A memorable drive

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R. G. V. Venables apologises for writing of a journey made in nothing more potent than a Morris-Cowley, but the run he describes was certainly memorable; his enthusiasm and his knowledge of the countryside are infectious, and if this account prompts others to recall equally memorable drives, we shall be very glad to publish them. Venables, incidentally, besides being a trials enthusiast and an Aston-Martin exponent, has a very extensive interest in swing music, frequently arranging programmes for the B.B.C.—Ed.

The Editor’s plea for accounts of memorable drives has set me thinking and my thoughts are centred upon July 15th, 1938. I wonder if any readers happen to remember how it rained that day? As I recall it now, it would seem that Noah must have endured 40 days’ drought by comparison, yet the memory of that journey is one of extreme pleasure. It is also one of infinite discomfort, but the years have a softening effect, and nowadays, too, the recollection of any long drive is pleasant.

And this really was a long drive, occupying over 14 hours on (and not infrequently off) the road. Indeed, the comic Morris-Cowley in which we accomplished these feats of endurance was actually motoring for close on 16 hours— having to perform its daily duty as a milk van for a couple of hours before getting down to real business.

Perhaps I should explain that the Cowley was the proud possession of a girl who owned a dairy farm in Surrey,. and, naturally enough, the morning’s milk had to be delivered as usual. In point of fact, it wasn’t quite as usual, being at least an hour earlier than on any other day. Further, the delivery took barely half the normal time—which was mighty good going—more especially since it was quite the wettest morning in living memory, and when I arrived on the scene the rain had penetrated to most parts of the young lady (I think) and all parts of the old Cowley (I know).

The start

The purpose of our proposed journey was to interview a prospective stockman at Silverton, near Exeter, and when we finally got on the move at about eight o’clock the prospect appeared hardly inviting. Serving primarily as a milk van, the Cowley was without doors, and, for all the good it did, it might just as well have been without a hood, too. But it also served as a course-plotting car for local trials, and for this reason it boasted quite an urgent engine and a brace of nice “comp.” covers behind.

Anyway, we finally got started, and little of note occurred until we reached Stockbridge (having come from Churt via Alton and Winchester). Here we found the peaceful Test had burst its inadequate banks and had taken possession of the main road with a callous disregard for other traffic. Several cars were halted at the edge of the swirling water, but we ploughed straight through—partly because we didn’t want to stop, but mainly because we couldn’t stop (the rain having penetrated our brakes). The muddy water seeped up through the floorboards, finding its way swiftly and unerringly into our already sodden shoes, but we reached “dry” land without trouble, and our success encouraged the other cars to follow. As we ascended the steep hill beyond I glanced back, and with grim satisfaction observed one car apparently marooned on the hump-backed bridge and two others at a standstill in the rising torrent.

The hood had a mischievous trick of collecting about three gallons of water in its sagging folds before suddenly letting go. On one occasion (at Lobscombe Corner, if I remember rightly) the girl friend rashly prodded the ominous bulge above her head, theoretically with the object of dispersing the water, but her finger pierced the rotten fabric and she was rewarded for her trouble by a sleeveful of icy water. “Never mind”, she said, cheerfully, “we can look up through the hole and see if it’s raining.” We did. And it was.

In Shaftesbury we stopped for petrol at Pike & Badger’s Garage (shades of the London-to-Exeter) and made the mistake of alighting from the car. Previously there had been two dry patches on the seat, but now even they were gone, for the rain came steadily through the newly-acquired inspection orifice in the hood. Descending the long hill beyond the town we got into a hectic slide on the left-hand bend, but the Cowley sorted things out on its own behalf, and we continued at unabated speed through Sherborne into Yeovil. It was half-past ten when we arrived (90 miles from home, making an average of 36 m.p.h.), and we decided to seek shelter and solace in a cafe. Hot drinks put a much more rosy complexion on everything, but the pools of rainwater on the carpet evoked harsh comment from the waitress, so we took ourselves outside as soon as possible. A policeman awaited us at the motor car, and the general outlook became less rosy. “What’s wrong, apart from everything?”I asked. “Nothing,” he beamed ; “I was just wondering why you hadn’t any doors.” “We find it lets the water out better like that,” said the girl friend sweetly, and we drove away in all directions.

Through Crewkerne (memories of the London-to-Bournemouth) and up over Windwhistle Ridge to Chard, then the long ascent of Yarcombe Hill and down the Otter Valley into Honiton. But as we neared the “lace town” an utterly impossible thing occurred. The rain stopped. And there, stretching half across the western skyline, was a growing arc of greenish-blue sky.

We said nothing, but I coaxed more speed from the Cowley, and we made contact with the sunshine just as we drew up outside the farm at Silverton, where the stockman lived. The heat flooded down on everything and I sat there steaming contentedly while the girl interviewed the man for whom we had endured so much. After a while they came out to the car. “Morning,” said the stockman, affably. ” Come through any rain?” I never did like that man.

The interview over, we turned for home. Or that was the general idea, but, in point a fact, we set off almost due north for the Quantocks, and lunchtime found the Cowley standing proudly on Will’s Neck (1,261 ft.), having left its “comp.” tyre marks up a very tortuous track which scales the hillside from the hamlet of Triscombe. We got a bit lost after lunch, but managed eventually to shake the Quantocks from our wheels, and there followed a fast drive across Sedge Moor and the end of Blackmoor Vale, crossing the morning’s route at Sherborne, the object of this vagary being to inspect the Cerne Giant, an impressive gentleman who has adorned the hillside above Cerne Abbas for 4,000 years.

Over the hills

In Cerne we espied an Invicta, and all thoughts of the giant were forgotten. In vain we pursued the stark motor-car up the steep hill running eastwards out of the village, but at the top we lost sight of it. A smell of Castrol R lingered on the breeze, but we abandoned Invicta-chasing in favour of a most inviting chalk track which led away across the open downs ahead of us. The Cowley was in its element on wet chalk, and soon we were boring along with twin fountains of white mud flying up behind us. After a little over a mile our track crossed a tarred road, and we followed it up the other side and along a ridge commanding an impressive view over Blackmoor Vale to the Mendips. Ahead of us I recognised the sudden dip as the Dorset Gap, wellknown landmark in the Cerne hills, and we plunged down between overhanging hedges to the Plush-Mappowder road.

The track climbed the opposite face of the Gap, but the Cowley didn’t. It failed with wheelspin about halfway up, and we were just deliberating as to our best course of action when a carter appeared around the bend, leading a team of magnificent horses down the muddy lane towards us. A nice man, that carter. No money would he accept, but he hitched up his team to the front dumb-irons in a matter of seconds, and we sat back in undignified state and let the horses do all the work. At the top of the hill we were unhitched. “This track leads to Melcombe Horsey,” remarked the carter “Is he talking to one of his horses? ” whispered the girl friend, rather mystified. “And why should it want to know?” But I recollected having seen this quaint name on a map and we decided to investigate the place for ourselves. Actually, Melcombe Horsey turned out to be only a farmhouse and a couple of cottages, and not to be compared with Bingham’s Melcombe a mile farther on.

The next stop was on Bulbarrow Hill, then down with a rush through Okeford Fitzpaine and Child Okeford, and so across the Stour valley to the fringe of Cranborne Chase. Now we were in more familiar country and it wasn’t long before we had scaled the steep side of Melbury Down and got on to that glorious green road—the Ox Drove. We diced along this at exhilarating speed, the surface being just pleasantly wet, and after about half an hour of bumping and sliding we found ourselves out on the Blandford road.

By now we had reached that curious mental state known only to a certain type of rather fanatical motorist—a feeling of enthusiastic abandon which dictates that good hard roads shall be scorned. But a problem presented itself here, for ahead lay Salisbury and far too many tarred roads for anyone with a craving for the grass-grown lanes, so we turned due north along the first muddy track which presented itself. Soon we were slithering down into the Ebble Vale, crossing the river at Stratford Tony. The crossing, incidentally, was eventful, for we were confronted with the choice of a foot bridge or an alarmingly deep ford. The bridge was vastly -preferable, but an inch and a half too narrow, so we had no alternative but to tackle the ford. For the second time that day we found our shoes awash, mid for one awful minute I thought that disaster had overtaken us at last. I think the fan blade must have touched the water, for there was a sudden frightful hissing and steaming beneath the bonnet and the engine cut out. But only for a moment, and with a prayer of thanks I brought the Cowley up out of the swollen river quite literally under its own steam.

Heading straight up the opposite side of the valley, we found ourselves on Salisbury Race Course, the empty grand stand looking singularly dismal. Reference to the map showed us that a well-defined track followed the ridge of Compton Down and White Sheet Hill almost as far as Shaftesbury, so without a word we turned westwards and drove back parallel with the Ox Drove. I felt a little guilty at having turned so blatantly away from home, but the weather was perfect, the scenery superb and the Cowley seemed to have become resigned to muddy motoring.

A good fill-up for car and man

A large and belated tea in Shaftesbury filled a much-felt want. The gallant motor car, too, had a thirst to be quenched, and another visit to Pike and Badger’s resulted in 4 gallons and considerable astonishment from the garage boy. But time was marching on and we realised that we were a “helluva” long way west of Churt. Even so, the prospect of returning along the main Salisbury road seemed rather tiresome so we headed north through East Knoyle and Longbridge Deverill to Warminster. Fortunately, the girl remembered that there was another stockman here who was seeking a position, so we felt no twinge of conscience at again straying so far from the direct homeward route. He was out, anyway, but our intentions had been the best.

And now we really turned for home, but within ten minutes of leaving Warminster temptation again raised its ugly head. There, rising to the left of the main road were two impressive hills with their crowning earthworks standing out boldly in the evening sunlight. Our map informed us that we were looking at Battlesbury and Scratchbury Camps, and a chalky track leading straight up to the latter simply left us no choice.

Little did we suspect what terrors lay ahead, but having driven triumphantly to the summit of Scratchbury and paused for a moment to absorb the terrific view, we headed straight across the top of the hill with the intention of descending the other side. And indeed we did descend it, but only because the Cowley was incapable of retracing its “steps.” Steeper and steeper grew the slope ahead, and when by the time I’d decided that I dare not go forward any farther, it was much too late to go back. To our intense dismay we saw that the slope ahead ended in an almost vertical drop of 4 or 5 yards, being one of the embankments of Scratchbury’s imposing fortifications. From an archaeologist’s point of view, the prospect was superb, no doubt, but to our way of thinking it was just plain terrifying.

The next two or three minutes will live long in my memory. Having cajoled the trembling girl friend into mounting herself on the rear bumper in a vague attempt to keep the back wheels from lifting, I engaged bottom gear and allowed the car to creep forward to the edge of the almost sheer drop. I was about to yell, “We can’t do it,” but the brakes refused to hold, so I changed my shout to “Hang on!” and over the side we went. Mercifully, the car held a straight course, but as the front wheels hit the bottom of the slope there was a momentary darkening of the sky above my head, followed by a crash in the region of the near side front wing. The Cowley came to a standstill, and with a sigh of relief I turned to congratulate the girl upon having remained at her station. But she hadn’t. “Are you looking for me?” came a rather weak voice from the front of the car. “Yes,” I said, a little startled.. “How did you get round there?” “Over the windscreen,” replied the girl, and showed me several impressive bruises to prove it.

And now, as might be expected, we were filled with an inflating sensation of conquest. The Cowley had survived the ordeal and so had we, so we set off in high spirits across the undulating downs ahead. It was indeed good to be alive –and somewhat surprising, too.

There was no definite track over the long grass, but we steered a charmed course and finally emerged at Chitterne All Saints. A friendly cottager here supplied us with two enormous slices of cake, and thus suitably reinforced we commenced the last lap of our journey. Shrewton, Stonehenge (looking grand in the evening light ), Amesbury, Andover, Whitchurch and Overton, then along divers by-lanes to Alton. It was dusk now, but we couldn’t resist the temptation of calling in on Stan. Denyer to recount a little of the day’s doings. Turning off the main road in Holybourne we nearly made violent contact with Windsor-Richards in a “30/98.” The light was had but his brakes were good, and the incident enabled me to add several new words to my vocabulary.

Stan. was there, surrounded by Leafs as always, and very callous about the “ugly incident” at Scratchbury. But it was nearly eleven o’clock, and the girl friend had to be up at six the next morning to bottle the milk. I wondered how many customers would suspect that their milk was brought to them in a car which had just covered 350 miles. Not many, I supposed, and yet, to the discerning eye, the different layers of mud told their own story—the story of a very memorable drive.