When I was 18 and just starting out as a book seller The Event was Beaulieu. Nothing else came close. Nothing was as important or as influential. You had to be there. If you could get in. I couldn’t ! Not in 1985. They were fully booked. I had to wait a year.
When I was finally allowed in we (my late Dad, brother Ashley and his mate Pete) were located as far from the entrance is you could possibly get. I think it was called “E Field” back then and it was that big sloped one at the back on the far side of a valley . It had rained in advance. A lot. E field was the wrong side of a huge mudbath in the gateway at the bottom of that valley. It was at worst probably a foot deep and peppered with an ever growing assortment of abandoned wellingtons. There was no metal trackway there back then and it was almost impassible at times. But people got through… in droves. We did really well!
We arrived late on the Friday evening, in the dark, with no lights. The generator on our Leyland EA van (left, at a sunnier event around the same time) had failed somewhere near Sailsbury and we crossed the New Forest on side lights as darkness fell untill they faded to nothing and we then tagged onto the rear of any vehicle headed in the right direction! It was a rather uncomfortable arrival, expecting the battery to finally give up at any moment and leave us , sparkless and immobile within sight of our destination. That golden sales opportunity snatched away.
We didn’t have a marquee or a market stall structure back then, it was a tent.One of those you used on the side of a campervan, free-standing and not very big. But more or less watertight (thats a beared me on the right at Beaulieu a year or two later , I didn’t take a camera to thre first event, which is probabaly good as it would have drowned!) Three of us dossed down in the tent for the night. Dad, a boy scout in his youth and a veteran of truck mechanics who had changed many a flat tyre in the snow and slush on the side of a sub-zero motorway , set up a camp bed in the back of the van, thinkibng it would be more comfortable. But it was (as always) early September but it was freezing cold. By morning he was almost hypothermic and said he’d never endured a colder night in his life! I meanwhile had forgotten my coat… The first thing I did on Saturday morning was buy a waterproof motorcycle suit from a nearby stall and spent the weekend without pockets to stuff my blue tinged hands into and avoiding bending over too fast as the suit was one size too small in just the wrong place… Remarkably I have subsequently fathered two daughters so any damage that may have caused was clearly not permanent!
Fast forward to 2016. I arrived at 7 am on the Friday and was one of the first through the gates. It was dry and fairly bright. I was in Green Field which is the prime location, beside the big Grand Marquee. There was no 1986-style mudbath. Instead of a van I had everything crammed into my trusty Peugeot estate with the marquee packed in a trailer. It was a single handed operation, and I even remembered my coat ! Which was good as it did rain, just like 1986. But just not as much. However it blew a gale. Saturday night the wind was so strong it kept me awake untill 3am and wrecked several marquees, twisting metal poles like shoe-laces. Several of these marquees were left overnight by traders who had gone back to camp sites or even returned home for the evening, only to arrive on Sunday morning and find their stall a sodden wreck.
While the wind blew, a large number of dripping stall holders crammed under a huge free-standing roof structure edged by food and drink vans (and a bar) while listening to a 6 piece band covering familiar tunes by The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks and Fleetwood Mac. In 1986 there wasn’t any such entertainment – well, there was, but it was provided by legendary Austin-Healey racer John Chatham and his mates who had the stand next to us. I can’t recall any specific details but they had a riotous time involving much leg-pulling and a large quantity of beer cans. The rain didn’t seem to affect them at all and there wasn’t a dull moment!
So the mud was gone in 2016, even if the torrential rain remained. The late night arrivals and the bizarre ad-hoc stand structures are on the decline. The loos are smarter, there’s more food and somewhere dry to sit and eat it but… and this is the big difference, the event is not “The Event” any longer. The sudden slump in classic car prices back in the early 1990s slashed the attendences and with it the profits and the importance, financially and socially. These days not everyone is there. In fact it gets very quiet at times. Something you didn’t experience in the 1980s. Whisper this…it was actually boring ths year! And many a familiar face is now elsewhere by choice. This year one of the many was Spencer Elton, fellow book seller, bon viveur and serial event attender. You see him everywhere. He’s somewhere every weekend, rain or shine. Selling. I think he’d been at 25 straight Beaulieu Autojumbles but this year he was in Holland. It was a better bet. Beaulieu in not essential now. Which is a shame really. I havn’t done every Beaulieu in the last 30 years but I have probably attended about half of them and had stands in most of the different fields and even, for a couple of years in the Grand Marquee (former holy-of-holies ) but year-on-year the decline has become more apparant. That Marquee was once a place you aspired to get into at all costs and relied on a previous stall holder dying before you edged up the pecking order towards your dreamed of pitch. The last time I was in there it has only 80% occupied and I was invited to be there only three weeks beforehand to help fill it up(thats me, left, in my trusty Aussie bush hat)! That concept was unimaginable back in the 1980s.
Now we have two major events a year at Goodwood, there’s Silverstone Classic, various NEC events and Race Retro in the winter. But really none of them is The Event. Not like Beaulieu used to be. Much as we no longer have 25 million people in Britain watching one single TV programme on a Sunday evening and everyone talking abut it at work the next day. There are other things to watch on several hundred digital channels. With Autojumbles there have been the increasing numbers of counter attractions in the past 25 years : Sunday shopping (illegal here untill the latter part of the 20th century) being the main one. A trip to TESCOS or B&Q or IKEA. Don’t event start to think about car boot sales. You might want to go to an Autojumble/classic car show/race meeting, but can you spare the time? When will you be able to get the groceries? Or those flat-pack shelf units? It’s sad really.
So many great things can still be found at Beaulieu but maybe these days you go to see them, not to buy them? Even now nowhere quite captures the madcap diversity of this old-car/old-bike ethos. Where else are you going to find an engine for your 1904 Darraq(left)? Well, eBay I guess, but hardly as much fun is it?
Beaulieu, in it’s 50th year is still a great event , a great socialising get-together of like minds. But it has long ceased to be The Event if your living depends on it.
I don’t plan to go next year…there are alternatives. So many alternatives.
- Funny Place For A Chateau…but then again…
- It Was Twenty Years Ago Today… But Sgt Pepper Had Nothing To Do With It.