The Summary of a Forgotten Diary
One of the ” perks ”of editing MOTOR SPORT is the thin but steady trickle of unusual and usually absorbingly interesting literary material that generous readers send for my perusal—out-of-print motoring books, catalogues, maps, books with unexpected motoring references in them (although for the majority of the sources that have made the ” Cars in Books ” feature unending I am indebted to the local Library), scrap books and old photographs. My sincere thanks are hereby appended….
One of the more unusual of these offerings has been a simple notebook, containing a detailed account of a Continental tour, written in ink and illustrated with not-very-clear stuck-in snapshots. Lent by a reader in Milverton, the first page, or fly-leaf, of this motoring diary is inscribed ” First Continental Tour with H.E., recorded by B. L. Montgomerie.” The date, 1924, heads the first entry, dated Wed., Sept. 24th, and commencing : ” H. B: and I (B. L. M.) started in H.E. at 10 a.m. and went via Warminster, Heytesbury, Chilterne St. Mary (a pretty village), past Stonehenge, Amesbury and Stockbridge (beyond which we lunched), to Winchester, reaching Westgate Lodge, where we had arranged to pick up Mrs. Whyle, exactly at 1.30 as suggested. Then on with her by Petersfield, Midhurst and through Cowdray Park—so lovely and quantities of deer there—to Petworth, Swan Hotel, Trust House, getting there just before 4 o’clock.”
On the opposite page there is a picture of the H.E. tourer, Reg. No. DP 3407, with a uniformed chauffeur apparently stowing its hood, the luggage in a dust-sheet strapped on behind, and a big ” G.B.” plate and snubbers for the rear springs clearly in view. This snapshot is captioned ” Nearing Winchester ” and on the long straight road on which the H.E. is parked there isn’t another vehicle in sight.
Nothing much is known of this painstaking hand-written account of this 1924 tour in an H.E., nor is there anything very dramatic in it. But it is fascinating as recalling vividly the sort of ambitious motoring that was undertaken over the deserted roads of the vintage era. . . .
It seems that this tour was undertaken by the two ladies, in the care of H. Brown, the chauffeur. In the Carly stages, B. L. M. omits to fill in the day’s mileages but without such figures one can appreciate the immensity of the journey—the tour, which started from Bath in September, ended at the same place on March 12th the following year!
On the second day a start was made from Petworth at 9.20 in ” pouring rain, raging wind, and very dark.” So main instead of by-roads were taken to Dover (Grand Hotel), via Brighton, Hastings (” where we bought biscuits “) and New Romney. Including a picnic lunch, that run occupied about 7 hr. 25 min.
Next day the H.E. crossed the Channel on the Maid of Orleans, being loaded after a big Hispano-Suiza had been slung on board, and by 2 p.m. they were in France. With a guide on the running-board to show them the way out of Calais, they got to St. Omer (Hotel du Commerce) about 5.15 p.m. in the dark and drizzle.
I cannot continue in such detail, although the diary gives plenty; suffice it that at Penalise, where a fair with steam organs contrasted to the ruins of war all around, the Peronne Hotel upset the travellers when Madame said it was emberant for them to have separate rooms (Brown, one assumes, was outside with the car), so they went on to the Hotel de France in Hans.
Saddened by the hammering the castles and churches had received in the war (temporary bridges in and out of Hans), and the utter destruction of Soissons Cathedral, the H.E passed, beyond Roconat-St.-Martin, the wood from which ” Big Bertha ” shelled Paris, and ended up at Chateau Thierry (Hostellerie do Bonhomme et des Violettes—” a good deal knocked about, as it was first French and then American headquarters, with the Germans looking straight down on it from the old chateau on the hill). At a fete in the evening, Brown pleased some French soldiers by shooting out nine out of ten lighted candles, while an American tourist couldn’t hit one
So this holiday tour proceeded, the ladies declining escargots at the quaint old Hotel St. Laurent at Troyes although Brown told them afterwards what they had missed! The speedometer cable broke over bad road mending out of Chateau Thierry (which excuses the aforesaid absence of daily mileages) and essence was bought in bidons, using a letter of credit until cash could be drawn at a Socit’te Nationale Bank.
The ladies noted a Union lack on the war memorial at Lignol and remembering their chauffeur’s remarks about snails bought him mauve toadstools and bright red slugs at Bois de la Lune near Charmont. At Poutarleir the H.E. had to take on cheap cammion fuel and Mobil BB oil. Customs officers on the Swiss border nearly kept the H.E.’s carnet—the charge was 35 centimes at the French post, 3 fr. 25 C. at the Swiss one. Out of Lausanne. there is mention of the first puncture.
Two days at Vevey and the H.E., with a police pass, tackled the Simplon Pass. Alas, it was blocked by snow five kilometres from the summit. Mrs. W. felt very nervous and got out before Brown reversed and turned, helped by two Swiss who held the back wheels! He ” had driven round the tremendous bends as if he had taken them daily for years and never had to reverse at any of them; it was a queer sensation to see the bonnet pointing right over the precipices time after time, and I found it advisable to look up and to the left instead of watching the drop! The two-horse diligence which took the place of the motor one after October 1st did not return that evening and as the ‘phone wires. were down no messages could be taken—” Little the police would have cared, had anything happened to us! “
After much delay and Customs trouble the H.E. went on a truck, with a Minerva (which had turned back on the Pass much lower down), through the Simplon tunnel. So they came to Baveno (Hotel Suisse et des Iles Borremees, splendidly run by Sig. Manteggia, where B. L. M. had stayed in 1914). After steamer and rowing trips on Lake Luino (from which Mussolini’s seaplane was flying), the travellers sought the recently-opened autostrada to Milan but (shades of MI) discovered it closed because of surface cracks.
Brown ” took quite calmly ” the terrible old road and the change from keeping right to driving on the left. Milan (Hotel del Parco) was an inferno of noise.
The road from Milan to Bologna was infernally dusty (in 1924), a puncture had to be repaired, and a low-flying light aeroplane frightened a horse and threw the cyclist leading it—the avoided him easily, because it wasn’t ” going at the pace most Italian drivers go at—often quite 60 m.p.h.” Next, over the Appenines (good but dusty road), which made the H.E boil. It also punctured again.
In Florence the roads were so bad the car was spared as much as possible, staying in a so-called garage on the other side of the river from the Pensione Maria Pia, where accommodation had been found. The H.E. was driven out to Central Garage at Via dei Fossi, for .small repairs to its hood frame and luggage grid—those roads! The repairs, including the fitting of shockabsorbers to the front axle (those roads!), involved many tram rides. But a long stay was intended, anyway, and Mrs. W. returned to England by train, leaving B. L. M. to go sightseeing, to the cinema, opera, etc., with Brown—I am beginning to think he was really more friend than chauffeur!
The entry for Nov. 22nd says : ” This is H.E.’s birthday as l’ve actually had her for four years today! ” So this staunch car was an early 1921 model! It had the unpainted bonnet typical of the make, incidentally. On Dec. 31st there was a Fascist disturbance. with newspapers burnt at kiosks; etc.
On Jan 16th a “Baule per Automobile,” cost 870 lire, made to measure for the HE., arrived. After much sightseeing by train and on foot. a break-in by thieves at the H.E.’s garage and Brown going sick, the tour was resumed on Feb. 14th. The first day took them 62.8 miles to Viareggio, the dust so thick the H.E. ” became almost -unrecognisable and quite a light colour! ” (Albergo Ia Poce—car in Miramar garage).
The H.E. took the Col de Bracco, ” execrable, with stones and mud” en route for Rapello, pretty but so smelly the couple went on to Santa Margherita Ligure-, staying at the Hotel Continental, with only a shed for the car.
Runs of 80-90 miles a day brought them to Laigueglia. (Is this such a pleasant place today ? Then the only hotel was Gastoni’s, in a tiny piazza with a terrace going down to the sea and no Americans!
Out of Italy and through Menton, Monte Carlo, Monaco, Eze, Beaulieu, to Nice. In the carnival B. C. M.’s face was bruised and Browns ear bleeding from pellets—” The police should have turned people back who were not participating! “
The return journey home, commenced on Feb. 25th, seems to have been uneventful, the only entries of motoring rather than touring interest being ” passing between the Autodrome (on the right) and the Aerodrome (on the left) ” on the road from Miramas to Arles, buying ” a case for tubes and tools ” in Arles„ and a climb to Villefort, ” the car taking it wonderfully in spite of horrid French petrol (Tourisme) which she does not like.” The Hotel Balme at Villefort had no heating (on March 1st) in the rooms over the barn which served as a garage, ” entered by crossing a sort of midden and mounting an outside flight of steps! ” Food excellent of course!
Snow after Le Puy, but the HE, descending from Chaise Dien, “at 20/21 m.p.h.,” did the 100 miles to Vichy in about seven hours, inclusive of a picnic lunch of pickled pork, etc. The 116 miles from Bourges to Chartres took six hours—picnic this time. sausage rolls heated on the exhaust—with worst roads on homeward run beyond Orleans. A brush and sponge for the H.E. were bought in Cnartres. as there was mud ahead! Rough roads to Abbeville, a run of 137.5 miles, cracked the G.B plate, Which fell off, so Brown constructed one of paper cut out and gummed on to the black luggage case. The start was delayed by ” an inefficient but self-satisfied and smiling French owner-driver of a Ford in the yard of the Hotel de la Tete de Boeuf.
So home to England. The A.A. agent at Dover had smartened up since the outbound sailing, ” so this time I gave him 8s. for I would not give him a tip when we left England, as he had, not pleased me.(The Calais agent got 10s.) A stop at the Royal Hotel in Winchester. and on to Bath next day. The diary concludes : “All had gone well and we have come from Florence to Bath without a single puncture”.
So much for motoring in an age when a hotel with a garage was regarded as rare. when you could be kept waiting up to 3/4 of an hour before drawing your money from a Bank. when tyres were suspect, roads dusty ,and deserted—an age which will never return and which only those who venture abroad in vintage cars can to some extent recapture. The H.E. was away for 5.5 months, One wonders what this tour cost and if Brown and B. L. M. still remember it – B.W