Blandford

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Hailed as the first post-war road race circuit, this army facility offered highspeed spectacle – in a high risk pakage. Gordon Cruickshank reports for duty

photography by Richard Newton

Perhaps it was the description ‘army camp’ that did it. I had visions of something like the now-defunct Ingliston circuit in Scotland narrow and tight, diving and squirming through 90-degree bends around blockhouses. But Blandford couldn’t be more different. Combine the spaciousness of Thruxton, the plunges of Oulton Park and the views from Shelsley, and you’re getting a feel of it. Add in a narrow track – 20ft over most of it – with wheel-trapping kerbs, like the Isle of Man TT, and a knife-edge 120mph corner, and it’s suddenly clear what an impact Blandford made back in 1949.

With its hilltop setting, razor wire and security cameras, the Blandford Camp of today doesn’t look much like a motorsport facility. Our team have to have mugshots taken at the gatehouse before we’re allowed in past the armed guards. As we cruise into the camp, sweating recruits are doubling from place to place. But it was a novelty back then, too.

Motorsport was staggering to its feet after the war, but with Donington still under military occupation and Crystal Palace out of action, Silverstone and Goodwood seemed to be pointing towards a future of airfield circuits, as artificial in their way as Brooklands had been. There was still a debate over whether track or road racing was the better test of car and driver, and when West Hants & Dorset Car Club decided to upgrade its Blandford speed-trials to circuit races, the press made much of this being the first post-war ‘road racing proper’ in Britain.

A local motorcycle club had run races at Blandford camp in ’48 which had pulled in crowds of 30,000, so the army authorities were already primed. In its very chatty programme for that opening car meet, the West Hants club was modest about its new project: ‘Today’s road race meeting is an experiment. It is the first time that cars have been raced at Blandford, and the first time that WH&DCC has organised a race meeting. There may be shortcomings…’

Yet the scene at Blandford on August 27, 1949, looked quite professional. There were no grandstands, but there was extensive fencing (‘Do not lean heavily on the fences. They are not that strong and cost the Club a lot of money’), a PA system and several beer tents. A temporary bridge (built by the Royal Engineers whose base this was) fed spectators into the extensive viewing areas, which as the programme commented, were mainly on the infield `…until practical experience is obtained as to where cars are likely to go off the road’. Ironically, the exception to this rule was at Engineers, a spectacularly quik corner, where there were three major accidents.

Under the stewardship of Earl Howe, a programme of Formula Three and sportscar races climaxed with the 100-mile Formula Two Blandford Trophy; but in fact there were so many entries that the club had to run heats and shorten the final to 80 miles.

In the sportscar heats (with starting grids determined by ballot) the club made use of the RAC’s slightly odd stipulation that only 15 cars could start at once, but 20 could be on the track at the same time; so the 2-litre cars set off first, followed a minute later by the 1500s.

Dudley Folland’s V12 Ferrari, the first in Britain, was the most exotic entry. ‘In two seasons of racing, these Italian cars have come right to the forefront,’ said the programme. It goes on to comment on Oscar Moore’s OBM, a 328 BMW modified to single-seater form: ‘Recently in Belgium, this car, while on its lorry, was stolen. Fortunately, the thief omitted to notice that it was not properly secured, the OBM rolled off, so that Oscar has been able to do Moore racing with it since.’ Frank Kennington produced a new Cisitalia, while another entry (he didn’t start) was the Cooper of Stirling Moss, ‘who last year was described as “up and coming”, but who has definitely now come.’

With a combination of high lap-speeds and the closely matched 500cc F3 cars championed by John Cooper himself, the crowds round the expansive 3.3-mile circuit saw some spectacular racing, marred by some major accidents.

Over the fastest section, where the track crested and speeds peaked through Engineers bend, Gordon Woods hit a bank in his 328, spun into a bus shelter, was thrown out and fatally injured. At the same place, Major P K Braid immortalised himself by parking his Cooper on the roof of the Guardroom, having arrived there via the same bus stop and a small tree. (He fell out, uninjured.) And Jack Fairman, caning his way from midfield behind the Coopers to second place, brought the Final to an early halt by strewing his Riley in pieces across the track. `Fairman left hospital on Monday,’ said MOTOR SPORT, ‘and sportingly has apologised for spoiling the race.’ Nevertheless, he was awarded second place as he lay in the ruins on the track.

This trail of destruction put road racing on trial, and Blandford in the firing line, though the racing press felt it was either sheer bad luck or native inexperience. WB defended the meeting strongly in his Editorial in the following issue: ‘It is the racing driver’s job to stay on the road; no-one suggested before the war that Monaco, for instance, was dangerous on account of its nature. Perhaps if Blandford had attracted only the Continental aces no untoward incidents would have occurred. Which merely emphasises that our drivers have yet to learn road racing…’

This breezy Dorset hill has, on and off; seen centuries of military activity. General Wolfe paraded troops here, and Rupert Brooke prepared for Gallipolli. Because of its ridge-top position, it was a relay station in the Admiralty’s early-19th century visual telegraph chain, then part of the new electric telegraph system. Shut down in 1920, the camp was reawakened for WWII, but today the wartime timber buildings which clustered along the ridge have disappeared; the camp has regrown further west, sheltering down the slope and nearer the handsome Georgian town of Blandford Forum. Where screaming, skinny-tyred half-litre specials once darted between regimental offices there are now scrubby bushes; where once were empty fields there are the classrooms and barracks, canteens and car parks of the Royal School of Signals.

And security fences. Since the IRA’s heyday in the Eighties, things have got strict. The road from the town used to go right through the camp; now only local buses get to pass through, with an armed guard on board. Part of the old circuit falls in the high-security area: a tall metal fence topped by wire slices across it, so that a lap involves two sets of high, locked gates. We have been loaned Corporal Broadbent with a set of keys to let us in and out on our stop-and-go laps.

On a slight downhill, the start/finish line is probably the least changed spot. Here beside the one-time airfield the club set up a basic temporary paddock with tented accommodation and uncovered pits, from where cars streaked away through the scrub towards Cuckoo Corner. This adverse-camber medium right led into a dramatic 1-in-10 plunge towards Valley Bend. In the pictures there are saplings alongside; now as we pause at the top of the drop, the track is so overhung with mature trees we can’t even see the stomach-tingling 100mph apex in the valley bottom. p+

Despite the ferocious abilities of our Audi RS6, we don’t reach 100, because we know about the gates just after the left-hander; where the track re-enters the secure area, we must stop for unlocking.

Uphill again, there’s a diversion: the track skips sideways around the Glasshouse, a modem canteen complex (which includes Humph Bahadur’s Gurkha restaurant) before resuming its line into the sharpest bend on this fast track, Ansons.

Back then you hit the middle pedal when you reached the telephone box. Today it’s a give-way junction past a car park, before starting the rise to the downs. Enfolded by trees, this area looks more like a prosperous suburb or smart office complex than a military base — except for the Roosevelt Memorial Garden commemorating the US troops who started their last journey from this corner of Dorset.

As the track levels out we’ve arrived on the ancient Monkton Downs with its expansive views north and south, the scene of another, older type of competition. Horse racing took place here in Henry VIII’s time, and lasted until 1894; now the nearest reminder is the stables of the Signals school. Up here the circuit’s dangers multiplied.

Through Craddock Straight, actually a succession of six righthanded kinks climaxing in the notorious Engineers bend, speeds built to a peak just where there were the most buildings and obstructions to hit Foot-high kerbing, telegraph poles and fences lined the track, not to mention a long barrow and several tumuli marking the ancient significance of these Dorset heights. And with nothing between you and the Channel, the crosswinds gusting between the huts could easily upset a lightweight Cooper, or the locally built rival Marwyn. It must have been a relief to hit the brakes for Hood Comer, the final tum back to the start.

Though there isn’t a building left up here, you can look out over the bowl of the circuit and imagine the wail of that Ferrari and the rasp of McAlpine and Clark’s newly revealed Connaught sportscars alarming the wildlife. You wouldn’t get away with that now. These uncultivated slopes are a Site of Scientific Interest, where goldfinches and song thrushes cavort, in among little parties of signallers on exercise.

Despite the accidents, WH&DCC staged another race meet at Blandford, in May 1950. The format was similar — sports, F3 and F2 — but this time the Blandford Trophy was broadcast live on the BBC Radio’s Light Programme. And there was another first — a rolling start to the F3 race.

But the official knives were out: after another fatal accident at the club’s hill-climb meeting that same year, when Joe Fry was killed, permission to race cars here was withdrawn from the end of 1950. The club moved its meets to Ibsley (an airfield, ironically), though as so often (what is it about bikers?) the two-wheeled mob ignored the risks and raced at Blandford until the early Sixties.

Blandford’s lap record (83.87mph) still stands to Fairman on that death-or-glory flight when he truncated the race. He recalled later that Tony Rolt, managing the pits, had bullied him into wearing a helmet for the first time. It saved his life, he said, “with the result that I am the only member of the BRDC who has been placed and drawn prize money after sliding along the road on his ear”.

Competition still lingers here. There’s a kart track and a dirtbike trail, and the old start straight is sometimes used as a control on classic car events. It’s a long way from 1949, though, when this elevated military camp seemed to be pointing a way to the future for motor racing in Britain. It can boast its share of firsts — the first Ferrari and Cisitalia seen racing here, Connaught’s debut, that rolling start — but as long as it retained its dual purpose and couldn’t be altered to improve safety, it was never going to last.

Our thanks to It Col C D Melhuish and Roland Holt for their help.

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