The best of Dorset in words and pictures

The town camp races

Blandford has a well-known tradition of racing which goes back to the first Queen Elizabeth and extends to the reign of Queen Victoria. Not so well known is that the tradition was continued into the 1960s – on two and four wheels. Colin Trueman investigated.

Despite its name, there is nothing Roman about Blandford Forum: it did not gain its Latin suffix until the late 13th century, by which time the last Roman soldier had been gone for at least 800 years. But the town seems to have had a yearning to create its own version of the Circus Maximus, where chariots raced at ridiculously dangerous speeds – although not, despite Ben-Hur, with scythed wheels.

Two riders rush past the old wooden army huts at Blandford Camp in a 1950s race meeting

Two riders rush past the old wooden army huts at Blandford Camp in a 1950s race meeting

Two miles north-east of the town is Monkton Down, where wealthy landowners started to race their horses from at least 1603 – admittedly, without chariots. The Blandford Races were an important fixture in the county calendar until the middle of the 19th century, but the last meeting was in 1894. The area had been used by the military for various purposes and was taken over as a semi-permanent camp at the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914 by the Royal Naval Division. The site was abandoned in 1919, but World War 2 brought another period of military occupation, which continues to this day; and despite the efforts of politicians, Blandford Camp seems a permanent fixture. The horse-racing connection is commemorated in name there by Racedown Road.

This aerial view of Blandford Camp shows where the motor racing circuit ran

This aerial view of Blandford Camp shows where the motor racing circuit ran

But there was another phase of racing at Blandford Camp. It was actually the venue of the very first post-World War 2 car road races in England, on 27 August 1949. This event was so popular that another meeting was held on 29 May 1950. Moreover, the same circuit was used for motorcycle racing until the 1960s. These events were also enormously popular, attracting huge crowds, and were only halted when the army’s use of the camp increased with the arrival of the 30th Signal Regiment and, later, the Royal School of Signals. A major programme of re-building and development followed, and a motor racing circuit was not part of the Army’s plans.

But the saga of Blandford’s contribution to motor racing history begins on the opposite side of the town – in Bryanston Park. For it was here in 1947 that the Blackmore Vale Motor Cycle Club organised its first race since the war, over a one-mile circuit centred round the buildings of Bryanston School. Unfortunately, a week before the race, it occurred to the school governors that not only would there be spectators at this event but that it was to take place on a Sunday – so they withdrew their permission. The club had to arrange a new course at the last moment and – something probably unique in the history of motorcycle racing – almost half the circuit was a farm track. Many of the riders arrived on that Sunday, 11 May 1947, with over-geared machines and, as the editor of Motor Cycling put it, ‘were not particularly happy about the possibility of dropping £300-worth of motorcycle on the loose gravel.’ There were other dangers: practising was disturbed by the arrival of a milk lorry and by a herd of cows which decided to cross the road. But the races went ahead, watched by large crowds – contemporary reports speak of spectators queueing for two hours to get into the park. None of these, however, were Bryanston school pupils. The Bursar had banned them from watching.

The circuit, showing the positions of all the (albeit limited) facilities

The circuit, showing the positions of all the (albeit limited) facilities

All the various difficulties made it imperative that the club find a new venue. The 7th Viscount Portman, over whose land the race had been run, had taken an active interest in re-arranging the course, now suggested to the club officials that Blandford Camp would be an ideal location for racing and that he would organise a wine and cheese party – what else? – to introduce the Camp Commandant to them. Several Portmans have taken an interest in motor racing since the 7th Viscount, including Christopher, the 9th Viscount, and his sons Alex and Piers, who owned the short-lived Portman Arrows Formula 1 team.

The wine and cheese party was a success. The CO approved the Portman plan and actually offered to supply some of his troops to help with managing any races. The club proposed a circuit of 3 miles 247 yards 6¾ inches around the camp’s roads, and this was agreed. The first event was held in July 1948 and, like the Bryanston Park event, was a great success with the public: there were crowds of 30,000. Ian Foster, son of the competing rider Bob Foster, remembers joining a queue as soon as he left his father’s garage in Ashley Road, Poole. It should be remembered that this was the pre-television era, when even County Championship cricket matches drew vast audiences.

Geoff Duke, soon to become a legend in the motorcycling world, made light of the opposition at the 1950 Blackmore Vale meeting when he rode the Norton ‘featherbed frame’ for the first time

Geoff Duke, soon to become a legend in the motorcycling world, made light of the opposition at the 1950 Blackmore Vale meeting when he rode the Norton ‘featherbed frame’ for the first time

There was another meeting in October 1948, followed by more in 1949, all just as popular, and in 1950 the event was able to trumpet itself as ‘the first international motorcycle road race meeting of any sort ever organised in Great Britain.’ (The Isle of Man TT race was deemed to take place on foreign territory.) The race on 29 April 1950 really was historic, as it was the first appearance of the celebrated Norton ‘featherbed’ frame – a revolutionary lightweight design which set a new standard in roadholding. The rider (and runaway winner) was a young Geoff Duke, later to acquire legendary status as the winner of six world titles and 33 Grand Prix wins. He was also the first rider to wear one-piece leathers – seen for the first time at this 1950 Blandford meeting.

By now the world of four-wheeled racing had taken notice of the success of the events at Blandford Camp. The West Hants and Dorset Car Club, founded in 1932, had so far limited itself to speed trials and minor events, but they decided to hold their first real race meeting on 27 August 1949. There was much press publicity, due to the fact that this was ‘the first real road-circuit racing seen in this country since the war’, as The Motor put it. It was the first appearance of the Connaught sports car, and also of the Cisitalia; and Dudley Folland entered the first Ferrari ever to race in the UK.

The meeting was as successful an event as those of the two-wheeled cousins, although the day was marred by an accident in which Gordon Woods went off the road and received severe head injuries from which he later died. In another accident, Major Peter Braid left the track at almost the same spot, mounted a fir-tree and ended up on the roof of Battalion HQ. Remarkably, both he and his Cooper were virtually unscathed, but the incident gave rise to one of the most famously bizarre images in motor racing history.

Major Peter Braid emerged unharmed after the extraordinary accident in which he ended up on the Battalion HQ roof

Major Peter Braid emerged unharmed after the extraordinary accident in which he ended up on the Battalion HQ roof

The last race of the day, the Formula 2 25-lap final, was fiercely fought and, by lap nineteen, George Shillito was leading, with Jack Fairman in hot pursuit. Fairman attempted to lap two cars at Engineer’s Corner (where Woods and Braid had come off earlier), lost control, was hit by another car, and overturned, blocking the track and covering it with oil and debris. The race was stopped and placings were awarded on 18th lap positions. Fairman had been in second place. As he later wrote: ‘I am the only member of the BRDC who has been placed and drawn prize money after sliding along the road on his ear.’

Despite all these accidents, there was another meeting on 29 May 1950 – although a new safety rule was introduced: the compulsory use of crash helmets by all except saloon drivers. Fairman had been persuaded by the pit manager at the last minute to wear one, something considered somewhat ‘cissy’ in those days. Certainly the 1950 meeting was less eventful than its predecessor, although just as popular – there was even live commentary broadcast on the BBC Light Programme (which subsequently became Radio 2). The Autocar, reporting on the event in the 2 June 1950 issue, described it as ‘altogether an excellent meeting….It is to be hoped that the Camp authorities will continue to allow racing on this excellent little circuit.’

But the racing authorities had their eye on Blandford, and after another fatal accident at the club’s hill-climb in July the same year, when the experienced driver Joe Fry was killed (albeit on a practice run) at the wheel of his ‘Freikaiserwagen’, permission to race cars at Blandford was withdrawn. The club moved its meets to an old airfield at Ibsley, just over the border with Hampshire, although motorcycle racing continued at Blandford until the early 1960s. To quote the rather acid words of Motor Sport some years later, ‘as so often (what is it about bikers?) the two-wheeled mob ignored the risks.’

Cuckoo Corner was one of several tight bends on the circuit

Cuckoo Corner was one of several tight bends on the circuit

Visiting the camp today, one can get an idea of how challenging the course must have been, despite huge changes to the camp in the intervening years. It was no wider than 20 feet wide at any point, distinctly narrow for a race track. There were several tight corners and even the deceptively named ‘Craddock Straight’ was a series of six right-hand kinks. Increased security has meant that half the circuit is blocked off by a tall metal fence; two high gates have to be unlocked for a lap to be achieved – although this was done in 1990 and 2000 by Brian Wright on his 1959 Norton to commemorate the historic 1950 meeting, but ever tighter security prevented him from repeating this in 2010. He may well be the last of the Blandford racers.

Dorset Directory