Memories of the Basingstoke Road

[This article by S. A. Gibbons, now resident in Wanganui, New Zealand, recalls the road that is A 30, from London as far as Basingstoke, as it was when he was a boy and young motorist. Those who know this famous road to the West Country may be interested to discover for themselves how many changes have taken place in half a century and how many landmarks mentioned by the author still remain. Perhaps others have similar memories of other well-known roads? — ED.]

Of all the roads I have travelled in a long and fairly varied motoring life, none holds more nostalgic memories for me than that which today is known by the prosaic index number "A30" or, as we knew it, "The Basingstoke Road," or more often just " The Main Road."

I cannot claim the distinction of the Hon. Evelin Ellis of having driven a motor car over parts of it in 1895, but for 18 years, from 1896 to 1914, I lived within a mile of it between Sunningdale and Bagshot, actually up the Westwood Road in the parish of Windlesham.

Not surprisingly we had no car in 1896, but various horse-drawn vehicles between 1896 and 1905, in which we covered frequently various stretches between Staines and Camberley and even on occasion went as far as Basingstoke; I can easily recall the soft "clop, clop" of the horses' hooves and the scrunch of the iron tyres of the carriages on the soft gravel roads.

About 1900 motor cars began to intrude, with devastating results; for in a short time I could think of nothing else, and soon all my available spare time was spent cycling on A30 watching out for cars. The first car I can remember was Dr. Creasey's steamer, a Locomobile I think, which must surely have been one of the earliest ears in general use on A30 before 1900.

About 1900 or 1901, my uncle and guardian, Robert Gibbons of Burnham, Somerset. bought his first car, a two-cylinder Daimler of 1897 or '98 vintage, and my motoring life really began. This car was reputed to have belonged to the Hon. C. S. Rolls; I know Rolls owned and drove many cars but I doubt if he had even seen half the cars he was reputed to have owned during the late '90s and early 1900s!

I think my uncle must surely have been one of the first commercial travellers to use a motor car regularly for his business (he travelled for Thomas Tapling & Carpet Manufacturers of London) and covered a large territory, which extended from Taunton in the west to Andover, Basingstoke, and Reading. so he covered quite a bit of A30 in his regular business journeys, usually carrying two or three cwt. of samples.

Practically the only change I can remember between 1900 and 1914 was not in the Basingstoke road itself, but concerned the ratio of horse-drawn vehicles to motor transport. In 1900 the vehicles were almost entirely horse-drawn, with just an occasional one propelled by its own power, including, when clear of London, a fair number of traction engines and steam rollers. By 1914 it was a very different story, motor transport of all sorts completely dominating the scene„ but there was still a fair sprinkling of horse traffic.

Leaving Hammersmith Broadway. where the trams started for Kew and Hounslow. one headed west down Chiswick High Road, narrow and congested with trams. I think this stretch of the road was paved with wood blocks. After Chiswick the road widened.a bit where the Kew and Richmond routes branched off to the left. but closed in again through that nightmare bottle-neck that was Brentford, always congested and paved with stone setts. which were nearly always slippery in winter for lack of sun. and in summer from excessive zeal on the part of the water-carts. (It was here that I had my second brush with the police; coming into London early one damp morning about 1906 on my 1903 18-22-h.p. Mercedes, with the road fairly deserted but greasy as usual, a man thought lit to suddenly cross the road in front of me. In my anxiety to avoid him I suppose I braked too hard and the back of the car slewed round and knocked him down; he wasn't hurt. I helped him up, cleaned some of the mud off him, and then couldn't find his hat! Eventually we found it in the tonneau of the car! In the meantime, of course, the ubiquitous "bobby" had appeared and that was that "dangerous driving" and, in due course, a fine.)

Once clear of Brentford things improved. The road became much wider, with a double line of tram-tracks in stone setts., with a strip of macadam on both sides wide enough for overtaking, and usually kept well watered in dry weather. (This watering was to keep the dust down, but perhaps what is not generally realised by present-day motorists is that this dust in the days of the predominance of horse traffic was largely composed of fine particles of straw from the horse droppings, and was extremely irritating to the eyes. I wonder how many people can remember the days when small boys employed by the City and Metropolitan Councils and armed with scoops and hand brushes dodged in and out amongst the traffic gathering up horse dung. almost as soon as it was dropped, depositing it in special bins provided on the edge of the pavements?)

At Hounslow the tram-tracks finished, the Bath Road forked to the right, and we were in the country. From Hounslow on it was all open country right through to Staines, much of it under cultivation, mostly vegetables for Covent Garden. A few houses were scattered about, with a little settlement at Bedfont, where I seem to remember a small factory, sornething to do with motor cars, or perhaps in the latter years there was a garage there, then Staines Reservoir on the right.

The road surface.: macadam of course, was unsealed and this stretch, from Hounslow to Staines, was, I seem to remember, usually in poor condition. In the middle of Staines the L. & S. W. branch line to Windsor crossed the road by a bridge. and I suppose still does, only it isn't the L. & S. W. any longer! I suppose the Lagonda factory was in Staines then but the Lagonda wasn't a very exciting car to me in those days and I don't remember the factory, but I do remember going to Staines on several occasions to see the start of the Exeter and Land's End Trials, the starting point being on the London side of the Thames Bridge in those days. Staines and Egham were quite separate towns then.

From Egham on the character of the road changed and really became interesting. In the old carriage days Egham Hill was a definite obstacle and the more robust passengers usually walked the steep part. Even with the old Daimler we had some anxious moments, especially in the "tube ignition" days before she was modernised! The road surface from here to Basingstoke and bevond was composed of a rather sandy yellowish gravel, most pleasant to drive on. not particularly dusty, and which dried quickly after rain and usually kept in pretty good condition. From the top of Egham hill the road ran mostly through pine woods almost to Sunningdale Station. with no houses alter the turn off to Englefield Green, except for the Wheatsheaf Hotel near the bottom of Virginia Water Hill, and the "Red Lion" just before the turning to Sunninghill. (What a joy the swoop down and op that beautiful hill was—not much swoop with the old Daimler, mostly rattle and grind!—especially when our machinery got more powerful. With plenty of ''audible and sufficient warning" of our approach at the turnings to Virginia Water village and Ascot, with bulb horn and open exhaust, and later on the Iris, a siren.)

Just before reaching the station there were it few shops on the left, and Halfpenny's Garage, which started life I think as a blacksmith's shop. (I knew Mr. Halfpenny well; he had a sporting Argyll four-seater with Govan gearbox, which he had reconstructed from a standard chassis).

At Sunningdale Station there was the Station Hotel and a few shops and offices—Giddy & Giddy, land agents; Drake & Mount. coal merchants; the London & Provincial Bank, which later became Barclays. There were no buildings at all on the left of the road west of the railway when we first went there, and no road up the hill on the left to the golf links and houses. One thing has apparently remained unchanged through the ages—the level crossing! It seems amazing that this relic of the past should still exist. The number of vehicle hours wasted there during the last fifty years must be fantastic.

Between Sunningdale and Bagshot there were very few houses adjacent to the road; perhaps half-a-dozen on the right just before Devenish Road, one cottage at the foot of Westwood Road, and a few more houses on the left just west of Snow's Ride, where was situated Dr. Creasey's house and Spencer's blacksmith forge and cycle shop, which later became a garage. On both sides of the road were woods and fields with large private houses standing in their own grounds, well screened from the road. Just past the railway bridge and the turning to Bracknell was the Cricketers Inn. Bagshot was a nice little village with several quite good shops and paved footpaths, the ubiquitous water-cart busy in summer and the shop windows well splashed with mud in winter.

Up Bagshot Hill at the ''Jolly Farmer" the road forked right in the junction of the Farnham and Basingstoke road, with scattered houses on both sides, on to Camberley, which even then was quite a town, with the Staff College in its wooded grounds on the right.

Another level crossing at Blackwater [now bridged—Ed.], then a short rise and you were on to that grand speedway, the Hartford Bridge Hats. scene of many dark deeds and unofficial early morning speed tests. All was open country with hardly a house to be seen and very few side roads all across the common. [Blackbushe Airfield now occupies most of it.—Ed.]

Down the hill at the end of the Flats through Hartford Bridge village and on through open country, with woods and fields to Basingstoke and houses dotted here and there. All the way from Hounslow to Camberley, and maybe beyond, I don't remember, the road was bordered on the north side by a gravel footpath and on the other side mostly by a wide grass verge. Beyond Basingstoke my recollections of the road are more vague. as our journeying farther west usually took us to the left here to Winchester and Dorset, or else we bore right at Andover (then infamous for its police activities). With a final fast run across the Plain to Amesbury, and the more winding, slower roads of North Somerset, with their clouds of white limestone dust in summer and slippery mud in winter.

What of the cars that frequented this part of A30 in those days? The only one I can remember prior to 1900 was Dr. Creasey's steamer mentioned earlier. This was followed by several single-cylinder de Dions. His partner, Dr. Trail, who lived near Sunningdale Station, also favoured the same make, but a year in two later my uncle made periodic visits to us on his Daimler and nearly always took as for trips which entailed traversing part of A30. Later the Daimler gave way to a Bristol (no relation to the present Bristol) which was made either by the Bristol Waggon and Carriage Co. or the Bristol Motor Co. A rather unpleasant motor car. It was however a great improvement on the old Daimler, with a four cylinder 18/24-h.p. engine, canopy top and windscreen.

In 1904 I had my first motor-cycle, a single-cylinder 2¾-h.p. made in the Renton School engineering works, on which I used to dash about the local stretches of A30 complete with leather cap, gauntlets and gaiters.

In 1905 I was allowed my first car, a 7/9-h.p. two-cylinder Peugeot of 1904 vintage, with a very nice looking side-entrance body and no guts.

About the most thrilling car I can remember at this time was a white 18/22-h.p. Mercedes with standard rear-entrance tonneau body, usually not wearing any front mudguards and driven by some sportsman who used to come to play cricket on the Windlesham ground. Other local xars were a two-cylinder Richard-Brasier with small rear-entrance tonneau (a better car than my Peugeot) and a two-seater 14/16-h.p. Straker-Squire, a very sporting car which the owner, Mr. Garnet, used to race at Brooklands.

In 1906 I achieved a great ambition and became the owner, not without considerable opposition from my guardians, of a secondhand 18/22-h.p. Mercedes with a standard Cannstadt rear-entrance tonneau body. What a grand car; it was well worn, the scroll clutch took up with a judder, and it broke several sprocket shafts, but I still say it was a grand car, and it covered many hundreds of miles on A30.

A favourite recreation on Sunday afternoons in the school holidays, was to take a walk from our home at Windlesham along the main road to Virginia Water lake and back, just to see what cars were about. In the very early days of the century, if one saw half-a-dozen cars during the double trip one was lucky, but each year the numbers naturally increased, but even in 1914 the road was never really crowded and the proportion of interesting cars was high. As the years passed and motor traffic increased, commercial vehicles were much in evidence, such as Foden and Sentinel steam wagons, the former mostly rubber tyred, the latter on steel, Little Giant (miniature traction engines), also sometimes on rubber (and pretty useless too if not on a hard surface; I have seen one in difficulties in thick loose metal close to the level crossing at Sunningdale). Thornycroft lorries and MiInes-Daimlers with their unusual spur wheel and inner toothed-ring drive to the rear wheels and long radius-rods. Harrods were, I think, the first big London store to put a fleet of delivery vans on the road in our district, about 1906 I should think. They were twin-cylinder chain-driven Albions and their uneven exhaust beat was very familiar. Another unusual sight was the Renard Road Train, which I encountered one day stopped by the roadside not far from Sunningdale Station. Steam rollers were a common sight doing their job rolling newly laid stretches of water-bonded macadam road, but traction engines became scarcer every year, until by 1914 they were practically extinct east of Camberley, although one still came across them fairly often farther west.

Two small incidents stand out clearly in my memory on those Sunday walks. One rather unpleasant afternoon, probably in 1905, I was nearing the foot of Virginia Water hill when a car appeared over the brow of the hill on the London side travelling very fast; it was obviously something exciting. As it swooped down the hill I could see it was either a Mercedes or F.I.A.T. and very soon there was no doubt it was a big Mercedes in touring trim, painted dark green, with two bucket seats, headlamps and front mudguards and two muffled figures on board. On another occasion when pushing in bicycle up the same hill I heard something that sounded interesting coming up behind me. It was a very sporting chain-drive C.G.V. going well. Just before it reached me I saw a sudden spurt of water come from the bottom of the radiator and I could see that the drain plug had come out, I shouted and pointed but the driver took no notice. I soon found the plug and hastened after the car, knowing I was pretty sure to overtake them before they had got far. I did, at the "Red Lion," where they were letting the engine cool off and trying to get a cork to replace the missing plug. The plug being restored, the radiator was refilled and the engine started up, apparently none the worse for its overheating.

They turned round and headed back to London. Before leaving the driver gave me his card. I forgot the name but he was "the big noise" of the Pioneer Bus Co. in London. (I wonder if any reader remembers this line of buses? They were unusual in appearance, painted green and with the engine mounted under the driver. They were N.E.C.s, I think.) That is the road now known as A30 as I recall it. They were great days, in spite of an overall speed limit of 20 m.p.h. and the ever-present chance of being caught in a police trap.