Sunday, 20 January 2013

Brooklands - where it all began...

Do you ever wonder what came before? If the trees around you and the soil under your feet could talk what stories they would tell? If so, then I don't blame you, as in many cases their tales might just surprise us.

Motor sport isn't always the best at protecting its heritage, but fortunately even after the past has been trampled on sometimes a few clues remain. And in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable industrial estate in a Surrey town just outside London, those clues have been brought together and scrubbed up to create something rather wonderful. That place is Brooklands.

Any history of motor racing itself would have to feature the Brooklands circuit at its centre. It is the very beginning of the autodrome; where the purpose-built motor racing circuit began. No exaggeration - before Brooklands all that there had been anywhere were races on roads or paths not built with racing in mind. It is where the first ever British Grand Prix was held. It is where beasts of the road (on two wheels and four) were raced, where Land Speed Records were broken, where planes were flown and where the consciously 'right crowd' (a phrase used by the circuit when promoting itself) would gather in vast quantity. As Bill Boddy noted, if Ascot wasn't on you'd go to Brooklands.

Yet what is there now seems to be a well-kept secret. Much of the circuit has since been built on, disappeared under houses, supermarkets and industrial units. Shreds of its layout remain, but incoherently and in large part hidden from easy public view. And as you travel southwards from Weybridge station (a 40 minute train ride from London Waterloo) through typical leafy London suburbia and into the mentioned industrial estate there is little indication of what lies near. Only those with Holmesian observation skills would note some of the street names: Bentley Drive, Campbell Road, Seagrave Close...

Even encountering Mercedes-Benz World and its vast test track causes little quickening of the pulse. Hidden beyond that though is the extraordinary Brooklands Museum. And don't let the name lead you to assume that it's just some collection of trinkets. It is a vast and varied site with a multitude of attractions, and considerable effort has gone into creating a sense now of what Brooklands was like in its glory days.

The Club House
Time for the back story. In the early 1900s Weybridge landowner Hugh Locke King along with his wife Ethel were wealthy and motor racing enthusiasts. Having witnessed a couple of the early motor races in continental Europe they noted the lack of British competitors - in terms of drivers and cars - and were concerned that there was nowhere in their homeland that cars could be raced or tested at speed (the British mainland having a blanket 20 mph speed limit on its roads at the time). Thus they resolved to do something about it. Fortunately the Locke King's estate encroached onto an ideal expanse of land for a race course, featuring even a hill that could provide good viewing for spectators, and in just nine months from mid-1906 to mid-1907 with the help of some 1,500 labourers and craftsmen the Brooklands Motor Course was completed and officially opened.

The track layout was 2.75 miles in length, 30 metres wide and loosely oval shaped. It featured two vast corners, banked at a height of close to 9 metres to allow extra speed, which became the icon of the Brooklands venue. It's sometimes said that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, opened a couple of years later, took its inspiration from here.

As motor racing on purpose-built autodromes was uncharted territory the Brooklands circuit took most of its inspiration from horse racing. Just as with a horse racing track there was a separate 'finishing straight', which dissected the centre of the circuit and ran past the 'paddock' where the cars would assemble. That particular horse racing term lives on in motor sport to this day. Similarly, some early races were run as 'handicaps' and drivers were even instructed to identify themselves by the wearing of coloured silks just as with jockeys.

The Members Banking and the Members Bridge
The Brooklands venue became synonymous with car racing and speed trials, with those of motor bikes, bicycles (even bike racing on British roads was forbidden at the time) as well as, increasingly over time and rather unforeseen by the Locke Kings at the outset, aviation. It was recognised rapidly as a effective crowd-puller, early aviation companies started to rent sheds at the track, many aviation pioneers carried out their first flight trials at Brooklands, hundreds learned to fly there, while the Vickers company moved into a factory next to the track in 1915. Thus Brooklands represented the Genesis of British aviation just as it was with purpose-built circuit racing.

As mentioned, the first ever British Grand Prix was staged at Brooklands in 1926 (complete with chicanes added using strategically-placed sandbanks in order to create more of a road circuit feel!), with the second the following year. The venue continued to prosper, and even a 'road-type' layout called the Campbell Circuit was added in 1937 in order to allow Brooklands to compete head on with the likes of Donington Park and Crystal Palace. However, the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 brought an abrupt halt to it all, and meant that the car engines at Brooklands stopped forever and 'the right crowd' de-camped never to return.

Given the presence of aviation companies at Brooklands the site was commandeered for the production of war aircraft at the conflict's outbreak. Various changes were made to the site for this end, and Brooklands as you might imagine also became a target for the Luftwaffe, including on 4 September 1940 when nearly 90 aircraft workers were killed and at least 419 injured in a bombing raid. Subsequently buildings were erected and even trees planted on the track for the sake of defence and camouflage. As a consequence of all of this, come the end of hostilities the cost of restoring the track to allow racing again was thought to be prohibitive. Aircraft production continued at Brooklands through to 1986 when the aircraft factory there closed. But fortunately that wasn't the end of the story as the following year the Brooklands Museum Trust was formed, who set about establishing a museum and restoring the site.

The Grand Prix Exhibition
And what a wonderful job they've done. The first thing that strikes you about the place is the size. Calling it the 'Brooklands Museum' undersells it. The site is vast, covering much space and several activities (my main piece of advice is that if you intend to visit give yourself a full day, if you try to squeeze it all into part of a day you'll likely have to miss things). What's more, many of the old buildings have been beautifully restored, such as the BARC Clubhouse, the Campbell Shed, petrol pagodas and the press hut. In many of these you can explore the revived rooms of their interiors and all give a real sense of what the paddock would have been like, awash with people and abuzz with engine noise, in the 1930s during a race meeting. There are also fine collections of cars - as well as of motor bikes and bicycles - old and new for you to peruse.

Arcing over the site though is the star attraction, with a stretch of the original finishing straight leading to an expanse of the circuit's vast, steep Members Banking. Walking on the banking is a rather disquieting experience. It is now still and hushed, but once upon a time monsters of the road would flash past on it at over 100 mph, a thought that sends a shiver up your spine. The atmosphere seems to hang heavy with what has gone before; the ghosts around the place seem tangible.

Indeed it is said that one in particular never left the place. One Percy Lambert was killed at Brooklands on 31 October 1913, while trying to regain his previously-held land speed record a rear tyre disintegrated at over 110mph sending him into an accident somewhere in the vicinity of Members Bridge that he had no chance of surviving. His spirit is said to stalk the Members Banking still, and there have been various local reports of sightings and other odd occurrences...

Nearby is the Test Hill, a strip of road on a hillside which the motor industry would use for acceleration and braking tests. At the top, still among the trees, there is the restaurant building - currently undergoing a restoration. It's very odd to remind yourself now that once upon a time this was the place to see and be seen, buzzing with people and chatter. Yet it now sits - alone and silent - waiting patiently on the right crowd returning.

Reflecting Brooklands' heritage there is also plenty present on its aviation past too, right from the Avro Shed containing a replica of the pioneering 'Roe 1' Biplane, through the Wellington Hangar containing many wartime aircraft all the way to one of only 20 Concordes built which sits resplendent in the middle of the museum site; roughly 30% of Concorde's design and manufacture took place at Brooklands. The extra money for the Concorde Experience is well worth it. You get to board the plane wherein there is an exhibition followed by a move into the front cabin where the interior is laid out as in its flying days, here you experience a 'virtual flight'. It's all surprisingly moving too. There's also the London Bus Museum to explore. And it's all woven together by an army of enthusiastic and friendly volunteers, who are keen to tell you their own stories of what came before.

The one false note is that, while admittedly it was a chill day in January that I visited, you felt that the Brooklands Museum was rather under-appreciated, hidden away, which is a shame. If you are ever in the London area and have a spare day I'd strongly recommend spending it at Brooklands. It will be a pleasant surprise for any motor sports enthusiast, possibly even for those who've never even watched a racing car before. It is fascinating, informative and varied. But what you'll take away with you most of all is the haunting, heavy atmosphere, the poignant and moving sense of what used to be in British top-level motor sport. And which thankfully has, in part, been rescued for us.

My photo album on Facebook from my Brooklands visit

The Brooklands Museum website

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