingredient that gives an unusual, tangy flavour. It’s really not like toffee at all but it is delicious. It’s a struggle to tear ourselves away from the rows of traditional confectionery jars, but as is becoming routine, we open the Touring’s indispensable tailgate window and the load cover electrically retracts so we can pop our swag straight into the hamper.

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We soon cross into England then veer off to become enveloped by the brooding, sun-streaked peaks of the Lake District. Opting for another back-road diversion, we take the B5322 through St John’s in the Vale. It’s a landscape straight from Postman Pat, all twee farmhouses and dry-stone walls that dice the lush hillocks into tiny fields.

Upon reaching Grasmere, we weave through slate-stone buildings to pull up outside the little whitewashed Church Cottage on the edge of St Oswald’s Churchyard – resting place not only of William Wordsworth but also Sarah Nelson, who started selling her distinctive Grasmere Gingerbread from the cottage in 1854. The spiced slices – at once chewy and crumbly – are still baked here and sold from behind a minuscule counter, the queue to which regularly spills out of the door and on to the pavement.

Attired in shop-regulation Victorian garb, Abbey Davison hands us a tin of gingerbread, thoughtfully tied in Autocarbranded ribbon, and a jar of Cumberland Rum Butter – a boozy local spread that’s ideal with mince pies. I can’t sample that but the gingerbread must be eaten fresh, so I oblige as we drive on: messy but worth it.

22 Hamper

In the gloaming we pass pretty Rydal Water, the scene fringed by autumn leaves – beside the lake, beneath the trees, fluttering and dancing in the breeze – then Edleston artfully captures the last of the light on the slipway at Royal Windermere Yacht Club. It’s late, it’s cold and I’m glad of the heated steering wheel (£185 well spent in theses climes) as we press on to Kendal where we grab a slab of Romney’s Mint Cake during our first fuel stop before eventually bedding down outside Preston.

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Our closing day is a motorway slog to the office in London, but we bisect the trudge with a final stop at the bucolic haven of Buzzard’s Valley Vineyard near Tamworth. Co-owner Pete Viggers leads us through the 8000 vines of red and white grapes that wine-maker Leon Jones uses to turn out up to 18,000 bottles annually. The soil here is good for grape-growing, and all are hybrid varieties developed to cope with the English climate – they even produce a sparkling wine using the Champagne method, and have diversified into gin, too.

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We buy a selection, including the 2017 Sly Fox – an award-winning red that apparently goes perfectly with strong cheese. We’ve had to confine The Strathearn to Tupperware in favour of retaining long-term nose function, but that pairing should work beautifully.

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All that remains is the final schlepp to the office, which the 5 Series ruthlessly gobbles up to complete a 652-mile total. What an excellent companion it’s been: practical yet luxurious, comfortable yet game. And what a hamper we deliver, groaning under the weight of indulgences within. It’ll never last until Christmas.

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Optional extras: built-in hampers

Rolls-Royce picnic hamper, from £30,000: For fine dining al fresco, this leather, teak and aluminium box includes Wedgwood porcelain plates, stainless steel cutlery and wine glasses made from hand-ground lead crystal.

15 Hamper

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Mulliner picnic hamper, from £22,000: Penned by luxury design house Linley, this customisable set of three Beluga hide-trimmed compartments contains a dining set, illuminated champagne cooler and cashmere rug, all securely docked in the Bentley Bentayga’s boot.

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Mercedes-Benz picnic hamper, from £83: Stuttgart’s contribution is a steal in this company, its more rustic – not to mention more modestly priced – willow basket containing a full dining set for two, including tablecloth. A volkshamper, relatively speaking.

17 Hamper


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scotty5 22 December 2019

And what about the 5-series?

hoped to read story with some interest as I nearly bought a 520d to replace my Octavia a few months back ( a 520i would have suited my driving better but was put off by the real-world mpg ). There appeared to be many nealry new ( my definition being less than 6 mth old with less than 2k on the clock) x-drive variants around - I suspect BMW had a management clear out of late? With a few extras, the cars retail around the £47k mark - the above nearly new examples were anything from £28k for a 520i and from £30k for this £520d which is a HUGE depreciation. I suspect the higher VED rate turns folk away ( me included ).

Anyway, one thing missing from the report that I'd have been interested in - mpg? Actually thinking about it, the  car itself is hardly gets a mention. Odd reporting for a motoring magazine? 

FM8 23 December 2019

scotty5 wrote:

scotty5 wrote:

hoped to read story with some interest as I nearly bought a 520d to replace my Octavia a few months back ( a 520i would have suited my driving better but was put off by the real-world mpg ). There appeared to be many nealry new ( my definition being less than 6 mth old with less than 2k on the clock) x-drive variants around - I suspect BMW had a management clear out of late? With a few extras, the cars retail around the £47k mark - the above nearly new examples were anything from £28k for a 520i and from £30k for this £520d which is a HUGE depreciation. I suspect the higher VED rate turns folk away ( me included ).

Anyway, one thing missing from the report that I'd have been interested in - mpg? Actually thinking about it, the  car itself is hardly gets a mention. Odd reporting for a motoring magazine? 

More likely ex hire cars. The BM dealer nearest to me was advertising new 520d Xdrives with the tech pack and metallic at 37.5k

Chris C 21 December 2019

Somebody swallowed a thesaurus?

Conniption - really? Is Troy Queef ghostwriting?

Garys toy box 21 December 2019

No, a 5 series is better than a 3 for this trip

Bimfan, imo whilst I possibly agree on the 3 being slightly more engaging  on the twisty sections, the 5 series would be the better vehicle in all other areas. It now runs the same os 7.0, to most eyes it looks better, the interior materials and leathers are more upmarket and it's quieter on a long trip. It simply feels a nicer place to pass away the hours. The 5 series is not a car that BMW get wrong (you won't see a huge grill on this car).