The Teme Valley Leisure Route twists and turns for 63.5 miles of unspoilt natural beauty linking the counties of Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire. As you trace your way along the route passing through traditional market towns and idyllic little hamlets and villages you pick up signs for Shelsley Walsh where, nestled in amongst the rolling hills of Worcestershire is one particular hill that demands a driving style which is anything but leisurely.
Shelsley Walsh is a Speed Hill Climb, but not just any Hill Climb. Since 1905 the hills have been alive with the sound of race-tuned engines, making Shelsley the oldest motor sport event in the world still racing on its original course. The start line, corners and the views are essentially the same today as when it all began.
In its simplest form Hill Climbing is a competition to get from the bottom of the hill to the top as quickly as you can. Those taking on Shelsley’s fabled 1000 yards (914m) of tarmac are faced with a rise in height of 328 feet and gradient of 1.6.24 at its steepest. It is also narrow, being no more than 12 feet (3.66m) wide at some points, however; speeds of up to 140mph are still achievable.
In contrast things were a little more genteel during the very first motoring event to be held at Shelsey. On Saturday 12 August 1905 Ernest Instone driving a Daimler clocked an average speed of 26.15 mph on the way to a winning time of 77.6 seconds. On that first occasion, the course measured 992 yards (907 m) in length, but by 1907 had been standardised to 1000 yards (914m). At that time Hill Climbs were not strictly speed events, performances were rated on a power based formula with cars of 20 hp or more required to be four-seaters and to carry passengers.
Restrictions on competing cars were dropped from 1913, meaning that specialised racing cars were now eligible to enter Shelsley. Unsurprisingly, speeds immediately improved and on 7 June 1913, Joseph Higginson behind the wheel of a Vauxhall recorded the best time of the day: 55.2 seconds, more than eight seconds faster than H. C. Holder’s mark of 63.4 seconds which had been set just two years before.
The advent of the First World War prevented racing at Shelsley, which did not resume until 1920. Winning times continued to tumble; the emphasis was now firmly away from reliability and on speed. This attracted a new breed of competitors notably Count Zborowski of Chitty Bang Bang fame driving a Sunbeam and Raymond Mays taking to the hill for the first time in a self-tuned Hillman. But Shelsley’s first superstar was Basil Davenport who broke the record four times between 1926 and 1928 in his GN Spider.
The 1930s were a golden era for Shelsley. The track was now asphalt rather than gravel, and the likes of Raymond Mays, Hans Stuck and Whitney Straight battled for supremacy during International race events. In June 1939, at the last meeting before the Second World War, Mays set a new record of 37.37 seconds in his ERA R4D. It was at Shelsley where Mays perfected his innovative racing cars.
Hill Climbing resumed at the track in 1947. Several Formula One drivers competed regularly at Shelsley in this era, among them four-time British Hill Climb Championship winner Ken Wharton who
broke the outright record on four occasions. A young Stirling Moss would have made his competition debut in 1947, but an oversubscribed entry list meant it would be a year later when he would first compete and win. The list of famous names to take on the hill includes the likes of; Campbell, Segrave, Caracciola, Bira, Collins, Surtees, Priaulx and Bell.
The first sub 30 second climb was achieved in 1971 by David Hepworth driving his own four-wheel-drive Hepworth FF. Little by little the outright record was being shaved and in particular by Alister Douglas-Osborn who broke it no fewer than eight times between 1976 and 1983. Richard Brown further reduced it to 25.34 seconds in 1992.
This record stood for nine years until Scottish driver Graeme Wight Jr posted the first sub 25 second time of 24.85 seconds and in the process collected the £1000 prize, which had been put up for the first driver to achieve the feat. The following years saw the record beaten several times and twice in 2008 by three-time reigning champion Martin Groves
Shelsey is the home of the Midland Automobile Club (MAC) who are arguably the oldest motoring club in the world. The club was founded in 1901 by a number of prominent members of the early motor
industry. Today, in addition to Speed Hill Climbs the MAC organises meetings for all motor sport and motoring enthusiasts including sprints, sporting trials, classic car and social events.
To find out more visit http://wwww.shelsleywalsh.com
Photographs courtesy of Harniman Photography for Shelsley Walsh