Clee Hills Trial – an organiser’s view
By Simon Woodall
Not having a trial report to read I (a very unfortunately timed snow fall causing its cancellation), I thought I might pen a few words from the organiser’s perspective. “My Clee Hills Trial” since what ever happened the competitors’ event, from the clerk of the course’s point of view, most of the things that happen to me happened anyway – if you see what I mean.
For me the trial started on the Thursday morning, as that is the point at which my time becomes 100% trial oriented. The day starts with collecting the keys for the various gates on the Burwarton Estate from the estate office just round the corner from the start. I then go onto the estate to check that these keys actually fit the gates we need to have open at the weekend. Some of the padlocks are quite fiddly, so it’s also a confidence building session to know which ones work which way. That way I will not panic at the weekend if one is a little stiff. Since I am on the estate, and the part that we use is not currently being worked, the two sections and a special test are laid out. This involves walking up each hill carrying 13 poles, numbers and a lump hammer. Stopping about every five or ten feet to drop a pole – that’s deliberately dropping one, there are plenty of other stops when one gets dropped accidentally. Once the top of the hill is reached, the ends board can be knocked in, and the walk back down is punctuated by hammering in the intermediate poles and hanging the number markers. By the time I am two thirds the way back, I pause for a mental review of the pole positions, and usually have to walk back up to adjust their positions to try to ensure the poles are grouped more closely at the areas of expected failure. (Just as the blue book says) The thought process goes something like this:- Hmm , that tree root will catch a few so I’ll put the marker just above it; those that make it that far will then be struggling in the mud so I’ll put two close together here; now this corner is tight so they might struggle, two more markers….. Damn, not enough left, now where can I pinch one from to slot in here? I know, I’ll walk all the way back down and move the 12 up to the 11, that’ll give me one; after all its only ½ mile back down and up again. And that’s just the first hill!
Repeat the procedure on the next hill, but this one has a restart so more poles and more boards. Box restarts are the thing now, so will they put their front or rear wheels in the box? Can I peg it so that they are forced to choose between going low for a better position and going high for a better mark in case they cannot move off? In between all this decision making, the ground is getting no softer, being covered with frost, and knocking in the markers is like trying to put them into concrete. I decide to cheat with the special test and put all the line markers inside traffic cones so that they stand on their own. They rest of the day is taken up with route marking. It takes a competitor about six hours to get round the course, but they do not have to stop and park at every junction, get out and pin up a coloured marker. Nor do they have to worry about the problem of having difficulty telling left from right and therefore which colour to put up. Nor do they have to take the failure route from every section and then double back to the summit. It would have been more sensible to do this job the weekend before, but unfortunately the ACU’s “Vic Britten” one day motorcycle trial is run over much the same ground – starting from the same place – on the Sunday before.
Friday dawns clear but no warmer. A check of the weather forecast for the weekend is threatening snow, but not until Sunday afternoon. The optimist in me decides that as every other weather front lately has arrived later than predicted we will be all right (on the night). Friday is the day for laying out the furthest sections, and although there are more to do than the previous day, the routine is the same. My major concern at this point is that all the sections are still frozen. Not only am I still having trouble knocking in the markers, but I’m trying to decided whether this is going to make the going easier or harder, and if the tyre pressure limits that have already been printed in the routecard are still valid under these conditions. The tyre limits remain something of a concern, but it is easier to leave them as they are and have confidence that the cream of Britain’s trials drivers are not going to be fazed by something as trivial as frost. Late morning includes an on-site meeting with the Plowden Estate gamekeeper. It turns out that he is concerned over nothing, as he thought the trial was going to clash with his Saturday shoot. These people are very important and, if he is on our side, he might point us in the direction of other sections on the estate that have not been spotted yet.
I drop down the lane to the start of Ratlinghope, and put the start boards in the same place as last year. Ratlinghope is one of those sections where not many failures are expected and it’s not to rough so rather than walk the distance to the top, I decide to drive up. Embarrassment! I cannot move an inch forward on the frost! It’s a good job no one is watching. I get out and reappraise the situation. The ground looks a little firmer ten feet further back, le’ts try from there. This time I can get moving, with a lot of gentle teasing of throttle and clutch, but can only make it about ten feet beyond my original start line. Twenty feet in all, that’s not very impressive. Still, trial’s drivers are made of sterner stuff, and driver more suitable vehicles. Move the start to the lower point, admit defeat and walk up to the section end. Half way up the hill there is a nice long stretch of ice wide enough across the track to ensure that however small the vehicle one wheel will have to be on it. Let’s just hope that the competitors have enough road speed to carry them over it. Back down to the bottom, and I still have to get out. My performance on the hill has made me a little nervous as the route back involved going back up hill and there is clearly no way that I will be able to reverse up it. I have broken the organiser’s cardinal rule – never drive up anything you aren’t 100% sure you can get out of on your own. I decide that I should be all right if I can turn round. But where? The track isn’t really wide enough to do it easily but I have no choice. The first tentative reverse reveals the problem. I reverse the truck just slightly out of line, planning to do a mega-point turn in the confines of the lane, but my first attempt to pull forward again just leaves the wheels spinning hopelessly. I cannot go any further back and the truck will not go forward. I am reminded of Hofnung and his blasted barrel (anyone under 35 may want their parents to explain that reference). There is only on solution to this dilemma. I put the truck into second gear, and let the clutch out so that the wheels are spinning happily then get out of the cab and go round the back and start pushing. You know from your experience of the ground that there is no way the thing is going to run away from you once it grips, but in your mind you cannot be so sure. Much pushing and rocking eventually gets the thing back onto some grip and I dash forward to stop it before it does something else silly. Now we are back where we started. There is only one place where there is some flat ground. The ford. Did I mention the foot deep ford on the approach? There didn’t seem to be many rocks in it, and it’s my only chance. A multipoint turn in the water is achieved despite a couple of nervous moments when one or other the rear wheels sink into silt holes. Now all we have to do is get back up the slow to the exit. My first attempt sees me about 75% of the way up before grinding to a spinning halt. This is clearly not a slope where the traditional rule of gentle throttle on ice is going to work. I use the reverse back down to allow me to get as much run as possible. Plenty of revs and go! Down into the ford flat out, BANG as the water hits the front of the truck, snap change into second and toe hard down! The truck is almost uncontrollable at this speed, I lurch off the rocks on one side and crash into a hole on the other, past the point of stopping last time, the speed is dropping off rapidly now, but the summit is in sight which will come first? Top or Stop? The wheels are scrabbling for grip and we teeter over the summit at about point one of a mile per hour. Made It!! I drive away with a big grin, the problems are past and the fun of a good climb is what is left.
The route from Ratlinghope back to the main A49 includes a very nervous steep decent with a mega-hundred foot drop on one side, no barriers and a very icy road. My 1966 VW Pickup truck does have the best brakes in the world and the road is in the worst condition I have seen for some years. An instant decision is made NOT to send the trial down here. My reward for such an heroic descent is cheap petrol in Church Stretton. It’s dark by now and the temperature is just at the point that brings out the best in carburettor icing. Just the thing I need after a long day’s labouring. Home and a hot shower is a very welcome sight. By the way, did I mention the dead sheep on Gatten? It’s just as well it was frozen or I would never have been able to lift it in one piece – must remember to wash my hands before dinner!
Saturday is an easy day in comparison, the helpers are out today and the work can be done in pairs. Just as we are about to set out, the first competitor phones to ask if the trial is still on! He has snow where he is and needs to be sure. Full of confidence, I say “no problems here”. The last few sections are laid out with only one minor problem, the approach to Ippikins Rock has a burnt out car on it. The decision is made that it is possible to squeeze past and the vehicle is left in situ. We have recovery at Ippikins, so if it turns out to be a problem I’m sure the Land Rover boys will enjoy moving it. Back at the start/finish the paperwork has to be checked, there are plenty of copies of the route amendment cancelling Ratlinghope and it seems that the die is cast. Nothing to do except relax over dinner. The locals are all saying that it will not snow, but I’m not so sure.
Sunday morning…….The first competitor ‘phones the start at 5:30am and get the landlady out of bed! How should I know if it’s on, we’re all still asleep. The rest of the day seems to fade into a blur of concern, decision and counter decision. I suspect that the competitors probably know more about it than I do.
Monday. The last of my three days off work. Normally, the course closing car collects all the poles as each section is closed, but this time there has been no trial so no collection. Some of the more accessible ones were collected on Sunday afternoon but many as still out there. 24 hours after the event, and the pickup will not climb the tarmac estate road to the sections on Burwarton Estate. Maybe cancelling was the right decision, even though by this time 20/20 hindsight is kicking in and the mind comes up with different ways we might have made it happen. The first special test is a sheet of ice, covered with fast flowing melted snow. I park on the start line, get out and pull the poles. I then lean on the back of the truck to take the “A”s of the poles and the truck, handbrake on, just slides way from me on the ice and I go flat on my face in the water. Still, at least the petrol remains cheap in Church Stretton. For some completely inexplicable reason, as I drive round I am already thinking about changes that could be made for next year, and how to prevent the problems recurring. Do it again? You must be joking, but I expect I will.
On behalf of the organising team, I would like to thank all the competitors for their good heartedness under the conditions and especially those who relayed messages of commiseration.