Historic scene with Gordon Cruickshank

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Hidden side of SIlverstone

For all its modern façade, the British GP’s home retains a few precious links to its military past

It’s a big place, Silverstone, and it seems to change every time I go. But there are a couple of buildings that predate its racing days – and yet I had never seen them. I knew there was a house with the farm that was concreted over to help fight Hitler, but somehow I had never penetrated that far into the circuit interior. So on my last visit BRDC secretary Gillian Carr took me over to see the Club’s secluded hideaway, and learn about the major development project the Club hopes will showcase the circuit’s story.

On the way we passed the WWII control tower. You didn’t know it had survived? Nor did I. Now serving as the BRDC’s driver changing and shower block and smartly clad in vertical green timbers, it looks more like an escapee from Grand Designs than a wartime relic which once watched over the comings and goings of a Bomber Command training unit.

Further on, tucked away behind trees near the old Bridge corner, the farmhouse has a plain symmetrical stone façade, but many extensions make it a bit of a Tardis inside, and more comfortable than anything the farmer’s wife enjoyed. In the kitchen a date stone says 1779, and rumour claims it includes stone robbed from the Benedictine Luffield Abbey that gave both farm and corner their names. (Its outline occasionally shows in crop markings near Stowe corner.)

The house contains bedrooms for BRDC directors, admin offices, the Club’s extensive archives and a library, nicely furnished with sofas where people can come by appointment to research racing history. When I dropped in a couple of visitors were making use of the Club’s extensive book collection, which is reference only. Though not as glamorous as the BRDC’s glossy, glassy Clubhouse overlooking the Brooklands complex, it feels like a little haven from the noisy stuff going on outside.

“You can’t see the circuit from here, though,” Gillian points out. “I’ve got the best seat in the house – my office is the old Press Office in the Jimmy Brown Centre, overlooking the track.”

We’ve explored the Club archive before in Motor Sport – an extensive spread of programmes, photos, badges, papers, bulletins, posters, trophies and memorabilia going right back to its origins as a dining club organised by Bentley Boy Dr J D Benjafield. It’s a rich collection, but it’s currently stored in cramped racks of uninspiring cardboard boxes. Cataloguing this vast hoard is the job of Archivist Steph Sykes-Dugmore, who says they’re “maybe 70 per cent of the way through”. With scores of thousands of items going back to 1928, it’s a major job, luckily aided by several volunteers, but eventually the catalogue will be accessible online.

The far bigger task, though, is digitising the archive contents, from photos to cartoon menu cards from those carefree dinners where Benjy, Barnato and Birkin threw bread rolls around. This ties in with Silverstone and the BRDC’s ambitious visitor centre project, an £18m undertaking to build a combined circuit and club history and interpretation centre, plus a more suitable home for the archive. With £9.1m promised by the Lottery Fund, Silverstone has to match that by 2016 to clinch the deal and start work. Completion date should be 2018, says project director Sally Reynolds, tasked with gathering donations and sponsorship as well as planning. The target date marks the 70th anniversary of Silverstone’s first Grand Prix.

If you look left while your entrance tickets are being checked before crossing the bridge to the infield you’ll see a very large building. Despite its modern skin that’s the only remaining WWII hangar, and refurbished and extended it will house the visitor centre, including interactive displays, simulators, immersive 4D cinema, lecture theatre and education centre. Great names such as Sir Stirling Moss and Sir Jackie Stewart will record first-hand memories of driving the circuit, and the natural history of the extensive site also features. Maybe it will explain where all the once-notorious Silverstone hares have gone…

Reynolds tells me it’s not just about Silverstone – it will outline the history of British motor sport, and Silverstone and the Club’s part in it. “And it won’t just be about Formula 1,” she continues. “Club racing, 500cc racers, bikes are all just as important to the story.”

At this stage attractions have still to be firmed up, but Sally says it won’t feature history in glass cases. Visitors will walk around a circuit layout via various interactive exhibits.

“We’re looking at the latest technologies to attract visitors. And it won’t be a car or a WWII museum either. It’s about the track and the UK’s central place in motor sport today, including illustrating current race technologies and advances in medical care, but it will also explain the origins of the site, back to Saxon days.

“We might recreate one of the burial mounds found here, for instance. And we’ve found plans of the bomber training simulator they used, so we’re working on an interactive scheme based on that.”

A simulator simulator, then. Silverstone wasn’t an action station, but there were many casualties among the thousands who had low-level bombing training here – 124 deaths in its first year alone. There is a memorial to these men outside Luffield corner and another near the current visitor centre, something I’d never realised. There’s a little WWII archaeology left, too, aside from the runways – concrete footings, a dispersal hut, a couple of dispersal bays where Wellingtons and Ansons were parked away from fuel and ammunition. (Did you see an airworthy Anson was for sale at Goodwood for only the price of a good E-type? Something wrong here, surely.) You’d have to be a war buff to search these remains out, but visitors to the new centre – working title Silverstone Motor Sport World but it might change; just don’t say ‘heritage’ or ‘museum’ – will be able to take self-guided tours around the circuit, including the ‘retired’ section through Bridge, just below the new facility. (I got this far without using that word.)

“Our research shows that people want to explore the circuit as well as see racing,” Sally says. “They’ll leave the new exhibition feeling they’ve experienced a lap of the track, and then they’ll be able to stand on the actual Tarmac where Hill and Mansell, Senna and Schumacher went through at 160mph.” I know myself that’s more than just sales talk; when I’ve taken people there I’ve watched them stand silently on the kerb with a faraway look in their eyes…

Just as with Bloodhound SSC, an educational component features large, not only for visitors but also online, bolstering Government strategy to encourage more pupils into engineering. As Britain is a world leader in motor racing, it’s a good portal.

Reynolds says projections indicate visitor figures of 400,000 annually “though I think that’s conservative”, and suggest a wider base than merely racing fans. Whether you could fit a trip through the ‘experience’ into a day’s race viewing I’m not sure – but maybe it will tempt people to stay an extra day, boosting tourism revenues. Motor racing benefits the country in many different ways.

Lost in translation

A common tongue doesn’t mean perfect communication

I speak bits of several languages to various degrees, but one thing I don’t speak well is cubic inches, which led me to mis-describe something in my piece on Scarabs last month. I said that Julian Bronson’s Scarab had a ‘220’ engine, thinking in my ignorance of things US that this was an engine type designation. Actually that would be the capacity in cu in, equating to more than three litres, whereas Julian went to a lot of effort to develop a reliable and correct 2½-litre version of the Offenhauser engine as run in GP races in period, which has brought him much success in historic racing. Julian is fast enough anyway without needing extra cubes, so my apologies if it read that way.

Every year Jaguar historian Andrew Whyte is remembered with a major lecture. This year’s event is on Sunday November 22 at 2pm in the Jaguar Factory Theatre, Castle Bromwich, when key speakers will be our own Simon Taylor, Jaguar legend Norman Dewis and representatives from the design team on the new F-Pace. Tickets at £20 benefit charities including the Surtees Foundation. Contact Bob Beecham on 07976 152550.