Some time ago R. G. V. Venables recalled a hill-hunting expedition of pre-war times, which must have made many mouths water. By way of compensation, he here shows that, by conserving the basic ration and using an economical car, a little of this sort of motoring is possible yet—Edd
IN a recent issue of Moron SPORT the Edithr reported that I was getting over 40 m.p.g. from my Austin ” Arrow ” with hard driving. This was Only partially accurate, for the car is not mine—it belongs to the girl friend. The 40 m.p.g., however, . was right enough, and it is the ability of this ultra-light car to cover a lot of miles on a little petrol which really decided the owner and myself to indulge in a rather more than usually ambitious piece of motoring on Christmas Day. Actually the plan, such as it was, originated several years ago when I was covering one of the Southsea Club’s trials (I think) for a local paper. The last hill was Rake Hanger, and the delay on some of the earlier sections had been such as to cause it to he ascended in total darkness. With blazing headlights (remember the things ?) throwing brilliant shafts of light through steam and smoke, the cars were coming up fast, and I Seated myself at the top of the hill on a fallen log. Beside Me sat the observer, Kitty Hutchison, and she remarked upon the resemblance of the scene to the sort of thing usually associated with the “Exeter,” ” Edinburgh ” or “Land’s
End.” From this the converstitiOn drifted to accounts of long cross-country drives, and she recounted with considerable enthusiasm how she and her husband had once managed to drive most of the way home from Dorset on green roads. From Mrs. Hutchison’s description of their route, it was evident that they had traversed the Ox Drove, and ever since that chance conversation I had been meaning to explore for myself this ancient trackway.
The romantic Ox Drove is second in antiquity only to the Ridge Way—father of all green roads in this fair island— and having diligently hoarded our basic ration of petrol for the two preceding months, the girl friend and I finally decided to spend Christmas Day in an excursion along the entire length of these two ancient roads.
The arrangements were somewhat hampered, .however, inasmuch as the owner of the ” Arrow ” resided in Surrey, whilst I lived in Gloucestershire. But a girl accustomed to marshalling on night trials thinks little of 75 miles before daybreak, and the village clock was striking eight beneath a star-filled sky as the ” Arrow ” drew up outside my house (or rather half-a-dozen yards beyond, the brakes not being amongst its stronger points !). Despite being completely numbed with cold, the driver was in the highest of spirits at the prospect before us, and, whilst she made short work a a breakfast befitting the occasion, I hurriedly donned
hoots and breeches—once accustomed to the mud of trials hills, but nowadays plastered with a liberal ration from local farmyards. With a welcome light spreading ahead of us in the eastern sky, we Set off for
Streatley, where the Ridge Way rises up from the Thames Valley (as a continuation of the Ieknield Way). Before long we commenced the ascent of Moulsford Downs—an entertaining experience, for recent rains had rendered the chalky surface extremely treacherous. Once on the top, however, we were able to proceed almost as though on a main road, for in many places the grass is as smooth as a tennis lawn, and a rear-half which persisted in dewing steadily from side to side only added to the exhilaration and enjoyment.
The descent to lonely Churn Station and the climb up the opposite side of the valley were accomplished without incident, other than revolving completely on two occasions without slackening speed, and, having crossed the main llsley road, we found ourselves following the crest of the Downs for mile after mile. On our right was a truly magnificent view across the Thames Valley, with Wittenham Clumps forming a familiar landmark. To the left lay the seemingly limitless tract of undulating country between Newbury and Lam bourn and the prospect as a whole. could hardly have been bettered—particularly in the perfect weather with which Our excursion was blessed.
Above %Vantage we encountered a very sticky section and the ,depth of the ruts necessitated the removal of the spare wheel. It seemed better to take it oil in the orthodox manner than to have it wrenched oil over a hump (when it would probably have brought away with it a liberal portion of the rear panel).
Sweeping fast down a lonely stretch above letcombe Bassett we passed an encampment of gypsies, exchanging cheery shouts and a wave of the hand. Over their fire was brewing something possessed of a singularly appetising aroma and we thought ruefully of the Christmas dinner which we were forgoing in order to make this rather mad journey.
A gradual ascent brought us at last to Uffington Camp, where once the famous White Horse proudly rode the hillside. This, in more senses than one, is undoubtedly the high-spot of the Ridge Way, and is, I think, quite one of the finest places throughout the length and breadth of England. Gazing down the narrow twisty road which climbs up to Uffington Camp past Dragon Hill I was reminded vividly of an amusing occurrence there many years ago. My people were by way Of being pioneers in the field of private motoring (my mother was the first woman in Oxford to hold a licence) and the original vehicle Of their choice was a singularly erratic de Dion Bouton, complete with tiller steering and all modern refinements. Next came a D.F.P., and it was in this magnificent motor-car that I recall making my first journey. My father had rashly determined to conquer Iiilington
Hill and, as I now looked down, 23 years later, at the scene, I recalled with startling clarity how I had been seated proudly at the steering wheel (I was barely four years old), whilst the remaining members of my misguided family pushed desperately at the rear in a vain attempt to keep the de Dion moving in a forward direction.
Much the same sort of thing occurred in 1922, when an over-confident salesman drove ‘Us out to Uffington in a G.N. His intention was to demonstrate the hillclimbing capabilities of this curious car, but the engine failed on the steepest section. So did the brakes, and we Went straight home and bought one of the new air-cooled Rover Eight twins. This model was, in its way, something of a milestone in the history of British light cars, though I still regret our decision to purchase this instead of the G.N.
But enough of this digression into the past. . . • The sight of the Ridge Way stretching out ahead called .us back to action, and down the slope from the White Horse Hill we plunged in a series of hairraising slides—the gallant little Austin not infrequently finding itself broadside across the track, which, fortunately, is here of great width. Then on past Weyland’s Smithy, of picturesque legend, and so up the opposite slope of Bishopstone Downs. At one point, where the track runs beside a farm, we all but came to rest, the thick grey mud coming up to withinan inch or two of the axle. To have stopped in such a veritable quagmire might well have meant several hours delay, so in desperation we somehow heaved ourselves back almost on to the rear seats and the alteration of weight just saved the situation. Blipping the throttle by means of the hand lever, we emerged triumphant—to the amusement and/or amazement of the farmer standing at his back door.
At the “Shepherds’ Rest” (on the Cricklade road) we halted for a wellearned drink—then on along the Ridge Way where it no longer follows the ridge. Once more to be travelling on a hard surface felt decidedly odd, but within ten minutes we were back on the muddy grass, and I noticed with some consternation that we were now entering what I recognised as a one-time observed section, used in several local trials before the Nvar. But there was nothing for it but to maintain such speed as we could muster, though the waterlogged condition of the track rendered .high speed anything but desirable. Actually, this water probably proved our salvation, for the mud underneath was thus reasonably thin and the Austin was able to plough its way through in a really impressive manner. Now came the long climb to Barbury Camp, followed by a magnificent section along the crest of Hackpen Hill. Here an unexpected boulder (or “grey wether,” as they call them in those parts) caused
my heart to miss a beat—but the sump missed the boulder, and before long we found ourselves crossing the Bath Road somewhere between Marlborough and Caine. Emerging rather abruptly on to the main road, our radiator was all but wiped off by a 2.8-litre ‘Mercedes— entirely our fault (water in the brakedrums)—but we avoided contact by a miracle and about half-an-inch. Ironically, the Mercedes was painted in Army colours and was carrying a bunch of officers (presumably British !), and I have no doubt that it was the same car which caught my fascinated attention in Andover a few months back.
The last section of thellticige Way led us up across Wansdyke and ahead we espied the ‘ard ‘igh road, only to behold a wire fence cutting us off from our goal. To place a fence across the oldest right of way in Britain is obviously all wrong, so we had no compunction in undoing the wire and passing through, though in fairness to the farmer and his cattle we felt compelled to re-join the strands.
There followed an exhilarating rush down Walker’s Hill into Alton Barnes, and a welcome lunch was consumed at the Barge Inn, Honeystreet. Our journey was now at the halfway mark and we looked forward eagerly to tackling the Ox Drove.
Came a fast run down the upper Avon Valley through Enford, Amesbury and close under Old Sarum into Salisbury, then a few miles out along the Blandford Road—and there lay the Ox Drove, forking off to the right between ragged hawthorn hedges. It looked unimpressive at first and the surface was merely uncomfortable without being interesting, but, as the miles slipped by, conditions gradually improved and we were soon pleasantly aware of extensive views to right and left. After a beautifully bright morning heavy clouds were now gathering in the north with depressing rapidity, but the scenery and surface absorbed all our
attention, and having crossed the road from Bower Chalke to Sixpenny Handley we encountered increasing quantities of mud. Here and there, too, the hedges had encroached on either side until they all but met and the back of the car soon became filled with twigs and hawthorn berries in consequence. From time to time we caught glimpses of Cranborne Chase in the hollows on our left, and as the track rose to 800 ft. we commanded a truly magnificent view down to Bulbarrow and the Purbeck Hills.
An unpleasant diversion occurred in the form of a dead crow dropping out of an overhanging bush into the passenger’s lap, but this was forgotten a moment later by the inspiring sight of an Army Norton sidecar outfit forging through the mud towards us at high velocity. Whether bent on official business I know not, neither do I particularly care, for the way in which the two mud-bespattered occupants worked together brought back vivid memories of pre-war trials. The outfit possessed sidecar wheel drive, all three tyres, of course, being “comps.,” and within 10 seconds of making its unexpected appearance it had vanished behind us in a shower of flying mud and turf. We had prudently drawn into the side to allow it a clear passage, and as we were about to resume we were surprised to hear the diminishing crackle of its exhaust suddenly cut out—a moment later our expectant ears caught the sound of a rending crash, suggesting that the Norton had taken a Hying dive into the hawthorn bushes. We had barely reversed the car a dozen yards, however, before we heard the outfit on the move again. Those fellows were certainly no novices in the gentle art of rapid cross-country motoring. . . . Eventually we came out into the open, and there ahead rose Win Green clump— marking the end of the green road and the culmination of our journey. Parking the mud-covered motor-car beside the little clump of trees, we got out and endeavoured to take in our almost in
credibly extensive surroundings. Win Green, we are told, is the highest point in Dorset (911 ft.) ; but, in fact, it is still a mile short of the Dorset border. However, we cared not what county we were in, for in all directions there stretched a panorama such as I have rarely seen. This, having pretensions at being a motoring article, is hardly the place for a description of the country around Win Green, so I will say no more. Those who have visited this enchanting spot will know it well enough, whilst those who have yet this experience in store I would strongly urge to get out there at the first available opportunity.
Our musings were rudely interrupted by the unexpected arrival of a police constable with an ominous little notebook and the information that we had parked more than 15 yards off the highway. . . .
But did it really matter ? Behind us stretched a vivid memory of many glorious miles along the Ridge Way and the Ox Drove—a lasting impression of a very wonderful day’s motoring. By now it was fast growing dark and a heavy shower was seen rushing across the valley towards us, so it was a hasty descent of Zig-Zag Hill which brought us into Shaftesbury (shades of the refreshment stop on the “Exeter “). Accommodation was quickly found, the gallant Austin was tucked away for the night alongside an immaculate Mareralaz, and after removing the worst of the mud we settled ourselves down to attack the turkey and Christrm s pudding which Mine Host set before us. We were reminded of the gypsies encamped out on Letcombe Down and wondered how they were faring on that wild night. In front of a really traditional Yule log after dinner my thoughts dwelt still upon those two ancient green roads and the splendid way in which the little Austin had carried us along the whole of
their tortuous length. Such a day’s motoring comes now but seldom.