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Notes From a Small Island

The 1000 Mile Trial is gruelling, but there’s no finer way to see the British countryside, says James Page.

Notes From a Small Island

The night before the start of the 1000 Mile Trial, there is plenty of banter about people diligently doing their ‘homework’ – making notes, highlighting awkward junctions, that sort of thing – but come Monday morning it’s much more businesslike. Despite the light rain, 43 crews prepare on Woodcote Park’s Cedar Lawn. The entry includes pre-war models from the likes of Bugatti, Bentley, Alfa Romeo, Riley, Sunbeam and Lagonda, plus the Morgan three-wheeler of Urs and Denise Mezger – surely the week’s most intrepid team.

I’ll be at the wheel of Francis Galashan’s fabulous Alvis 4.3 short-chassis Vanden Plas tourer. Francis is an experienced hand, which could come in very useful considering that my rallying pedigree amounts to a single outing in a one-day event about seven years ago.

Last year’s trial celebrated the Royal Automobile Club’s 1900 original – won by Charles Rolls on a Panhard – but there’s a new route for 2015 that takes in the Midlands, the Peak District, north Wales, the Cotswolds and the South Downs. At the competitors’ briefing, I make a mental note that we should at least beat the driver who admits that he doesn’t have a tripmeter and that his car’s odometer doesn’t work. It always helps to aim high, I find…

Day 1 Woodcote Park to Tylney Hall

After the ceremonial start, we travel all of 100 yards before the day’s opening test. It’s a straightforward blat up the Captain’s Drive, but I take it far too easily. On the plus side, having forgotten to ask Francis where reverse is, I accidentally find it for myself while attempting to select first gear away from a ‘stop astride’.

There are three regularities, plus another test at Dunsfold. The Alvis changes direction well in gentle slaloms, but is stubbornly resistant to turning in to anything tighter – at least when being directed by my skinny arms. Francis jokes that I’ll be muscle-bound by the end of the week.

In trying to avoid Surrey traffic, the route uses country lanes that are not well suited to a car that feels as if it’s all headlamps and bonnet. Things are not helped by the fact that a film crew has set up shop on one road between the organisers’ final recce and today. Everyone is delayed, and local traffic starts to gridlock as a result.

The regularities take place among the chaos. At first, it proves hard to keep on time. Francis urges me to “push on” to get slightly ahead, but I’m reluctant to do so down busy lanes. My reticence costs us, and we drop six seconds here, 12 seconds there. It adds up, and we arrive at Tylney Hall solidly in the middle of the pack.

Day 2 Tylney Hall to Coombe Abbey

After yesterday’s Surrey-bound frustration, this feels like the start of the rally proper. The first part of the route takes us north, across the open countryside around Lambourn. We’re due to call into Bicester Heritage for two tests, but Francis – who is the venue’s chairman – receives a call to say that he’s left his car parked in the way of the second one! With the keys in his luggage en route to tonight’s stop at Coombe Abbey, the organisers are forced to tweak the layout.

In the meantime, we’re starting to get better results on the regularities, occasionally dropping only one or two seconds, thanks mostly to Francis’ skills and me finally taking his advice about running slightly ahead of time to allow for junctions or cars coming the other way.

The first Bicester test is fast and flowing; the second is, on paper, less suited to the Alvis. Determined to put on a good show on Francis’ home ground, though, we hustle the car around in a time good enough for fifth overall.

Suitably buoyed, we head towards the lunch stop at Blenheim Palace. The approach is a highlight for me, Victory Column coming into view over the crest with the majestic house beyond. When we stop, a throng of tourists surrounds the cars. A Frenchman points at the rally plate and asks: “Is it true? One thousand miles?!”

Later in the afternoon, though, the Alvis cuts out as we leave the Whilton Mill test. Typically, it starts raining as we diagnose a lack of spark and set about swapping the coil as the first attempt at a cure. The HERO back-up team arrives and goes further down the ignition chain to find the real problem – the condenser wasn’t earthing.

We’re stationary for about 25 minutes, and there’s one more regularity before the Main Time Control at Coombe Abbey. The penalty for arriving late to an MTC is stiffer than for a regularity, so we disregard the time on that and charge through – the priority is to get to Coombe Abbey.

The Alvis thumps along once it’s into its stride, but in damp conditions it takes an enormous amount of concentration to drive it quickly. You’re also aware that, even with servo brakes, it would take a lot of stopping if asked. We make it, though, wet but exhilarated by the last few miles.

The day ends with a surreal medieval banquet during which we are furnished with only a knife, which makes the soup course tricky. Jonathan Turner and Ben Cussons have been setting great times on the tests in the former’s Triumph Dolomite Straight 8, and they enliven proceedings by turning up dressed as knights. Francis and I go easy on the flaggons of ale.

Day 3 Coombe Abbey to Chester

An early start for a long day up and over the Peak District. Before that come two tests, at Arbury Hall and Merevale. Both are slippery beneath the trees, and I’m too cautious. I make amends at Curborough, and my arms have another workout en route to the sixth-fastest time – only one second behind the Bugatti crews of Viola Procovio/Jessica Dickson (Type 37A) and Bill/ Vincent Ainscough (Type 43).

The day’s low point comes with a fiendish regularity that involves map-plotting rather than following tulip instructions. We regularly wrong-slot – as we pause at a crossroads, a helpful lady shouts: “The last car went that way…” – but get there in the end and discover that everyone else also struggled.

The scenery is changing rapidly now as we continue to head north, from the flat and builtup Midlands to the stone-walled fields and sharp hills of Derbyshire. The regularities are coming thick and fast, and getting ever harder.

At Chatsworth House, Stuart Anderson and Richard Lambley park alongside us and set to work trying to better strap up their Bentley’s steering wheel, which broke at Curborough.

From there, we head towards the Cat and Fiddle, which feels like cresting the top of the world, before the descent towards the overnight halt at Chester. With the sun finally coming out, there can be few better ways of experiencing this green and pleasant land. Tomorrow could be more stressful, though – I’m on the maps…

Day 4 Chester to Chateau Impney

Having been dictated by the driver’s surname, then the navigator’s, start times today are arranged by car name. ‘Alvis’ puts us near the beginning, which means an early alarm call. It could be worse, though – we could be Charles Andrews, who has his wife Francesca Andrews alongside, and they’re sharing an Adler.

First up is the run out of Chester to a regularity on the spectacular World’s End Road. There isn’t much in the way of navigation to be done – to be honest, I’m pleased that I manage to direct Francis to the start of the regularity itself – so ‘all’ I need to do is give feedback on our speed.

The rule is ‘route first, time second’ – better to be in the right place at the wrong time than the wrong place at the right time. Unfortunately, I lose track just as the final control appears, and we’re 13 seconds late on what should have been an easy run.

Next up is a map section around Lake Vyrnwy, and my brain begins to melt as I try to give Francis updates on our time every one-tenth of a mile. At one point, I’m concentrating so hard that I don’t notice he’s stopped at a control. Still, we manage to drop ‘only’ seven seconds.

It all goes wrong in the afternoon, though. Shortly after the beginning of a regularity, the tulip notes stop making any sense. “We must have wrong-slotted,” says Francis. “We can’t have done,” I protest, while secretly wondering where on earth we are. I persuade Francis to press on and see if we come to the next tulip note, which is a Give Way junction. We do, but things don’t become any clearer after that, and even Francis begins to think that the routebook is wrong, not the imbecile alongside him.

Finally, we see some HERO arrows pointing the way, which confirms that the mistake wasn’t ours. Confusion reigns throughout the field, and there’s no option but to cancel the regularity.

Francis knows how much I love Shelsley Walsh, and offers to let me take the wheel for the test there. He then insists that I do the Chateau Impney stage, too – despite him having spent three out of our four days together not driving his own car – and we finish the day 17th overall.

With both of us having prior commitments, Chateau Impney sadly marks the end of our event. The concentration required has been immense. The navigators never stop navigating – it’s not as if everything is signposted between tests and regularities – and, Monday aside, we’ve been on the road each day from 8am until 6pm.

That said, if getting to drive a 4.3 Alvis is special enough, doing it day after day on Britain’s finest roads has been a genuine privilege.

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