Sitting in the Suzuki X-90, which when new Jeremy Clarkson reckoned to be “one of the worst cars of the decade”, on a mid afternoon in late January and overcast. There's a new dent in the passenger's door, mud on the carpet and time is slowly ticking. I'm watching the line of cars ahead gradually edge forward along the verge of a fairly major A-road in Shropshire. . The light is already fading and there is very little traffic going past. The queue ahead comprises a couple of dozen disparate cars about to tackle a very rough, very muddy, very long unsurfaced road known as Hungerford Steps. Each one is covered in mud, each one has a tow strap wrapped across the front and a small number. Most have extra spare wheels attached at the back in some fashion. A concourse d ‘elegance this isn’t. Directly ahead is a VW Beetle (one of several) which is actually really quite smart. Beyond that another Suzuki X-90 (again one of several, aside from our own), then a couple of bespoke trials special approximately in the ‘Lotus 7’ style , all cycle wings and seats almost on the rear axel, an Austin 7 Chummy, a Dellow and so on and so forth. There is a large ancient unrestored stone barn alongside us and how this has so far avoided ‘development’ is a mystery (but a welcome one) beyond which are a half-dozen hi-viz wearing officials marshalling everyone into position.
I'm eating the cheese scones and jam buns that my 14 year old daughter Georgie traditionally cooks us fresh for every event and alongside me is professional caterer, part-time commentator at Shelsley Walsh and the man who created the popular BROMYARD FESTIVAL OF SPEED, round the streets of the nearby rural market town, Graham Jones. It's been an eye-opening day for Graham who's previous experience of car trials has been confined to spectating on the version organised by the ever enthusiastic Vintage Sports Car Club. After the first ‘observed section’ of the day he declared that this event was really not the same at all! “Properly hardcore” is actually how he described it and “extreme”.
I think it took him half the event to come to terms with that but he's enjoying it and navigating us along the tortuous 80+ mile route along Wenlock Edge and the eponymous Clee Hills. On the way we have been towed into a tree, had to fix a throttle cable that decided to come part and then a few miles on get stuck open due to an errant twig in the mechanism just when I needed to run on a nice gentle tick-over, and realised the horrendous wobble in the steering was a big lump of mud unbalancing the passenger's side front wheel!
On the flip side we have enjoyed driving through some glorious English countryside, ‘cleaned’ several of the Observed Section where we got to the top without penalty, and in one such case emerged into a surreal winter-wonderland of picturesquely frosted trees.
It had been entertaining and enjoyable. We even thought we might be running among the top three in our class - although Nick Deacon, habitual class winner and back to back champion, was probably well out of our reach already, to be honest (as was indeed the case!). Now we had edged forward and were signalled to cross the empty road and disappear into Hungerford Steps.
This isn't the usual kind of ‘observed section’ , it doesn't go steeply up hill or round tortuously tight bends, instead it's one of those ancient sunken roads between hedges on which Thomas Hardy characters would have walked and talked in days of yore, or horse drawn hay carts clattered over the stones and ruts. It's very nearly level, very nearly straight and very rough! A mix of stone slabs, jutting boulders, deep ruts, tree roots and mud. Lots of mud. Along the way it literally cuts through the two halves of a fallen tree…
…crosses several raised cross roads and presents pot holes that would have a No-Win-No-Fee insurance agent rubbing his hands with glee . Finally the mud gets even deeper and the centre of the road is planed flat by the skidding undersides of passing trials cars, all desperately trying to keep up the momentum needed to pop out at the end with a clean slate. It takes a solid three minutes to negotiate and that's almost entirely done at nearly maximum revs with the wheels spinning and the driver doing a tap dance on throttle and clutch pedals to avoid getting bogged down Finishing this feels like an achievement and even from the passenger seat with nothing to do but hang on and wait for the instruction to ‘bounce!’ in required, Graham described it as “exhausting”.
After completing the section the road book asked us to clean excess mud off the car before going past the nearest houses, which of course we all did on a suitably wide bit of the route under some trees. You do get to see rural England on these events.
Following us for much of the day was Steve Hill and his three passengers in a splendid vintage Ford Model A (below). The ability of this car to navigate very poor direct roads and climb slippery clay banks was remarkable and helped by the synchronized bouncing motion they all adopted when the going got tough. It certainly worked, but then such cars were, I suppose, designed for unmade roads and poor conditions generally . It just shows how real-world progress in car design has not improved as much as we like to think over the past 90 years!
On the final hill at Flounders Folly, we were reversed back into a holding area and watched the Ford in action. After that we trundled back down to the exit road, spent about 5 minutes blowing the tyres back up to sensible road pressures from the 8psi they run on a muddy section like this , and headed off for the finish, unsure of how we figured in the results but happy with the way the car ran and how the day went generally.
The Clee Hills is always one of my favourite events and this year's edition was well up to expectations. When the results came out we were 3rd in the class, 20th overall and that timed test had made a difference. Keith Dobinson from Darlington (below at the front of his Suzuki , on the right, with passenger Allan Bruce ), had tied with us on points, but we were faster.
Later in the week with Facebook posts about the event going back and forth Graham reiterated his surprise at how extreme the event was on the cars and crew and of that long, long run through the mud and rocks on that sunken road, commented “I'll never forget Hungerford Steps!”
Alan & Jane Bee's Austin 7 Chummy
Sam Holmes' 1300 Beetle
Wolseley Hornet special. (Joe Stollery)
Our Class rivaL Dave Slade looks happy - he went on to finish second
Some of the many Suzuki X-90s await the start of the first section. No.73 is Nick Deacon won the class
VW Beetle (Mark Tooth) and a Liege, a trials special that had a limited production run(Ray Ferguson)
Room for just about anything in a trial, including a Rob Holden's BMW E30 estate.
This event includes classes for motorcycles as well as cars