To familiar territory (to me at least) for Devizes and District Motor Club’s ‘Valleys and Villages’ tour in August as I’d spent several years at school in north Wiltshire at Calne, Lyneham and Royal Wootton Bassett.
It was a long trek to the event’s start at Royal Wootton Bassett Rugby Club, much farther than the event length but we ‘doubled up’ with a visit to family in the area to make the 300 mile round trip more worthwhile.
The town centre had hardly changed since the late 1950s when I’d been a chorister at St. Bartholomew’s church in the High Street and attended the Church of England School in Station Road though the town has expanded and now seems to be rubbing shoulders with Swindon.
The rugby club, to the north of the town not far from the M4, has a large club house where we signed on, collected event documentation and munched on a bacon sarnie. Our start number was 62, we had plenty of time before the ‘off’ so had a stroll round the car park under a sky that was becoming increasingly overcast. By the time the flag was raised we sensed we’d be in for some rain – we weren’t wrong.
We headed east, through Wroughton, Chiseldon and Draycot Foliat, climbing towards The Ridgeway and into the murk. Yes, it was raining; heavy, persistent rain that reduced visibility and turned Riley Blue’s interior into a ‘fug’, misting up the windows so that non-stop wiping was needed – fortunately we each had a chammy for this purpose. However, it could have been worse, the car behind us was a Morgan and we’d seen it with its roof down just before the start…
As we turned right near Aldbourne to check in at the first Passage Control we saw the Morgan pull in behind us, the crew scurrying around to erect its roof before diving back inside but they were already soaked to the skin. We splashed on, taking a sharp left into and through Ramsbury initially towards Hungerford before turning north to pass over the M4, cross Ermin Street to PC2 at the junction with the B4000. We were now in race horse country, close to Lambourn, though we doubted many would be braving the soggy conditions on the gallops today.
As we turned left our road book mentioned a ‘great driving road now!’ and ‘views of Uffington White Horse on left’ – we couldn’t see the horse through the rain and were concentrating on avoiding standing water too much to enjoy the road. After a brief deviation north into southern Oxfordshire we arrived at our morning halt, Helen Browning’s Royal Oak, where very welcome hot drinks and cake had been laid on. It was, unfortunately, still grey and still damp.
Suitably refueled and after a leg-stretching walk around the car park in the rain we returned to Riley Blue to join the queue of cars departing on leg two. We headed along the Icknield Way then turned south-east, past the iron age hill fort known as Alfred’s Castle, the site King Alfred’s victory against the Danes in AD871 – allegedly, through Lambourn, along Ermine Street for a couple of miles before arriving at PC3 where two soggy marshals smiled and waved through the monsoon. By now the rain was relentless – non-stop, heavy and with no sign of easing and we’d discovered a one of the One-Point-Five’s shortcomings. We were having to drive with the front side windows down in an attempt to stop misting up, this ‘sort of’ worked in a ‘not really’ sort of way but it meant that every so often as water ran off the car’s roof, it overwhelmed the gutter and poured into the car and on us.
It was at this point that Highways England, or whatever they were calling themselves that week, had thrown a spanner into the works. They’d decided to close the M4 for the weekend and though we’d avoided the resulting mayhem thus far as we neared alternative routes the worse the traffic would be. Fortunately our event organisers had amended our route so that the final few miles to our lunch halt stayed clear of any traffic-clogged roads.
As we splashed our way onwards we came upon PC4, the marshals vainly trying to keep dry under overhanging trees.
In Froxfield we took the A4 west for all of 50 yards before heading off on a short loop that included the former RAF Ramsbury, a WW2 airfield also known as USAAF Station AAF-469 for security reasons though its Station Code, ‘RY’, was a bit of a clue to its identity. From there it was just a few miles through Little Bedwyn to Hungerford where we parked on The Croft, the town’s original village green. Rather quaintly, it had been given to the townsfolk in 1550 by John Undewes and his wife to ‘hold fairs and sport therein’ in exchange for a yearly fee of a single red rose though the fee was said to have been never collected.
Members of The Hungerford Club had opened it to us for refreshments but it was so crowded we returned to our Tesco Meal Deals (augmented with a pork pie and some fruit) and sat in the car to have lunch whilst watching the rain continuing to fall. A few minutes later the following Morgan arrived and parked a short distance away, now with its roof up. As the driver wriggled out we could see he was was absolutely soaked so Gael hurried over and offered our towels, hand, emergency, caught-in-a-shower, for the use of but these were declined, the crew having prepared for such eventualities by carrying their own – very wise in a sort top car with a roof that takes minutes to erect when caught in the rain! It was a shame the rain hadn’t eased off as we had 1hr 10mins stop time and I knew the town’s antique shops were just a short walk away. On second thoughts, that may have been a good thing..,
More or less at our allotted time (other crews had jumped the queue so we had to wait an extra eight minutes) we departed via the High Street then left, rattling over a cattle grid and across Hungerford Common to head south on the A338 but not for long as in less than a mile our route directed us through the village of Ham, squeezing between thatched cottages, not quite so ‘chocolate boxy’ in the gloom as we looked for a left fork at a grass triangle towards Andover then along another lane with a ‘narrow – care and quiet’ caution in the road book. It was certainly narrow – and muddy, agriculturally muddy.
We passed Shalbourne Gliding Club at Rivar Hill (with limited visibility, no chance of flying today) and pulled into PC5 at the next fork. It was still raining but the marshals still managed to smile as they greeted us. We drove around Chute Causeway, the views to left and right hidden by the murk then joined the A338, found our way through Savernake Forest and along the A4 to Marlborough . Here we turned towards Swindon – briefly – before taking the Broad Hinton road, one of Top Gear’s ‘test roads’ past the gallops and over the downs