I can often be found travelling between Oxford and Brighton, negotiating some of Britain’s least inspiring roadways that lie between these two cities. I’m usually in my Golf and it’s fine. You put on Radio 4, put it into sixth and cruise home, the only excitement coming on the motorway slip roads, where you can pretend you’re on a racetrack.
However, driving like this, the Golf is reduced to its most perfunctory level. Trundling along at 70mph, keeping to M and A roads, I could just be one of those apathetic people who say that a car is just “a box with four wheels”, driving along in a Volvo 440. And I hate those people!
And do you know what the biggest tragedy is? As I’m driving prosaically along the M25, I am mere miles from a place where, in the early part of last century, cars were allowed to reach the pinnacle of their abilities – the famous Brooklands circuit.
Brooklands was finished in 1907, the first ever purpose-built racetrack in the world. The construction of the track was financed by an aristocratic gentleman called Sir Hugh Fortescue Locke-King, who ordered that the circuit should feature banking to cope with the high speeds of the cars. It was a massive undertaking. Look at a map of the circuit on Google Maps. You see that river that runs through it? That had to be moved to accommodate the track. In two places! That’s a level of logistical bravado that is currently only in evidence in the Emirates. Because tarmacking the banked parts of the circuit, parts of which are 30ft. high, was deemed too complicated, these parts were rendered in rough concrete, giving the banking its distinctive look. The concrete was also distinctive for being bumpy. Witness John Cobb thrashing a Napier around the track in 1935 and getting air! On banking! That’s bravery.
The first race at the circuit was held on 17 June 1907, and it was used for racing until the war broke out in 1939. There is now a Brooklands museum on the site and Mercedes have their Mercedes World headquarters there. And so, on one of my inter-Oxford/Brighton jaunts, I left the boring motorway and took Thor the Golf for a bit of a heritage trip. Brooklands has been preserved in its interbellum style, with a proper paddock area and clubhouse, whilst a scattering of planes and hangars represent Brooklands’ aviation heritage. Dip into one hut and you find a collection of Formula 1 cars, including one of Senna’s McLaren’s and James Hunt’s Wolf from the 1979 season. In another building, you find a collection of old motorbikes made by the likes of A.J.S., Norton and Brough, evocative names now largely forgotten by the modern motorcycling fraternity. The museum has even maintained the shed where Malcolm Campbell built his Blue Bird cars, which first broke the land speed record back in 1928. It’s a wealth of British motorsport heritage, and it was all…..thoroughly depressing.
Patriotism is a sport for idiots, but Britain used to be a really impressive country. We had a confidence and a swagger in the way we did things. And yes, that confidence had its roots in the violence and domination of the Empire, but in pacific pursuits, it meant that Britain could compete at the top echelons of whatever it put its hand to. Look at our manufacturing sector. British companies, purely British companies, used to make the majority of the world’s cars. Let’s list some names: Napier, Woolsley, Alvis, Austin, Morris, TVR, Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Armstrong Siddeley, Hillman, Lagonda, Vauxhall, Riley. These companies today are all either defunct or have been taken over by companies from other countries. And there are many more besides. How can Brooklands hope to celebrate this heritage if by celebrating it, you have to acknowledge that that culture is dead. It’s the same feeling you get at a great person’s memorial service. You acknowledge the amazing deeds and accomplishments of the deceased, but all of that glory is given an edge of melancholy by the collective understanding that those achievements are now very definitely relegated to the past.
It didn’t help that I was there on a rather bleak day and that the museum itself has the impression of being left to rot, whilst somewhere like Goodwood is always spick and span. But the saddest part of all, after you’ve dragged yourself past the dismal huts and shacks and the wingless planes, is walking over to the banking, now overgrown with moss and castrated by modern developments, and trying to listen to the ghosts of those cars hammering around the circuit. The dreams of Sir Hugh have been left to die in that inevitable, modern British way. Mercedes World stands almost embarrassingly proud and glassy right next to the museum. As I drove out of Brooklands, I drove past a part of the banking which stopped abruptly, having been cut off to allow Tesco to move a superstore in. Further along the road, I passed a modern retail complex housing a PC World and an Argos. It was called The Paddock, a glib, chummy, hollow gesture, an acknowledgement of a heritage trampled on. I guess that’s why I’m driving a Volkswagen and not a Sunbeam.