By Pat Toulmin
I guess our preparation for the Fellside Auto Club’s Northern Trial began in November 1999 when we bought another Marlin. Why? you might ask. Well Jonathan is a Lancastrian and went to school in the Lake District, as well as having spent many great holidays there – not to mention the fact that his father had competed on, and organised events in that part of the world. So he didn’t want to miss the opportunity of driving off road in such wonderful country and we wanted to support a new trial, but our usual Marlin was still in need of a major rebuild… the solution? Buy another car! Ken Orson’s Marlin was still on the market and at a competitive price. A deal was done and Q25 FDD appeared on our drive. It had sat outside unused at Ken’s for quite a while, so it needed a lot of tidying – it still doesn’t compare to SRT 764M, but that did start life as a very cherished road car. After the ‘Toulmin’ treatment our new acquisition didn’t look too bad.
We left home after work on the Friday evening and arrived at the B & B at about 11pm. The Alderson Troll was parked outside, but the landlord said that David and John were still at the pub! We had a pleasant chat with them at breakfast. David was bemoaning the fact that he had bought the last new front suspension trunnions still available for the Troll, after the car broke on the Exeter, and when he said that it wasn’t too much of a problem, as the last set lasted nine years, John gave what could be the quote of the year – ‘Oh well they’ll see you out then!’
The start was at a service station adjacent to the M6, so there was plenty of room. However there was a long queue for scrutineering. Rumour had it that Fellside were being extremely thorough and that this was causing the wait. That may have been true, as suddenly the queue speeded up and our scrutineering was certainly not over the top. Much talk was about when drivers had left home to reach the far North – this seemed to range from 3-4 days (Roger Bricknell) to treating it like an MCC trial and leaving at midnight (Pete Hart) Of course Roger and Julia took the opportunity to fit in some business meetings – it really doesn’t take all that time to get from Cornwall! Derek Chatto, from Derbyshire, was delighted to be able to take part in what for him was a ‘local’ trial. His second child had been due the trial weekend, but she arrived three weeks early – on a weekend break to Wales, so the good news was he could get a late entry, and he now has a Welsh daughter!
The local Mayor was there to flag us off. He was interested in where we had all come from – one advantage of living near Stratford on Avon is that everyone has heard of it, and most people have been there. The weather was excellent, but when I commented on this to the Start Marshal he very ominously said ‘Yes, but it’s not what was forecast…..’
On the way to the first section Simon Woodall gave us a brake test and Barbara commented that she thought we were going to join them in the Baja. We were running with Tony Branson and Derek Reynolds, both also on their ‘local’ trial, living in Northumberland. The route to the first section passed through Kirkoswald and Tony wondered whether this was an omen – there is a Branson family graveyard there! Hazel Rigg was described as an ‘easy starter’ and this is what it was, despite a muddy start line and a restart on a rutted bit. It was an old track between walls, on open stony ground. The markers swapped sides half way up, which was a little disconcerting, but the marshal did warn us. One mile away was Special Test 1, which was a forward and reverse test over four lines. We got the second fastest time in class here, but Derek flattened one of the markers in his Volvo and there was a penalty for doing this. As Tony pulled up behind us he noticed that he had broken one of his front wheel nuts and an instant repair was undertaken, with the use of spacers.
On the way to the second hill there was a diff test. There was a long queue for the section, Gamblesby, and we waited for about 40 minutes, time to have a pleasant chat to Dudley and Barry Clarke and swap ‘jinx’ stories – I think Jonathan has a restart jinx for Dudley and Steve Dear used to think the same of himself when he was competing. We cleared section 2, another old track, and wondered what the delay was about?
Sections 3 and 4 were immediately on the opposite side of the A686 as we exited the previous section. Scarface started off fairly gently on mud but then went very steeply up a wet, stony bank. To make it worse the sun was in our eyes and there was a dogleg we didn’t see until too late. We lost most of our speed and ended up with a 9. Best score for a car here was Roger Bricknell with a 6, but one of the bikes got a 3. It didn’t help that the markers were black lettering on a red background (and on grass too – hope no one was colour blind) and, with hindsight, Jonathan thinks he should have driven over the marker at the dogleg. I think this section was difficult enough without the deviation. The Gamble was in the same field, but there was more grip and we got a 2. We thought that we should have cleared it and wondered whether it was our lack of practice, especially when Tony got a 1 with only 1300cc, but with much spirited bouncing from Sally – so was it my fault? The results consoled us, as Pete Hart and Simon Woodall also got 2s in our class. On leaving the field we noticed Terry Ball changing a halfshaft on his Beetle.
Sections 5, 6 and 7 were grouped together and approached by a very sandy track that took us to what seemed like the top of the world. We passed a scrap yard on the way and Jonathan snook a look to try and spot any Marina or Sherpa vans. Would this have been a good place to have the lunch halt? The approach to Cumberland Bank was down a very steep sandy track, out of which there are only two ways, both very steep and both sections. After clearing Cumberland Bank we had to turn round at the top and go back into the bowl to attempt Bulldog Hill. Cumberland Bank started on the level and after a sharp left turn was a straight climb and Bulldog Hill had a sharp left at the top, which caught quite a few out. We cleared both of these, but wonder how it would have been if it had been wet. Fellside had arranged recovery, but once in the bowl the only ways out were very steep. Waiting for the start of the third section here, Bonnie Mount, Tony was reversed into by another competitor, but there was ‘no damage’. Bonnie Mount had a restart on a very steep slope. Jonathan decided to go very low on this and we went clear, albeit with a slight worry that we were too low. I rushed back with the camera to get a photo of Tony. He failed the restart, possibly by going too high. Andy Webb was spectating and we had a chat. He said he felt very strange without the trial’s car – maybe he’s now thinking of a comeback as well?
On the way to the lunch halt there was an instruction in the Route Book ‘Beware of red squirrels – killing one means disqualification!’ We saw sheep on the road, chickens on the road – but no squirrels of any colour and we managed to avoid killing any wildlife. There were also some primroses on the banks to remind us of the approach to Darracott in a few weeks time. We entered the Greystoke Castle Shooting Ground and refreshments were provided by a mobile catering van and very good they were too. Not so sure about the company though, as Simon teased us about the state of our sanity! No toilets were provided but the woods were very convenient….. Section 8, Tarzan, had a restart and the only class 7 car to clear was Simon in the Giraffe. The Marlins just bottomed out (mind you Simon did say that this was one of the hills he re’cced with Fellside – so was it insider knowledge?) Howard’s Way was a very interesting section, which looked much more difficult than it was. A steep start and then a restart for us led us to what can only be described as a roller coaster. The Derek Reynolds’ fan club was out in force on, but unfortunately both he and Tony failed. We cleared the section, but there was a steep drop after the finish and the marshal waved at us at a crucial moment and Jonathan lost momentum and we ended up wedged on a hump. Simon commented ‘Well there’s always one’. (Did he have it in for us that day…..?)
Then it was on to Threkeld Quarry for two more sections. On the way to these we entered the Lake District National Park for the first time. Both hills were on stone and compacted shale and, once again, the markers were difficult to see – this time it was black on a background of blue or purple! Thunder Mountain started over a tiny stream and then went very sharp right and then immediately left, so it was very important to line the car up properly on the start line. Derek had a second go at this and reversed into a rock in the process. No problems here for the two Marlins, nor at The Gold Rush, where we were amused by the very unusual and colourful hats worn by the two marshals at the start and the cheerful trumpet notes sounded by a young boy, whenever anyone cleared the hill.
Next we drove up part of the Whinlatter Pass to tackle two sections in the Whinlatter Forest Park, as used by the VSCC for their Lakeland Trial. These were typical old forest tracks. Tony was leading here, but at the last moment missed the turn to Daffodil Hill and so we tackled it first. This was where some complacency crept in. It looked a very good track from the start so we didn’t let the tyres down for the restart, which was round the corner out of sight and was very muddy – and it had a deviation! Result? – we got off the restart, but did not have enough speed to get round the deviation. Tony had reappeared and heard us struggling and so really gave it all and got up. No one else in class 7 and only one in class 8 failed, so we did mess up here – lack of practice? Northern Fellside was a few yards away and we then let the tyres down, but of course we didn’t really need to!
Arriving at Sandale there was a small queue and we watched David Alderson reverse out of the lane, so it must be bad….? Simon cheerily told us that we were ‘about to discover why this sport is called mudplugging’. He was right. The bottom of the hill was very thick mud and there was quite a crowd to watch the fun. The results show a huge range of scores from 12 to 0, so it was quite a hill. After the mud the track became grassy and a real test of skill. We crawled slowly past the 2 marker and I thought we would make it, but no … it was a very, very, very long way to the 1 marker and we didn’t get there.
The second Special Test was next. The instructions said ‘Start at Start Board, follow course round, finish at Finish Board (same place as Start)’. I think everyone followed the track to the left downhill and round, with a very steep finish, but I guess you could have done it the other way round. Jonathan took it carefully on the downhill bit, as he thought it could have been a car breaker and the results show that many others thought the same, as actually our time was quite good.
The final section was called Oblivion and that was a very accurate name. The track started on the flat and then went round a very tight left-hand corner, so tight that many didn’t make it and some were very grateful, as they missed the horror to come! First there was a large hump to drive over and at least one competitor, Robert Porter in his Marlin, got stuck on this. This led into a large and very deep bowl, with a restart on the steep bank out. What made it worse was that everyone had to pass this to get to the start and watching it was probably worse than attempting it! Only Tony Rothin did the restart successfully, but he had failed the sharp corner at the start. Everyone had his or her wheels high in the air getting out. We made the sharp corner OK but failed the restart. In the bottom of the bowl we thought the engine had died, as we had no oil pressure, but it was just the gradient sending the oil to the back of the sump. We got out at the third attempt, but Tony with his 1300cc needed the towrope. Barry Clarke rolled here, but I think, fortunately, neither he nor Dudley was hurt. This section was good spectator value, but not much else and not really a classic section. To make matters worse it was not subdivided.
As we were parking at the finish it began to rain very heavily, but we had been lucky all day with glorious sunshine. The finish venue had plenty of space. We had booked a meal but the ‘team’ had other ideas and we ended up driving to Hexham for a meal with Tony & Sally, Derek & Fred and Derek’s fan club. Our meals at the Stocksman didn’t go to waste as Simon and Barbara ate them instead – we hope they enjoyed them. We both had a really great day; the trial was fun and competitive. The organisation was excellent and everyone we spoke to really enjoyed it. Fellside need to find a few more traditional tracks to keep the ‘traditionalists’ happy, but they have got off to an excellent start. Roger Bricknell made the long drive from Cornwall more worthwhile, as he was 1st overall, with Bill Foreshew and Tony Rothin 2nd and 3rd respectively.