You will find Burpham in the Domesday Book. But this may be the first time you have read about this tiny village on the banks of the River Arun in Sussex in a motor racing magazine. It won’t be the last time.
Mervyn Peake created the characters for Gormenghast here and now lies buried in the shadow of St Mary’s church. Tickner Edwardes, once the vicar of Burpham, wrote his classic The Lore of the Honey Bee between pastoral duties here. Archaeological digs have unearthed bones of a Neolithic elephant. Today, however, something rather different is happening. There are 30 Ferraris on the cricket pitch and John Surtees is here meeting an army of fans, patiently signing books and autographs all day long.
When Dominic Santana, founder of the Burpham Motor Racing Club, woke up this Sunday morning everything was as it should be. A dog barking somewhere, the clatter of cat flaps, otherwise total tranquillity. Within hours, hundreds of cars descend upon the stillness, wending their way down the one road that ends at the pub. Worshippers walk to church for the 10.30 service. Life goes on.
“Look dad, they’ve got the DeLorean from Back to the Future,” says a very excited little boy to a father who’s probably more interested in Surtees’ stunning collection of classic motorcycles (above). This is a show for everyone, putting happy smiles on faces tucked into dripping anoraks to shelter from our worst summer for 100 years. But the weather doesn’t matter, we are British. Fans carry on regardless, admiring everything from a Manx Norton to a Ferrari F40 to a Ford Cortina. And it’s all in a very worthwhile cause, the proceeds going to the Henry Surtees Foundation, a charity started by John following the tragic death of his son.
Veteran journalist Alan Henry, a writer I have long admired, is there to entertain us with his wry humour and tales of his five decades in pit and paddock. Also on the stage in the Village Hall is ‘Big John’ himself, as forthright and perceptive as ever. When will this man be given his knighthood? His achievements on both two wheels and four have yet to be matched.
“It’s been a good day, we made a lot of people smile, and that’s what it’s all about,” says an exhausted Dominic Santana.
“I hope we can do this every year, people love coming to Burpham, and the locals get into the spirit as well. They worry about the traffic, but we got it right thanks to our volunteers, and they all get a free ticket to come and enjoy the show. John made the show for us, he was talking and signing autographs all day, and I met people who’d come from Somerset to see him.”
It was an especially good day for the proud owner of a 1968 Cortina 1600E which won ‘Best in Show’, visitors voting for it ahead of Ferraris, Jaguars, Aston Martins and other more racy automobiles. A 1979 Bombardier motorcycle took the honours in a superb display of bikes. But it wasn’t the awards that mattered, it was the joy of joining other like-minded folk in support of a great cause in a beautiful English village.
For those who wanted shelter from the summer rain there was a vintage mobile cinema. Nice to watch a film without upping the mortgage to buy the sweets and drinks. Outside the peace of the countryside was shattered only by the rattle of air guns as we discovered just how tough it is to change the wheels on a Grand Prix car in less than three seconds. ‘Pitstop challenges’ serve as a reminder of how skilful are the F1 mechanics of today.
Ironically, it was warm and sunny at Spa-Francorchamps for the Belgian Grand Prix, while the Arun Valley sat under rain clouds that failed to dampen the enthusiasm of the British motor racing fan. And that’s why we should salute the men and women of the Burpham Motor Racing Club. It is such events that express just how much this nation loves the motor car, the motorcycle and the combustion engine. Having a chat with John Surtees, going home with his autograph, that’s a good day out.