British whimsy, US muscle
Peace and queues among the dips and twists of Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Kent
Fresh motor sport venues are ever a treat – and by rough calculation Gurston Down became the 104th I’ve visited across six continents during the past 50-odd years. If ever Antarctica awakens to racing, I’ll do my best to get there, too…
The range of sporting options was vast: watching the World Cup or French Grand Prix on TV, keeping up with England’s latest one-day conquest of Australia via Test Match Special, a VSCC race meeting at Donington Park… or this, a round of the Midland Hillclimb Championship. Ready, steady, Gotherington…
British roads are customarily a bit rubbish, but early of a Sunday morn the A40 through and beyond Burford is an absolute joy – particularly when it’s all but deserted on a day such as this. The feelgood factor had kicked in long before I reached Prescott’s orchard paddock – and was amplified when I got there. It wasn’t so much breakfast on a terrace overlooking the sun-dappled magnificence of the Cotswolds, but the colourful assembly gathered all around: orange Metro, turquoise Hillman Imp, Simon Frith-Bernard’s beautiful blue Sunbeam Alpine (driven with great brio, but later sadly to be crumpled)… and Simon Dodwell’s Seat Marbella, a home-brewed marvel with Lancia Y10 turbo engine and Fiat Panda 4x4 transmission. As you do.
Outside the clubhouse, a sign advertised a Gin Festival – a fine concept, but possibly not at 7.45am. Perhaps juniper berry overload explained the relative tranquillity, as for much of the morning I had the upper part of the course more or less to myself, with little but a greater-spotted woodpecker and a sprinkling of marshals for company. The light-and-shade backdrop was a delight, the passage of cars merely a bonus. Not everything ran smoothly – Martin Rutter’s Fiat X1/9 stopped minus gears on one run and Nigel Elliott’s TR7 V8 (twin turbos, naturally) ground to a halt on another – but for the most part it was a seamless delight.
I always think Formula Ford cars look a little lost on the hills, mind. It might be a touch impractical, but they should surely be sent up in batches of 30…
The previous time I’d passed through Salisbury, a month or few beforehand, the whole place looked like a movie set, with hazmat-suited hordes ferreting around behind police cordon tape following the headline-grabbing nerve agent attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal. By mid-June, however, it had returned to its customary role as a modest market town where nothing much happens.
Continuing for a few miles westward, a right turn in Coombe Bassett leads up into the hills, past Stratford Tony and Stoke Farthing thence on to Broad Chalke, home to Gurston Farm… which, handily, has a 1058-yard hillclimb attached.
As I clamber from my car and unpack bits of Nikon, the first thing I hear is, “I hope you’re going to write about the breakfast. It’s one of the best five pounds you’ll ever spend…”
Pitting for a croissant on the A303 had clearly been a tactical error. Next time, then.
One is accustomed to speed venues being something of a throwback, but they all have distinctive signatures and Gurston’s is a paddock that is partially set in a farmyard, with 500cc Formula 3 cars scattered among an agricultural plant that is conceivably even older than they are. It’s such a time warp that there is an Austin Ambassador in the car park – and it seems to have arrived under its own steam, something it might have struggled to achieve when new.
The entry is predictably diverse, from 30-odd motorcycles and sidecars to bike-engined everything (including a Citroën 2CV, see Club Spotlight) via a phalanx of Mazda MX-5s and a clutch of beautifully prepared Minis that are all driven with appropriate vim.
It’s user-friendly, too. For all Shelsley Walsh’s allure, pedestrian ascent can require almost Everest levels of commitment. With its downhill start, Gurston is a gentler prospect and easier to navigate – return trips from the paddock to the twiddly bit in the middle require relatively little effort.
The views from aloft are glorious, the only downside being that it’s possible to see the rain closing in. No matter. This is a wonderful location dripping with charm and, with relatively few people around, I feel part of a privileged minority.
There is moisture in the air from mid-morning and conditions are clearly unfriendly for 500cc Coopers, a couple of which sputter helplessly to a halt, while Murray Wakeham spins his OMS at Karousel and ends up straddling the infield bank. It’s supposed to be flaming June, but it’s actually flaming cold.
But comfort and insulation are at hand during the lunch break, in the form of a tray of chips laced with curry sauce – a glorious paddock delicacy for £3.50.
It is now 32 years since last the circuit hosted a Grand Prix, but Brands Hatch remains a prime example of how to exist beyond Formula 1 – a situation with which Silverstone might have to contend post-2019. The eyes of the wider world tend no longer be trained on north-west Kent, but they don’t know what they’re missing. The circuit still hosts stellar events – and two such are the Masters Historic Festival, in late May, and the American SpeedFest that follows soon afterwards.
The former features historic F1 cars of a type that graced the venue in period and around the back of the circuit, where there are few advertising hoardings, you don’t have to close your eyes to imagine that it’s still 1980 (although, sadly, some fresh debris fencing has been installed on the inside, which rather blots the hitherto verdant landscape). And as well as Williams FW07s there were two races in the CSN Groep Youngtimer Touring Car Challenge, a Dutch construct featuring everything from Special Saloon-trim Ford Escorts to a Volvo 360 via a Dodge Challenger, a Holden Commodore, assorted Porsches, a Volvo 360 and a brace of dawdling Trabants.
If you haven’t yet experienced it, I recommend booking a shuttle to Calais and then bearing left towards Zandvoort.
A fortnight on, the sixth running of the SpeedFest was arguably the finest yet.
The UK Legends made their first appearance at the event (although their European counterparts were here in 2013) and proved a perfect fit. Has there ever been a duff Legends race? Arguably not. A few more Formula 5000 cars would have been beneficial, although their presence was still welcome, but most grids were brimming with sound and colour. And the cars in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series are so wide that drivers could put a wheel squarely on the grass at Paddock without any risk of incurring track limits penalties, because the other three were still on the track.
It attracted a decent crowd – not all of whom watched every racing lap, given the monster truck rides, live music and other distractions – and there was even a queue at the media sign-on.
Probably the first time I’ve seen one of those at Brands since the 1986 British GP.