Donington in decay? We've been here before...

Over last winter, Donington Park was reduced to a mess. This is terribly sad for all those supporters of the British mainland’s first serious, supposedly permanent, road-racing circuit. But it has been there before, and although the last hiatus in its racing history spanned the best part of 40 years, the case for rebuilding, restoration and revival will always be strong.

I first became aware of the place as a kid. There used to be a wonderful second-hand book shop at the top of Guildford High Street. It was named Thorp’s and tucked away on its shelves in the dusty, fusty aisles was a car-related section. It was there that I discovered Jenks’s annual Motor Sport Racing Car Reviews, and began collecting them, but years earlier I’d found a lovely Foulis-published volume entitled Speed Camera by an enthusiastic amateur photographer of the 1930s, named E S Tompkins.

I believe Eric Tompkins was actually employed by Dunlop, which gave him access to the race circuits and paddocks of the period. He had a natural flair for ‘seeing’ an image, and in particular his against the light – ‘contre jour’ – shots of cars in action (especially at Donington Park) struck an irresistible chord. His book was published in 1946, I guess I saw my first copy in Thorp’s around 10 years later, and in 1971 actually visited Donington Park for the first time. New owner Tom Wheatcroft was showing us round.

The place was more fallow than truly derelict, but the grass-narrowed line of the old race circuit with its crumbling asphalt surface was easily driveable, and the downhill loop of the pre-war Melbourne Hairpin remained unmistakable. Sadly much of the mature tree cover had long-since been felled to provide parking space for military vehicles during the site’s long career as the country’s biggest military transport depot. But scrubby fast-growing birch, hazel and sycamore had taken over. Everywhere we stumbled across old concrete foundations and floors for long-gone Nissen huts – which Wheatie described as ‘Nitionuts’ – as in huts for storing ammunition. For me the most abiding memory was of the pre-war timber press stand with refreshment stall beneath which lay on a shoreline of advancing trees just by the old 1937-39 startline and pits area, short of Redgate Corner. It was rotting away and caving in, but it looked saveable. As did the old original Stone Bridge down in the valley below Craner Curves. But Tom’s redevelopment obliterated the former and emasculated the latter, so tangible links with the Park’s history were erased.

I guess it had to be, but I’ve never been convinced. Take a look at the shots here of Dick Seaman having set up his works Mercedes-Benz W154 early for the Craner Curves in the 1938 Donington Grand Prix, and those of war-surplus Army trucks choking the place a decade later. And maybe mourn for what might have been? Hopefully there is a way back… long term.