Slow Cotswolds

  • The need for speed when you're going slow

    It may sound like an anomaly but 'Slow Travel' doesn't have to mean that everything is slow. On the contrary, it's about taking time to discover what makes a small locale look, feel and sound the way it does; exploring the senses. And I can say that a visit to Nottingham Hill, a couple of miles north of Cheltenham and three miles west of Winchcombe is as relaxing and invigorating in equal measure.

    Nottingham Hill (page 154) is on the far western edge of the Cotswold escarpment, a knuckle that protrudes ever so slightly into the Tewkesbury (or Severn) Vale. It's one of many hills in this particularly knobbly environment, with lumps and bumps appearing like eruptions out of the vale. Its southwestern slopes, hugging the edge of Woodmancote, are fearsomely steep. Its northerly slopes are ever so slightly gentler - just.

    It's here that the 60-acre Prescott Estate is situated - and it's the home of the Bugatti Owners' Club. It's also the location of the Prescott Speed Hill Climb (page 154-5), considered one of the world's greatest motor racing venues. It's certainly very picturesque.

    It might sound as if this is somewhere that's exclusive to members, owners of Bugatti vehicles or petrol heads obsessed by cars, motor racing and tinkering under the bonnet. Not so. I took my family for a day out to watch the racing at the British and Midland Hill Climb Championship. We're not avid motor-racing fans, we don't follow the sport, we can't name a driver outside those mentioned on the News in connection with the F1 Grand Prix and we don't spend all day buffing up and polishing our daily runaround. That doesn't matter with a visit to Prescott, where you'll get as much enjoyment from the magnificent environment, the views and dipping into a picnic box as you will watching vehicles whizz past. Besides, motor racing fan or not, who doesn't love the sight of a glossy Ferrari-red contraption from time to time?

    On a day that shone blue from the break of dawn, we were one of the first groups of spectators to arrive at 8am. Parked up in an old orchard decorated with apple blossom, first thoughts were that we might be a little out of place. There was a line-up of classic cars each with its bonnet up and we wondered whether we needed to have an anorak interest in carburettors, the shift pattern of an Austin Cooper or the quirks of a 1973 MGB Roadster. As it turned out, the bonnets were simply up to allow the engines of these classics to cool down, nothing to do with talking engine oil at all.

    Bacon butties and vats of tea were already on sale in the open-to-all Clubhouse and there was a relaxed frenzy of activity in The Paddock, another section of orchard where gleaming motors of all shapes and sizes, from a Hillman Imp to a brand new racing car on its first outing were lined up beneath the apple trees. Quads of tyres stood ready for a wheel change of less than lightning speed, husband and wife teams stood over the gleaming love of their life (not necessarily one another) and young children helped Dads set up pup tents filled with spare parts, tools and mechnical this and that. An event and venue that is very well organised,yes, but this is not inaccessible motor racing with inexplicable sums of money. These are people - mostly from the surrounding area according to the programme - that race their own car, have a passion and enjoy the pastime of coming together at a weekend and having a good time.

    As spectators, we could walk pretty much anywhere, admire or dismiss the cars in what we did or didn't like the look of, enjoy the hospitality of the Clubhouse and even sit in our car to watch the racing had it been a less than glorious day.

    As it happened it was a glorious day and we soon got to grips with the motor racing. There was everything from motorbikes with sidecars, classic cars of the 1970s and 80s, sporty versions of road-going cars of all ages and racing cars. We thought that hill-speed motor racing might be slow to watch, but the vehicles leave the start line at roughly 20-second intervals so there's always two cars on the track at any one time (it takes between 35 and 45 seconds to reach the finish line at the 'top' of the hill) - and you can watch from any vantage point on the single-route track. It's an opportunity to explore the grounds, which are extraordinarily magnificent.

    We were as much enamoured by the striking beauty of the admirably maintained grounds as the action going on around us. Climb the hill along the Pace Pathway and you're greeted with outstanding views of nearby Dumbleton Hill, Oxenton Hill, Bredon Hill and other notable Cotswold knobbles. Even the spine of the Malvern Hills are in view. We passed through glades of Bluebells that coloured up the woodland banks, Red Campion was just beginning to bloom and the petals of Lady's Smock were proving fodder for Orange-Tip butterflies that paid no attention to the roar of engines.

    The toot and the steam of the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway chugged by as we watched the classic and modern racing cars negotiate hairpin bends on the time trial ascent. Coronation Chicken sandwiches and sponge cake devoured, we'd got to grips with the timing and the nature of the course by the afternoon, as the commentator explained which of the bends is the favourite of racing supremo Stirling Moss and cars hurtled at speeds of up to 100 miles an hour. Not slow then.

    Watching the old classics was as enjoyable a part of the day (does my daughter really want a Mk1 Ford Escort or a 1960 Austin Mini, complete with racing numbers on the side panels) as seeing the speed and elegance of the modern racing cars. And, as it happens, it's not the cars that will stick in the memory in years to come, but the beauty of the Cotswold location.

    The British and Midland Hill Clib Championships continue today (Saturday was race practice day/Sunday is race day and there are a dozen or so events in the Prescott programme throughout the year. Each is varied, some incoporating modern racing, others dedicated to vintage and classic cars. Camping is available for the public at two of the events in spring and autumn. You can find out more at www.prescott-hillclimb.com.

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