History of The Clee Hills Trial

by Pat Toulmin

THE EARLY YEARS

The first Clee Hill Trial was run on Sunday 2nd February 1947 by the Hagley & District Light Car Club. CAN May in his post war book ‘More Wheelspin’ tells of the fierce rumours prior to the event that the hills were to be very severe. It was planned to use a ‘figure-of-eight’ course, with the two loops meeting in Cleobury Mortimer. However the weather was to put paid to all of the best laid plans. It began to snow heavily the previous weekend. An emergency committee meeting on the Wednesday decided to carry on and by Saturday this was judged to have been a good decision, as the roads were clear. However it began to snow again and during the night strong winds built up heavy drifts. Despite the fact that a “full-scale blizzard was in progress” at the time of the start 34 of the 54 entrants managed to struggle there, one driver suggested that medals should be awarded for getting that far.

It was only possible to run 3 of the planned 8 sections, and “in addition a section of the main road (actually a bus route) was used for a restart test”. It is reported that several competitors even failed this. The Autocar reports ‘considerable’ confusion over a second lap of the course, such that only 6 or so competitors completed it. CAN May was able to shed light on the situation. There was “serious trouble” on the descent from Ron Hill back to the village. A Morris Eight had slid out of control, without its driver but with its passenger and hit another vehicle. There was not much damage to either car, but it was decided that the approach was dangerous and the section was cancelled. A messenger was dispatched but he was not able to stop all competitors, thus causing the confusion. F K C Wharton won the Club Cup and by the time the competitors reached the finish at Tenbury the snow had stopped and “even a little weak sunshine filtered through”. CAN May also reports that “the full story of all the incidents which befell competitors that day, both getting to and competing in the trial, would nearly fill a book by themselves”.

After such an eventful beginning H&DLCC had to wait until 1949 to run the Clee again. In the autumn of 1947 the basic petrol ration was withdrawn and as the Motor of 26th November says the “great sport of reliability trials driving must cease”. The ban was to run for about 6 months and was abolished on the 1st June 1948. The 1949 event was on the 6th February, when “trials champion K Wharton, newly returned from the Monte Carlo Rally was narrowly beaten by L J Oliver”. There were 47 starters and no clean sheets; the hills were mostly grass on frozen ground.

The weather continued to influence the Clee during the ’50s. In 1950, on the 5th February the weather was “almost a trial organizer’s dream, a brilliant, sunny morning following a week of storms”. However an overnight frost misled the organisers into thinking the hills would be easier than they eventually were when the frost thawed. Nordibank 1 and the Yeld proved unclimbable and only two competitors, including the eventual winner, Ken Wharton, climbed Long Lane. To top it all the afternoon was wet and the last hill – Meadowley Wood – looked as if it too would be unclimbable and indeed stopped all but 6 drivers. H&DLCC were commended by The Motor for producing the results, at the finish, by 7.30pm.

1951 was a year of torrential rain and gale force winds, probably accounting for the 12 non starters, but 62 crews braved the weather. The rain was so bad at the first hill – Short Longville – that the marshals feared no one would even get to the start. After the lunch halt Harton Wood was said to have played “the dual role of trial’s hill and mountain stream”, but being rocky caused little problem. Not so for the Yeld which again stopped everyone, despite the fact that “tyres were let down till many cars seemed to be right down on the wheel rims”.

For the 1952 Clee the RAC included the trial in the BTDA Trials Championship for the first time and it “provided all the hazards that the most hardened mud-plugger could wish for”. Again the weather played its part with snow and frozen mud, thawing in the afternoon. The course was a figure of eight, based on Bridgnorth, so the hills were worse for the people tackling them in the afternoon – Meadowley was climbed by 9 drivers in the morning, but none after lunch. There were only 48 entries and maybe this would have been more if the announcement of championship status had been made earlier than the day that entries closed !

1953 seemed to be a year of ‘bumps’, firstly on two of the new hills round the Golf Course, the Rough and the Bunker, which the Autocar thought “were probably the most amusing to watch, but were very tricky indeed and demanding almost limitless power. Two whacking bumps started the Rough, followed by a bank on which car after car failed within feet of the top, and on the Bunker, which was almost a continuation, scarcely a car got more than a third of the distance”. That the eventual winner, B J Bodenham (supercharged Dellow), alone lost no marks on the whole trial was seen as “a most remarkable piece of driving”. Later in the trial “Meadowley provided a study in expressions as cars made a real flying start from the road over a 2ft bump before landing in sticky mud”.

The snow returned for 1954, this time it was thawing and “turned most of the observed hills into a mixture of slush, mud and ice”. Many competitors had difficulty in getting to the start and “the sight of specials being unloaded from trailers because the towing vehicles could not cope on the icy main roads was a common one on the routes leading to Ludlow” The tie deciding test was “held on an ice-bound car park, with entertaining results”. For the first time a ladies award, The Angel’s Award, donated by the Angel Hotel, Ludlow, was presented to Mrs M Lowe (1172cc Dellow S). The event finished at this hostelry and the Motor thought that H&DLCC “set the seal on its organization by handing out full cyclo-style results within an hour and a half of the last man checking in”.

In 1955 the weather was quite different, being spring-like, dry and sunny, which brought out many spectators. However there was still plenty of mud and “all the hills were tricky and called for good driving”.

By 1958 the Clee was becoming much more like a Sporting Trial of today. The trial had always attracted a large number of ‘specials’, such that in 1953 The Motor felt it necessary to comment that it was refreshing “to see a ‘real’ car amid the customary assembly of specials” (the car referred to was a 1924 Riley Redwing). The 1958 trial was “on a static site and 30 sections were observed”. At this time the cars still had to be road legal, as in 1959 when the Clee started from the Stewponey Inn, Kinver at 10.30am and “drove to a static site about 3 miles from the start”.

In 1963 it is claimed that ‘history repeated itself’ with the trial being held on 3rd February in spite of the freeze up. Enthusiastic marshals spent the day before clearing snow off the sections and H&DLCC were ‘to be congratulated on its press-on spirit in managing to hold the event’.

By 1964, it appears that the transition to a sporting trial was complete, a feature in the Autosport clearly shows the cars with ‘fiddle’ brakes and cycle type front wheels. By this time the trial was held on a single site in Wales, near Presteigne. Later the Clee Hill Trial was renamed the Geoff Taylor Sporting Trial, in honour of one of H&DLCC’s personalities, and this trial is still run today by the club.

THE VW YEARS

The VWOC reinstated the Clee Hill Trial in 1980 as a classic reliability trial, organised by Simon Woodall and Ken Green. Motorsport for VWOC was going through a lull at the time, “the death of the Beetle in road rallies” meant that a new sporting outlet was required. The fact that Simon had spent a lot of time in the past wandering the Clee Hills with a copy of ‘Wheelspin’ and a map in his hand, had classic trialling in the genes; and that Beetles are ideally suited to trialling meant that the decision to run a classic trial was an obvious one.

The event was promoted in conjunction with the MCC, Chester MC, Stroud & District MC, the SODC and H&DLCC and was a round of the David Paull Trophy Trials Championship. The start was from the Running Horse Pub west of Bewdley and the finish was at the Acton Arms, Morville. Meadowley was in fine form, as usual, and there were no cleans. According to VW archives several of the competitors on the 1980 event had also entered in 1950.

For 1981 there was “misty rain at times” and the famous CAN May was one of the Stewards. The name was changed to the Clee Hills Trial, it had been Simon’s intention to use the plural in 1980, but a typist’s misunderstanding kept it in the singular. The following year the trial was a round of the VWOC’s Classic Trials Championship. The event was not run in 1983 – the trial had been awarded championship status by the recently formed Association of Classic Trials Clubs’ (ACTC) and this was the ideal opportunity to return the Clee to its traditional time of year January/February.

For this first ACTC championship year (1984) “snow made conditions interesting” and the overall winner Tim Maynard in his Dellow was the only driver to clear Farlow. For this event the ACTC Trial of the Year Award was won, ‘rightly’ so according to David Alderson, but he goes on to say that in 1985 weather conditions were against the organisers. They were “frustrated by the sharp frost and a couple of over enthusiastic adaptations of already naturally difficult sections”. A thaw later in the day caused quagmires at Munslow Dean and Turners’s Hill. The club was congratulated for showing “an excellent video of the day’s proceedings” at the finish. Mac Hazlewood (1489cc Dellow) was first overall and David Alderson (1258cc Beetle) best VWOC.

1986 was another good year for the Clee. The ACTC Trial of the Year Award was won again, by 10 points from the Tamar Trial, with the Chase Clouds Trial coming third. The Four Wheels Out magazine of February 1987 states that the Clee Hills was a worthy winner with “its combination of winter weather, unclimbable sections, historic hills, first class organisation and marshalling”. Mac Hazlewood won the trial outright for the second year running.

For 1987 snow was great threat – “just 7 days before Shropshire and North Worcestershire were covered in deep, deep snow”. Hungerford was covered with a ten foot snow drift and the council’s snow plough had dumped snow from the road at the top of Longville onto the section. However Simon’s prayed for thaw arrived in time and the snow bound hills became covered with “welcome mud”, although the drift at Hungerford stopped this section running. VWOC’s novel idea of running ad hoc teams, chosen by the organisers, was very successful and brought together “unlikely combinations”. This award was won by John Sargeant, Brian Mitchell and Richard Penhale.

But in 1988 the snow won! It began to fall heavily on the Saturday while the pegging of sections was in progress and eventually the VW Pickup truck could not get to the bottom of sections. The decision was made, at 3pm, to cancel the trial. However as ‘luck’ would have it rained during the night. Unfortunately it was too late to reinstate the event.

MAC TIMES

1991 perhaps heralded another change for the Clee – Simon Woodall was finding that pressure of work meant less time for organisation and the trial was not run. There was a 1992 event, but by this time Simon was actively looking for another club to take on the responsibility. Brian Cope, a Midland Automobile Club (MAC) member, keen triallist and ACTC stalwart, suggested to Jonathan Toulmin that the MAC take over the event. The MAC committee proved keen to add a classic trial to their range of activities and the club first ran the trial on 18th September 1994; various negotiations and other circumstances meant that the trial could not be run in 1993. Brian was unable to assist so Jonathan ran it with a great deal of help from Allin Penhale among others. The weather was glorious, with hot sunshine, but luckily the preceding week was very wet, so the hills were challenging and the ford at Strefford almost unpassable.

The 1994 event was won by Dave Smith in an MG Midget and the Ladies Award by Adrienne Alderson. A new class, with a shortened route, leaving out the difficult sections was introduced for MAC members driving standard road cars. This class was won by Graham Austin in a Reliant Kitten, with 8 year old son Stuart as bouncer. ACTC championship status for the Clee Hills Trial was regained, but this meant another break in 1995 to again return the trial to January.

In 1996 Clee was run on the 21st January and the Fray Challenge Cup (for Best Performance of the Day) was won by Paul Bartleman in a Ford Escort. The results were close and three other drivers could have won it. A little snow at the start was sent as a reminder of previous years…………

The MAC were awarded the 1996 Trial of the Year Trophy on 5th January 1997.

THE PEOPLE

Personalities always make events and the Clee is well endowed. The early days were made by people like CAN May, who not only wrote such good books, but was a keen competitor and during the famous 1947 Clee “found himself climbing a tree instead of the hill”. Ken Wharton, one of the most versatile of all drivers, who was successful at every form of motorsport he entered, from trials to rallies and to F1- he managed a ‘clean’ sheet on the 1947 event. Pre-war expert A G Imhof who was a regular entrant in the 1950s. Reg Phillips, well known to the MAC as a regular competitor at Shelsley Walsh, was best over 1300cc (in his 1486cc Fairley) on the 1951 Clee, gaining fastest time on the Short Longville timed test. Mssrs Delingpole and Lowe, creators of the popular and successful Dellow trials cars, were also regulars, as were many of their cars.

A ‘guest appearance’, as bouncer for N Weston (Dellow 1172cc), was made by champion racing motorcyclist Geoff Duke in 1952. He said he believed he had been “bouncing at the wrong moments”.

The Woodall family have long been stalwarts of the Clee, H B (Bert) Woodall braved the first ever Clee and was not put off by the weather as he again took part in ’49. Brother E V (Victor) Woodall made a “good effort” at climbing the Yeld in 1951 and nephew Simon organised the Clee for many years for the VWOC and still competes today.

MCC stalwart John West won the trial in 1980 in his Oliver Special, and other MCC organisers, Geoff Margetts and John Hayes, were entrants during this period, as was ACTC eligibility man Alan Foster. Many of the regulars of the 1980s still enter today.

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