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31 Oct 2018

Hitting the Peaks

On the trail of a short-lived endeavour to bring Le Mans to Blighty  

Last August, long-standing Club member Tim Court and the East Midlands Region 8 organised a 356 gathering in the Peak District. Part of their drive took in the proposed route of a 12-mile road race that very nearly became Britain’s answer to Le Mans.
The idea for the Parsley Hay Peak District Road Race, to give it its working title, was born from a heady period in British motorsport, when the likes of Aston Martin and Jaguar were duking it out with Ferrari and Maserati on the world stage. Britain boasted a number of notable closed circuits –­ Brands Hatch, Silverstone and Goodwood to name a few ­­– but what it sorely lacked was a proper road circuit to rival the likes of Le Mans, the Targa Florio and Mille Miglia, the blue riband races of the period.
A bill was drafted by Derbyshire County Council in 1955 that would entreat Parliament to allow certain local roads to be closed for the purpose of motor racing on select days each year. It looked like the popularity of racing in period, alongside its benefits to industry and local economy, would be enough to see any serious opposition subdued and road racing become a part of the local landscape. And what a landscape they had in mind.

Surrounded by the rolling hills of the Peak District National Park, we join the main straight tailing Tim’s exquisite Oslo Blue 1960 356B. Today this is the busy and speed restricted A515 that links Ashbourne with Buxton, with the section earmarked for the race making up some 4.3 miles in the middle. This would have been markedly longer than the Mulsanne straight and beset by perilous elevations and a fearsome high-speed kink. The thought of mid-Fifties sportscars side-by-side, at speeds in excess of 170mph on this narrow slash through the Derbyshire countryside is romantic and chilling in equal measure.
Halfway along the main straight is Parsley Hay, formerly a railway station that would have served the area’s long-forgotten lead mines and, in 1955, the proposed site for the pits and main grandstand. The entire circuit would have formed a vague figure of eight, enabling the waist of the lap, at Parsley Hay, to act as its epicentre, with the infrastructure to get crowds in and out with disruption to outlying areas.
At the end of the long straight is a tight right hander onto Tagg Lane, and from here a short uphill squirt before the rapid descent towards the pretty village of Monyash. The organisers proposed to bypass the village centre over outlying fields, leading directly onto a fast, uphill stretch called ‘The Rake.’ Here, low but unforgiving drystone walls fringe the road on both sides, beyond which spectacular views reach to the eastern horizon.

Braking hard for a slow, blind right-left S-bend, this is the point where the A515 comes back into view, the pinched middle of the figure of eight. Diving down towards Parsley Hay, the course demands a sharp and sudden left, climbing again towards the heavily wooded back section. The road here is undulating, uneven and treacherously narrow and Tim’s 356, at a remarkable lick in its 58th year of service, weaves and bobs across its surface.
Suddenly Tim peels off right again and plunges into a tunnel of thick overhanging trees. Another rapid right brings us out onto Green Lane, a twisting mile or more of fast but unforgiving B-road that ducks flat-out beneath the narrow brick-built railway bridge.  A few hundred yards later is Newhaven and another tight right, back on to the A515 and the bottom of that awe-inspiring main straight.
The countryside is so unspoilt here that, save for the traffic on the main road to Buxton, it is easy to let the mind wander, to a bygone era in an alternate history, where the roads around Parsley Hay were filled with the bellicose treble of Ferrari V12s and the sinister beauty of dark green D-Types, gliding on skinny cross-ply tyres across these narrow lanes.

Sadly, it was not to be. The devastating accident at Le Mans in the summer of 1955, in which Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes 300 SLR flew into a packed crowd of spectators, killing more than 80 and injury half as many again, turned popular opinion against motorsport for years to come and brought the thorny and frankly overdue issue of spectator safety under the microscope. The proposal was abandoned and the whole project, ambitious but brilliant, was lost to the passage of time.
But even the ‘what if?’ is worth savouring. Imagine the Peak District, natural habitat of hill walkers and amateur poets, hosting a race to rival Le Mans. Imagine a DB3 and 500TR swapping paint halfway to Buxton, or a 550A Spyder, Hans Herrmann at the helm, inches from a crumbling drystone wall. Parsley Hay can exist only in the imagination, but is nonetheless well worth a visit, if only to marvel what might have been.

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