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1. Seeing Britain from the Inside
Seeing Britain from the Inside’, by Dudley Noble. (1952 RAC Rally)
There is a lot of Britain to be seen from what I may term the ‘inside’, by which I mean that you can only see it if you get away from the main roads, the railway tracks and the regular tourist runs. Lying among the hills and lakes of the West Country, Wales, Cumberland and Scotland are remote and inaccessible places where you might well feel that you are right inside Britain, in the heart of a land whose history and traditions are unmatched and, in these completely rural districts, unspoiled.
It is not altogether an easy matter for a visitor to find these localities for himself; even a normal British resident would know of few of the minor roads, tracks and passes which would conduct him across country, far from the congested highways, and yet allow him to travel from point to point on a tour of the kingdom which would take in most of its beauty spots. But, in mapping out their route for the recent international motor rally, the Royal Automobile Club did just that. They gave the competitors a trip around England, Wales and Scotland which omitted hardly any of the districts that the visitor would like to see, yet which took them to the real ‘inside’ of each country.
I was lucky enough to have an invitation extended to me to play the part of a visitor and to see around Britain from the customers’ compartment of a luxurious limousine. Naturally, I accepted with some alacrity, and very glad I am that I went, for I can truthfully say that never before have I had such a thoroughly comfortable and really worth-while tour. The car itself was one of a fleet owned by Victor Britain Ltd of Berkeley Street, London, and identical in every way with those that can be hired in the ordinary manner by visitors.
Period image of the car used on the rally
It was an Armstrong Siddeley limousine, a chauffeur driven type of vehicle with a partition behind the driving seat and, in the rear compartment, seating accommodation for as many as six persons when required. There were two folding seats which could be easily set up or which, when not wanted, tucked themselves away and left a fine clear floor space something of the dimensions of a small drawing room.
With a route that covered the best part of 2,000 miles and had to be covered at a speed which must not exceed 24 m.p.h. overall (fast driving was severely discountenanced), there were no more than two overnight halts throughout the run lasting from Monday morning to Friday evening. Except for these, all meals and naps have to be taken aboard the car and continuous progress made from check to check along the route so that one reported at each of these points within 15 minutes of a scheduled time.
Our number in the rally was 15, which meant that we were in the van of the long procession which took something over four hours to wind its way through any place en route. We started from Hastings, and, travelling by way of London (where representatives of the British Travel Association greeted us and sped us on our way), arrived a few hours later at Silverstone motor circuit in the South Midlands, where speed tests were to have been held. As there had been a lot of unseasonable snow, however, these had been cancelled on account of the dangerous state of the track, and so we were sent off to the next checking point – Bridport in Dorset.
When we had duly presented ourselves here, night was falling as we made our passage northwards and in due course arrived at the scene of the skillful driving test, another disused airfield, like Silverstone, but this time Castle Combe. The test consisted of going forwards into a narrow gateway, reversing out of it and into a second one, and then speeding to the finish – all in the complete blackness save for one’s own car’s lights. On then, through the night by way of Gloucester and a tricky network of roads in South Wales to Llandrindnod Wells.
Period image of Bwlch-y-Groes
During this day’s run we had to make the ascent of the hill known as Bwlch-y-Groes, which is always regarded as being the worst in Britain. It is very long (nearly two miles) and rises all the way at a gradient which seldom falls below about 1 in 6. The surface is quite rough, for the road is little used for normal traffic, and, although the length is not great as compared with mountain passes in various Continental countries, the combination of steep gradient and length makes it a severe trial for most cars. It is, in fact, a test hill and is employed by nearly all the British motor manufacturers for trying out cooling systems and so forth on new models.
Our Armstrong Siddeley was heavily laden, since besides the four passengers – all of them normal sized adults – we had a great deal of luggage. This was mainly carried on a roof grid, and each of us had a large sized suitcase; altogether the car weighed considerably more than two tons. Nevertheless, it scaled Bwlch-y-Groes with comparative ease, which is more than could be said for some of the competing cars. From the summit of this pass one gets a wonderful view of Wales, although the driver has to keep his eyes glued to the road, for the descent on the other side is a tricky one, right down to the shores of Lake Bala.
We had an overnight stop that day at Blackpool, and next morning went on through the Lake District to Edinburgh. We had more severe climbs, the first at a little place named Ulpha, which we reached after a long journey over narrow lanes leading through some really lovely countryside. Then came Hardknott Pass – and its name is very apt. Steep and twisty, it led us up to a boulder strewn plateau, with the Lakeland Hills gleaming all around in the bright sunshine. The weather on this trip was patchy in the extreme; here we had a touch of summer but elsewhere there was ice, snow and rain.
At the foot of Hardknott, the Armstrong Siddeley limousine awaits its turn to start the ascent of the pass.
After Edinburgh we had a delightful run up the west side of Scotland, through some of the beautiful Trossachs scenery. We had a further test hill, the famous Rest-and-be-Thankful’ (the old one, not the modern easy one), and further north there was the really ‘sticky’ bit at Kenmore. This last was probably the worst hill of the whole rally, because it consisted of no more than a muddy track, zig-zagging up the sheer side of the hills, with boulders projecting here and there to make things more difficult. But the Armstrong Siddeley made light work of it, and put a lot of other cars to shame.
Now heading south, we called in at Heads of Ayr during the night and took advantage of a two and a half hour control to have a bath and a meal at a holiday camp there. On, then, through the night to Carlisle and once more into the Lake District, for yet another of the tests called for a repeat climb of Hardknott and Honister passes. At length we checked in at Kendal, after which there started the last leg of the journey, a run eastwards across England to Scarborough. And, when we finally checked in here, the engine – and, indeed, the whole car – was running better than ever. It had carried us through in fine style.
Just one further point deserves mention; it concerns the fueling of the cars which took part in the rally. All along the course, garages stayed open throughout the night to serve
the competitors’ needs, and, in many cases the petrol companies took an active part in seeing that there was an adequate supply on hand. At the most remote places, at all hours, one would come across a familiar red Shell tank wagon, standing by with reserve supplies. These rallies, especially important ones like this, are widely reported all over the world, and it says much for private enterprise that so many people are ready to devote themselves to the thankless tasks of checking, replenishing and so forth.
The Armstrong Siddeley limousine at the finish, fresh as paint and running like the proverbial bird.
Dudley Noble does not reveal how the limousine fared in the final results, but given the more sporty mounts of many of the competitors it was probably not amongst the leaders. None the less hats off to the crew who navigated such an unlikely car through the rally, and apparently without incident or damage. How many of us would be prepared to subject our Armstrong Siddeleys and ourselves to such a test?