They call the last “observed section” on the Lands End Trial OLD STONEY. It’s a little old cart track off the road that runs inland from Porthtowen on the rugged north coast of Cornwall The final obstacle before the finish at Hayle. The final one….
If you have reached this far, you have been on the road for most of the previous 21 hours, been scrutineered twice (oo-er!), survived the noise check, located and scrabbled up 13 previous “sections” …
…through the night, through fords, forests, up rocky roads and muddy trackways, gritted your teeth trying to thread the car through two hellishly tight reversing tests between cones you shouldn’t touch (that didn’t go well..) and tried to do so within a time schedule . You will have deflated your rear tyres every time the way ahead looked like it called for serious grip and reinflated them again 5 minutes later…(as Charlotte demonstrates : Right) Your passenger/navigator will have read through a book of directions with passages that read something like “SO to T where R • At bottom of hill by pedestrian crossing leave main road and SO past the lake and over small bridge” and you will have had two rest-stops of an hour each and probably no sleep at all in over 30 hours.
And then you get to OLD STONEY and three out of the four cars in front have failed to reach the top. The one directly ahead gets beached half way up and disappears in a cloud of it’s own tyre smoke. It concentrates the mind, wonderfully.
We entered the event for several reasons but mostly it was the adventure. My passenger is my daughter Charlotte, one of the youngest competitors on the event, celebrating her 13th birthday the very day it starts. She’s a car enthusiast. She loves trials and has done from the first time I took her to watch one. She also loves “The Gas Monkey”, which is our trials car. I say “car” but it’s a Suzuki X90 which is one of the Japanese motor industry’s many curios. Based on the Jimney/Vitara it’s a sort of short, 2-seater SUV coupe thing….you get the picture? Except unlike it’s parents and any other SUV it’s rear wheel drive (4WD versions were also produced). It’s a curious design. It didn’t sell well when new in the mid 1990s and as a fellow X90 owner commented recently “You wonder what the design brief really was! They can’t have been actively trying to make a car suited to competing in trials, surely?” but thats what they came up with. X90s now thrive in the sport, although you see very few being put to any other use. There are only really three colours – silver, red or (by far the most common) blue. Ours (below) is blue so
it’s previous owners, Rory and Ian, concious that they would hardly be noticable in a country lane filled with identically coloured X90s, painted the bonnet matt back and stuck a big white “Gas Monkey” logo in the middle. It works. It’s an ugly logo and makes me feel like a bit of an idiot when I drive it through a town , but Charlotte loves it (as does younger sister Georgie) and so, it seems, do others. We parked up in the village of Barbrook at 2am on our way to the second “section” at the famous BEGGARS ROOST near Lynmouth when a couple of young local lads with a camera appeared “Wow!” said one of them “Gas Monkey!! Can I take a photo?” Be our guest…
So the big adventure started from the car park of a Burger King near Cirencester in Gloucestershire at about 8pm on Good Friday and there followed a 95 mile run into the setting sun which passed Prince Charles’ home town of Tetbury and the music festival location at Glastonbury before arriving in Bridgewater around 11pm for a time check and a compulsory rest.
The venue was the Rugby Club car park and it was a heaving mass of competing cars motorcycles and sidecars. The diversity is mind boggling. Yes there were a lot of X90s, many blue, but there were also VWs, Escorts, TR7s, Marlins and other kit cars, assorted VW Buggies, MGs of all ages and models, Peugeots, Nissans, BMWs, Scimitars…. even a Reliant Rialto 3 wheeler. But the car everyone was talking about was the Walker family’s ZAZ (below) , driven all the way from Ukraine, arriving only a matter of days before and sporting an aircooled V4 engine in the boot and a flimsy steering wheel that looked like painted heavy guage wire!
Once out of the time control the route winds across the north coast climbing the 1-in-4 hills at Porlock and Lynmouth, out over Exmoor in the early hours of the morning, along the north Devon coast, into Cornwall, round Bodmin moor in the early afternoon and down to St Agnes for the popular spectator-freindly sections at BLUE HILLS MINE right on the cliffs. Then you reach OLD STONEY…
But our problems started long before that. We…sorry, hands-up it was me…I went the wrong way on the little turning into the very first section,FELONS OAK, and we got passed by half a dozen cars, all of which had started after us, before we realised and got back on the right road. That put us behind all of them as they deflated their tyres while queing up for the start of the section and thus behind the time schedule. The rest of the event was a catalogue of attempts to make that up that lost time and then being delayed again for one reason or other so the ‘gentle run’ on a glorious moonlit night up over Exmoor, for instance got quite spirited!
At the previously mentioned Barbrook, I caught up with old circuit racing friend and rival Stuart Palmer who runs an open Austin 7 two-seater (right). He’d just lost all the water from his engine on one of the steeper hills and had to flag down passing cars and borrow bottles of drinking water to refill the radiator! Far from beaten, he carried on and indeed finished the event, although the lost time cost him a medal.
We charged up the night sections, spotlights blazing, engine buzzing nicely and emerged up into the early dawn at the village of Sutcombe( left) and back on time. There is a short rest here so anyone in need of refreshment can obtain it from one of the nearby houses which opens it’s doors for the event each year. Charlotte, now dog-tired, took the opportunity of a short snooze. It had been a very very long birthday!
On through the morning we successfully ‘cleaned’ every section we came to, Hackmarch, Darracott, Crackington (ooooh, we enjoyed that one! It was fast, steep and legend has it, the ‘mud’ is actually pure cow manure!) Some of these hills have been used since the 1930s. There is a photo in a book on my own shelf of the ford and the bridge at Crackington taken in 1939. It really hasn’t change much (below) .
But the time issue kept on coming back at us. We made it all up and were nicely on-time… then got stuck behind a slow moving car for mile after mile where it was impossible to overtake safely. Once we had got past we made it up again… But then we were held in a queue (below) prior to Darracott for nearly half an hour. There was some delay up ahead and that made us late at Wilsey Down time control – although a marshall assured us this kind of ‘official delay’ would be taken into account in the results. Later in the afternoon we got stuck in another queue while stranded cars were towed out of the Laneskin section (by contrast we had no problem with cleaning that one) But by then our run of staying penalty free had ended. Fail one section or one test on this event and you lose your claim to a Gold medal. We did that on a silly little forward-back-forward “special test” through some cones. We wern’t the only ones, the reverse aspect was round a seemingly impossible tight turn(and the Monkey has a pretty tight turning circle). The cones were unusually narrowly spaced, according to the gossip. I touched a cone. That ended the hope of a gold. Two sections later the Silver was gone too. We charged up a steep woodland track called HOSKIN , there was an observed stop-restart. That was fine. Then, just when I figured we were over the tricky bit, the deep ruts dragged us into the bank on the right and we ground to a halt with the front wheels in the air and no steering. Damn!
Charlotte was philosophical, we were still on course for a bronze and the Gas Monkey had never gained a medal of any colour on it’s previous attempts at the Lands End. But that required us not failing any more sections, nor the second and final ‘test’. We ticked off the next section, clean, then that test… yes! Got through that OK as far as we could tell. Saw one of the BMW Z3s we competed against in March at the Syde Trial, “Did you get away from the restart on Bishopswood?” asked the driver – we had. He’d failed it “in a cloud of tyre smoke” he said and as he drove off we noticed the probable reason… the BMW was sporting a serious degree of positive camber on the rear wheels – probabaly 45 degrees. The suspension has almost collapsed – but they made the finish!
We got to BLUE HILLS , as picturesque and ‘Cornish’ a spot as you could wish for : Blue sea, rugged cliffs, winding paths, the remains of old mines among the gorse. There were spectators everywhere. The whole event was run in the most wonderful early spring weather and it had brought them out in droves.
We gasped at the first view of the two sections located here, “2” especially seemed to be no more than a rock strewn footpath running at neary 45 degrees up to the top of the cliff. We cleaned “1” without a problem and knew that the rest of the family, Pip and Georgie, were watching at the top of “2” which looked increasingly rough and steep as we approached it.
Not so much a road, more a rockery! If we were going to lose our Bronze, this would be the most likely place and the worst, to do it!
But we cleaned it. Bounced off the banks a bit on the way and it felt like we were standing on the back wheels and carrying the front ones a foot in the air half the time. The photos do no justice t the severity of the gradient. At the top we had a family reunion. It was a lovely moment. The highlght of the whole event. Ian Fitzgerald, former owner of the Monkey had retired his BMW (like the other one, the rear suspension had given up) so he came along to spectate and took a photo of us all . Then it was time to pump those tyres back up from 12psi to 36 and head off to OLD STONEY…
There is a line in one of my favourite films , THE CRUEL SEA, spoken by the great Jack Hawkins which runs (more or less) “When you are very tired even the moment of victory becomes part of the same dull pattern”. Well we must have been tired by this point, 33 hours without sleep, for me at any rate, and yet this was the ‘moment’. It wasn’t ‘victory’ at stake, as such, but it was a medal at the first attempt. I for one didn’t feel remotely tired. But those rocks….oh hell! Look at those rocks! They were enormous. Bigger than the concrete blocks you build houses with , dug into the ground, solid and worn smooth over the generations. And the cars in front of us had really struggled. All through the event we had a mantra : Momentum Is Everything. Get going, get some speed up and don’t get bogged down.Momentum will carry us through.
Rattling like pebbles in a tin can we bounced and bucked and scrabbled up OLD STONEY with teeth gritted and even the dash-cam jumping and protesting at the battering (as we found out when watching it back) for the only time on the entire event. The tyres spun, the smell of burning rubber filled the cab, or was that the clutch giving out? No! We were through. Clean. Bronze medal still there for us if we hadn’t screwed up in some way we were unaware of. That, for us, was the ‘moment of victory’ and it felt pretty good! Nothing dull or routine about it.
We trundled back to Hayle and Loggans Moor Inn where we signed off , got our finisher’s certificates and put in a claim for a Bronze medal( the award of which is still subject to official results being published, as this is written) . My young navigator had stuck at her task throughout and how she managed that on about half an hours kip, I do not know. I’m so proud of her. And she wants to do the event next year!
And that was it. Back up the A39 to our hotel in Newquay. By this time the adrenaline had worn off and the tiredness was kicking in, so much so I could not get my head round the directions to the hotel and took ages to locate it. Then I lay back on the bed, fully clothed, and slept for about 15 hours!