75 years of Shelsley Walsh

The Editor looks at unchanging aspects of the famous hill. 

The Midland Automobile Club’s famous speed hill-climb venue at Shelsley Walsh between Martley and Stanford Bridge in Worcestershire is celebrating its 75th Anniversary this year; it will be marked by a special parade of pre-1914 racing cars up the hill, at the VSCC Meeting on July 5th. 

Shelsley Walsh is not only older as a competition venue than Brooklands, and of course still active several times a year, but most of the original landmarks remain and the place still looks very much as it did in the beginning, and particularly as it was between the two World Wars. The other day I went back there, to meet Mark Joseland, Secretary of the Midland AC, and Walter Gibbs, the Club’s Archivist, to see just how much does remain from the old days. 

The Midland AC, founded (like the MCC) in 1901, had held early public-road hill-climbs. In 1905 it decided that a private road would be more suitable, a condition forced on all such Clubs twenty years later, after the accident at Kop Hill. The first Shelsley Walsh Meeting took place on August 12th 1905 and naturally the fastest ascent of the new-found course near Squire Taylor’s Court House counted as the first record. It was the achievement of EMC Instone on a 35 hp Daimler, in 77.6 sec. In those days the surface was loose gravel and the timed distance was 992 yards. In 1907 another eight yards were added to the finishing straight, to bring the distance to an exact 1,000 yards, and the first record for that course .as made by JE Hutton with a 56 hp Berliet, in 67.2 sec. By the time the First World War shut things down the Shelsley Walsh record stood at 68.8 sec, to the credit of J Higginson’s prototype 30/98 Vauxhall. The first post-Armistice record was made in 1921 by CA Bird (the “Custard King”) in 58.6 sec, with an Indianapolis Sunbeam. For 1930 the surface was altered to one of tar-and-chippings (which the great Basil Davenport, who broke the record four 3½-litre hill-climb Austro-Daimler brought the record down to 42.8 sec. By the time another World War again stopped play Raymond Mays, with his ERA, had the figure down to 37.37 sec. And in the conclusion of this article on page 1010 I hope that we shall have been able to include the FTD at the 1980 RAC Hill Climb Championship round, scheduled to be held on June 8th. The Hill had been resurfaced again, by the way, in 1946, 1967 and 1979. 

From the mid-1920s onwards Shelsley Walsh really got into its stride, as an important British speed-fixture, to which renowned Continental racing drivers soon paid attention. Hans von Stuck pulverised the course-record, as we have seen, in 1930, and only the rain prevented him from doing likewise on the extremely exciting occasion in 1936 when he arrived with a twin-rear-wheeled, short-chassis 5.3-litre Auto­ Union and, on a hair-raising ascent, clocked 45.2 sec. Incidentally, any doubts about the accuracy of Stuck’s 1930 record with the rather-improbable long-wheelbase Austro-Daimler should be dispelled by the fact that he clocked the same time on both his runs. . . . 

When I stopped at Martley Post Office last May on the way to the Hill, to check my route, a lady remarked that about the only thing that hadn’t changed was Shelsley Walsh, a good way of starting this nostalgic lookback! The Hill is still approached along a narrow country road and it still winds up between lush trees, to the finishing straight from which a magnificent view of Worcestershire countryside can be enjoyed. This finishing straight area has been extended and tidied up, but it is still very much the rural sprint-scene from long ago. At one time the Shelsley Walsh Paddock used to be a quagmire of mud on the inevitable wet days, as I well remember, but it has long since been surfaced and Brooklands’-type shelters for the competing cars put up. The times-hut in the Paddock is now topped by the weather-vane which Leslie Wilson made long ago, as an indication of how the day might shape; it was re-furbished in recent times and set up there by Murray Austin. Incidentally, this year the Paddock area is to be extended on the right, to give room for a new bar and provide more parking space for those whose cars carry the coveted Paddock-passes. Spectators’ cars are now parked in the enormous meadow on the right of the course, with an arrangement for overflow cars to use the field off the public road, opposite the Hill. 

Otherwise, it is all very much as it was in those enraptured 1920s. The black-and-white lodge, once the Rectory to the near-by ancient church, to the right of the start, is now occupied by Mr Enstone, who was once a competitor, so he raises no objection to the noise on race-days! Court House, the residence of Sir Francis Winnington, another person fully sympathetic to the commotion caused on hill-climb days, stands as ever to the left of the hill, a fine Manor House having associations with the Gunpowder Plot. 

The start-line is beside the same old farm-buildings and I understand it has the only concrete surface of any hill-climb course in the country. At one time “Vox Villa”, the famous commentary-box from which Eric Findon, the Editor of The Light Car, made his historic broadcasts for the BBC, aided by Major Vernon Brooke at the S-bend, dating from 1932, the first full-scale BBC outside-broadcast of a motoring event, stood on the grass triangle by the flanking farm roads. In 1934 “Vox Villa” was moved a little further from the start, behind the railings of the farmyard, on the edge of the course. It deteriorated with the passage of time and was, unfortunately, dismantled. Present-day commentaries from the start are done from “Vox Villa II”, a roomy building, also on stilts, which was put into commission on July 11th 1971. When living in South London before the war I used to listen-in avidly to Findon’s descriptions of the GN Specials and Raymond Mays’ Vauxhall Villiers in action, to the accompanying magnificelt mechanical noises…

We stood for a while on the start-line discussing how Shelsley climbs were timed. We had been joined by Conrad Milner, whose task of keeping the course in good fettle began in 1929 and who had driven over in his old Vauxhall Viva from his home nearby. It was recalled by those present that at first competing cars had been signalled away with a red flag and timed, via a telephone line, by the official at the finish, who wielded a 1/5th-sec stop-watch. Then Major (later Gen) Lough­borough took over and introduced a system of  starting-signal lamps but timing was still by stop-watch. From 1936, however, the Loughborough-Hayes chronograph-system was employed, started automatically with the signal-lamps and able to not only time to an accuracy of some 1/1,000th-sec but to print the results, to 1/100th-sec, on cards, as a permanent record. In between times it seems that a Ferodo timing-apparatus was used, with contact made when a car passed over an inflated canvas-and-rubber strip across the road, as, used for timing records at Brooklands. In 1962 the old chronograph was replaced by George Hall’s transistorised-clock, later itself usually replaced by digital-display clocks. For a time the contact-strip was used at the finish, with a light-beam to start the clock, but now light-beams are used at both ends of the course. The MAC was one of the first Clubs to have the benefit of a Loughborough-Hayes timing-apparatus and this is now preserved as a museum item. 

Driving up the hill, which is steeper than 1 in 7 for part of its length —Joseland had come in his Reliant Sabre-Six, Gibbs was in his 1.5 Alfasud, and I was in a VW Golf GTi Convertible —we passed the well-known Kennels, after which the bend at this point is named. The remains of the one-time kennel buildings can still be seen. They used to house the pack of Clifton Hunt, up to the last War, and photographs exist of horses and hounds being exercised up and down the hill. Even, it seems, on practice or race days! 

Further up the hill, where it bends to the left, we came to “The Crossing”. In the very early days spectators were allowed to walk up the course itself, even while climbs were in progress, simply being expected to get out of the way when they heard bells rung by Policemen. As cars got faster this was obviously not good enough, spectators were made to use a path on the left of the course, rising behind the orchard, until they were about half way up the hill, when they crossed the enclosures on the right of the course, at a place guarded by the Worcestershire Constabulary. The wooden steps here can still be seen. In 1933 a new spectators’ path was made on the right of the hill and thus “The Crossing” was no longer needed. 

Above this is the S-bend, where most of the action happens. Even after the First World War spectators had at first been allowed to stand and sit on the banks lining the course, right on the road’s edge. Soon, however, paling-fencing kept them away from the road itself but still in very close proximity to the competing cars. From 1925 onwards they were moved further back and for a time a line of sandbags protected the right-hand side of the S-bend, but these had deteriorated by 1934, so a substantial bank was made here and the ground between the old and new members’ enclosure was raised to make a new Public Enclosure. Just above it there is now an opening, used by News-Reel vans but also useful for parking an ambulance or other official vehicles. In 1934, too, more spectator-benches were erected near the old “Crossing.”

Having negotiated the very steep gradient of the stepped-path up through the woods to the 
S-bend public and members’ enclosures, spectators can sit on low wooden benches while watching the climbs. I wonder if Monica Whincop remembers doing so with me before the war, after she had driven her early yellow Austin 7 Chummy bearing the name “Abdul The Damned” there from the South Coast?

Before the era of Public-Address systems a board displaying the competing cars’ numbers and the times each had recorded, facing the enclosures across the road, would be swivelled from left to right on the tree on which it was mounted, to provide information for all to see, at the conclusion of each class this board made its appearance around 1925, being then lower down the hill, and it, too, has survived. 

Press reporters were provided before the war with a small tent on the left-hand bank of the S-bend. This was invariably filled with the ladies and small children who had accompanied gentlemen, few of whom were wearing Press passes, which never failed to thoroughly infuriate the then youthful WB, who was there reporting for Motor Sport— one of the photographs shows with what reporters had to contend!

The Secretary in those days was the dour but super-efficient Leslie Wilson, loved as much as he could be feared. I didn’t love him all that much, however, when he insisted that I must walk up that very slimy spectators’ path, muddy enough on wet days as to fill your shoes with liquid slush if you didn’t actually take a tumble, and then cross the Course, to attain the Press tent. He was adamant about this even when I timidly asked permission, some two hours before the first timed ascent, to walk up the course to the Press tent — me, who had contributed a feature for his Programme, paid for in those days at about 1d a line! (Had I been more patient, a Land-Rover would have taken the Press up). 

Leslie Wilson had gone to the very first Meeting in 1905 in his Father’s 16 hp Humber. He competed in a Le Zebre light-car and with a 16.9 hp Hupmobile tourer at the 1920 climb, and with a Hupmobile again in 1922, before his Secretaryship. Incidentally, the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin and his daughter, once spectated at Shelsley Walsh and Amy Johnson competed there with a Frazer-Nash BMW. 

At the top of the Hill we paused to reminisce again. Some of the more sensational accidents were recalled, such as when Showell’s GN got out of control at the Esses and dropped 40-feet down the inside bank, badly injuring a photographer on its way, and when Bainton’s Bugatti did likewise, or when Lady Mary Grosvenor had a narrow escape after leaving the Course in her Alta. And naturally we remembered how John Bolster overturned “Bloody Mary” in 1933 and skated along on his head; it is now legend that, as the ambulance was about to take him away, he called out: “Has anyone turned the fuel off; it costs 6/- a gallon!” Yet, in spite of many incidents, as far as I can remember there has never been a fatal accident at Shelsley Walsh…

The once dangerously narrow gate through which cars burst onto the finish-run has been widened, naturally, but I was told that the 1932 plan, for putting in a U-turn here and extending the course in a downhill direction, was quickly abandoned. In the same way, only once did Shelsley Walsh have a return-road. That was in 1947. It was a long, narrow, rough lane to the left of the course and the only time it was used a competitor ran into a sapling and blocked it. It wasn’t thought worth the cost of widening and resurfacing it, especially as by bringing cars back 
down the Hill the spectators see them a second time. We discussed spectator-attendances. Milner said the very biggest pre-war crowd came in September 1933, when Whitney Straight first ran there with his 2½-litre Maserati and broke the record— the number then was over 15,000. They were very big just after the war, when Raymond Mays and his black 2-litre ERA were such a draw. The biggest-ever crowd was on that very wet day in June 1947, when Mays’ ERA was nearly as quick as Straight’s Maserati had been in the dry fourteen years earlier. Great days, remembers old Milner, “You could hear the cars as far away as Bromyard!” On wet days, he said, even Earl Howe could be surly…

So Britain’s first serious private hill-climb venue, scene of so much endeavour, drama and thrills down the years, has remainect largely unaltered over the past seven-and-a-half decades. The course blends with the peaceful Worcestershire countryside, as it did when the MAC discovered it in 1905 – prior to that they had held timed hill-climbs at Gorcott, on the Birmingham-Alcester road, and at Middle Hill near Broadway, before moving these to Sunrising Hill in 1903 – see the Club badge. 

Many famous racing drivers have come to Shelsley Walsh, and Conrad Milner can tell you where most of them stayed. Raymond Mays used to stay at The Abbey Hotel in Malvern. The Stanford Bridge Hotel, in the village with the two bridges over the river Teme, is thought to have been the MAC’s official Headquarters before the 1914-war and again afterwards, until around the mid-1920s, from Friday to Sunday, with the Hall Porter from the Midland Conservative Club acting as valet. Leslie Wilson later used “The Swan” at Tenbury Wells as his hill-climb week-end Headquarters. This place, too, has changed little, as our photographs show. It was here that excitement would rise as a prominent exhaust-note proclaimed the probable arrival of yet another competitor. Hans von Stuck and Rudolf Caracciola stayed there in 1930, the former having driven himself and his wife in an impressive Horch Coupe some 1,000 miles across Europe, to compete and clobber the record, and “Rudi” having come in the 38/250 SSK Mercedes-Benz with which he set a new sports-car record of 46.4 sec. 

We drove to “The Swan” for lunch and it was easy to see how little the Hotel and car-park have changed and to visualise how drivers like Mrs Needham, Fay Taylour, Count Premoli all the way from Milan, Johnnie Lurani and so many other famous people, came over the little bridge to the Hotel, in their MG Magnettes, Alfa Romeos, Frazer Nashes and what have you, after Friday’s practice, to join Leslie Wilson and Eric Findon (“Vox”, ie Vox Populi – the Voice of the People) in debating the prospects of fine weather said he was always fearful that foreign racing drivers, unable to speak English, might find themselves in Tenby – or Torquay – instead of Tenbury, or that those coming by train would never get the right connection for Wofferton, where a car was sent to meet them. The landlords of “The Swan” then were Mr and Mrs Palmer but there still exists a motoring link there today, for when we began talking to the present incumbent, asking if the pre-war visitors’ book has survived (alas, it hasn’t), he spotted Mark Joseland and said immediately “I know about Frazer Nashes”; it turned out that he had worked for Ron Footitt. 

Even now our look-back hadn’t quite finished. We followed Gibbs back to Manley — Golf after Alfasud; two top-class small cars — to look at what is left of the public-weighbridge there. It was here that cars were weighed before they competed in the Formula classes at Shelsley. It is quite a distance from the Hill and must have taken a lot of time, especially when some of these heavy cars then took more than four minutes over their ascents of the Hill. Indeed, it was far enough, it is said, for hidden tanks full of water to empty themselves between Weighbridge and Hill, with obvious advantages to the car’s drivers! The weighing-hut is still intact and the weighing-platform was uprooted only recently. 

Before this we had looked at some of the excellent photographic archives that Walter Gibbs has collected together for the MAC. Fascinating! From this wealth of fine pictures I was reminded that all manner of improbable cars have run at Shelsley, Miss Cynthia Turner’s 6.2 hp Peugeot Quad for instance (she later became a Bugatti addict); that in those vintage times makes such as Voisin, Diatto and Rover won their classes; and that one year Leslie Wilson used a big vintage Hupmobile saloon as the Course-car (other makes he used for the task included Armstrong-Siddeleys, a Siddeley-Special and a Daimler Double-Six, a Wolseley etc.). A black-radiator Model-T Ford truck is seen dragging Grindlay’s crashed Salmson off the course, in 1928, and there is evidence that, after Harold Heath had won the President’s Cup on Formula in 1924 with a Twin-Cam sports Darracq, the Alvis Company strongly objected. It is said that Eddie Hall towed his Aston Martin to that same Meeting from Yorkshire behind a 1908 45 hp Renault that had cost him £30, on a trailer made out of Ford parts — I wonder if he has a photograph of it? Then there were the Demonstration Runs, like that by Sammy Davis in “Old No. 7” Bentley, Barnato and Rubin in the Le Mans-winning 41/2-litre Bentley, Bertelli and Newsome (Aston-Martin) Eyston and Hall (MGs), etc. Seemingly-unsuitable Brooklands’ cars, such as the Lanchester Forty single-seater and Calthorpe single-seater ran there, as did a racing Bean. We know that the two Nacional-Pescaras which Zanelli and Tort drove in 1931 came all the way from Barcelona in two Chevrolet vans and that the gate-money used to be taken to the Bank after a Meeting in an old Austin Twenty taxi. But I would dearly like to know whether Stuck used a Horch again as his road-car in 1934, how his Auto-Union was brought from Austria to the Hill, and what collected the Four-Wheel-Drive 4.9-litre Bugatti that Jean Bugatti crashed badly in practice in 1932, after, rumour said, he had unofficially beaten Stuck’s record …

Pondering on all this, the magic comes back in force. So it is good to know that the MAC is so carefully keeping its old records. Mark Joseland told me, for example, that an elaborate frieze, designed years ago, to fit round a fireplace in the Club’s Headquarters at The Midland Hotel in Birmingham, done by SCH Davis in his inimitable cartoon style, depicting a day-in-the-life-of-a-Shelsley-competitor, has been found and, after restoration, may soon be displayed in the Midland Motor Museum at Bridgnorth. Apparently many well-known pre-war drivers are recognisable in this piece of art-work. If you want still more of this Shelsley Walsh atmosphere I recommend the book “Shelsley Walsh” by CAN May (Foulis, 1945), which you may be able to find in a secondhand bookshop, and the Club’s own “70 Years of Shelsley Walsh,” edited by Harold Hastings, which has been brought up to date with a supplement and is still available, or the 1977-79 supplement which can be obtained separately. And, of course, you shouldn’t miss the VSCC Meeting and Parade of Early Racing Cars at the old Hill, on July 5th.-WB.