All over the country there are still traces of forgotten racetracks which put old wartime airfields to primitive use
In Hampshire the other day, on the A338 between Fordingbridge and Ringwood, I found myself driving through a peaceful little village called Ibsley. At once a tiny bell rang in my head.
To the left down Mockbeggar Lane, beyond those neat modern houses and the ‘olde worlde’ pub, Ron Flockhart’s Mk2 BRM once shrieked its V16 song and the Ecurie Ecosse C-types of Jimmy Stewart and Ninian Sanderson did battle. There was a disused wartime airfield at Ibsley, and between 1951 and ’55 its 2.1-mile square of perimeter roads became a racing circuit. The local club, the West Hants & Dorset CC, attracted quality fields — Mike Hawthorn, Roy Salvadori, Colin Chapman, Archie Scott Brown — even though it couldn’t afford much start money. It was impossible to fence off the circuit, so spectators got in for free: the only revenue came from car parking (50 pence) and sales of programmes (10 pence). It was a different world.
World War II left scores of such airfields scattered all over the country. Today’s tracks like Silverstone, Goodwood, Croft, Castle Combe, Snetterton and Thruxton started out like that, of course. But a whole lot more did briefer circuit duty and then were abandoned as increasing safety requirements and deteriorating surfaces made them unusable. Most have been forgotten by the history books. Gransden Lodge is noted as the venue for the first postwar meeting in 1946, and Boreham later became the home of Ford’s competitions set-up. But who now remembers Brough, or Gamston, or Thornaby, or Whitchurch?
Wales had Fairwood, Scotland had Charterhall, Turnberry and Winfield, and even nethermost Cornwall had its own racing circuit. This was Davidstow, where with meteorological optimism six race meetings were run between 1952 and ’55. At almost 1000ft above sea level, RAF Davidstow was said during the war to be Britain’s highest operational air base. It lay on Bodmin Moor under the shadow of Brown Willy, Cornwall’s highest hill, and was notorious for dreadful weather and thick fogs.
On three occasions Davidstow ran what were grandly labelled Formula One races — several F2 Connaughts and Cooper-Bristols turned up, but the only genuine F1 car to appear was Leslie Marr’s streamlined Connaught. Against five other starters, including an 1100 Cooper-JAP, Marr inevitably scored an unchallenged victory.
The hardy members of the local motor club who organised those Davidstow meetings usually had to deal with torrential rain and thick fog, and facilities were basic to say the least. There were no buildings, and the only communication with the outside world was a single telephone which, according to Davidstow historian Peter Tuthill, was buried between meetings in the sodden moorland turf inside a well-greased biscuit tin. Temporary latrines were dug, and on one occasion the stormy winds blew away the canvas walls, revealing a surprised row of men doing what men do in latrines. The regulations stated that a competitor who was black-flagged should stop at the pits; but there were no pits. Spectators were kept back behind waist-high scaffolding poles, up against which they parked their cars: when an Austin-Healey charged off the track it stopped itself against a spectator’s car just in time to prevent the driver being decapitated.
The 1955 tragedy at Le Mans sparked off new safety regulations across Europe, and these more than perhaps anything else spelt the end of the most basic circuits. But other aerodrome venues continued to appear. In 1958 four meetings were run at Full Sutton, a recently vacated USAF atom-bomber base near York. The runways were long and the corners were fast sweeps, and when Jim Clark (Jaguar D-type) set the lap record at an average of 103.8mph it became the fastest track in the country. There is now a prison on the site: perhaps the inmates can still, as they lie in their bunks, occasionally hear the boom of the D-type’s exhaust echoing across the exercise yard, or the paddock laughter of Innes Ireland and Jimmy Blumer.
Nowadays, when race spectators expect to be fed and watered (and protected from injury), running a race meeting is not the carefree matter it used to be. At Silverstone, for example, there would be busy club meetings almost every weekend in the season, run by smaller clubs like the Peterborough MC, Nottingham SCC and Eight Clubs. Soaring circuit fees have now driven most of these clubs away. Silverstone, about to embark on a £600 million redevelopment programme, unsurprisingly says that hanging on to the British Grand Prix is its top priority. Smaller events, which are hard to make profitable these days, figure lower down the scale.
But the clubman can still go racing up and down the country: Castle Combe, Mallory Park, Croft, Snetterton and others all run excellent club meetings. Britain’s youngest fully operational racing circuit is Ty Croes, on the island of Anglesey at the very top left-hand corner of Wales. Run by staunch enthusiast and former racer Richard Peacock, this delightful little track is in profitable use some 45 weekends a year. It may lack some of the facilities of a Silverstone or a Brands Hatch, but it still understands the importance of making racing available to drivers and to clubs at an affordable price. At the upcoming December 4 meeting, all entrants get qualifying and three races for a £100 entry fee, with optional testing the day before at £65. In September the small but energetic Chester MC ran a successful two-day, 12-race event there: it was the club’s first race meeting for 38 years.
On the primitive roads of the 1950s, merely getting to Davidstow or Turnberry was a major undertaking. Nowadays modern motorways can whisk you to the Menai Bridge very rapidly, so it’s no surprise that Ty Croes is thriving. The racing is safer and the plumbing is better, but the spirit of Davidstow and Full Sutton lives on.