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Behind the Wheel: Discovering Motorsport in Cornwall

by / 0 Comments / 01/08/2017

Cornwall is not often regarded as a mecca of motor racing, in fact the two put together sound a bit  oxymoronic, but a quick glance into history reveals a different story. 

 

Pendennis Point is located in Falmouth, on Cornwall’s South Coast. It sits as a small peninsula jutting out into Falmouth Harbour. The point itself is accessed and exited via a single lane perimeter road and it is this perimeter road that made up the Pendennis Point Circuit. This circuit, though not the first venue for motorbike racing in the United Kingdom, a title which goes to the Isle of Man, was the first venue for closed road motorbike racing in mainland United Kingdom.

Between 1931 and 1937 regular motorbike meetings were held on the minuscule 1.5 mile-long gravel loop around the point. Its a loop that still exists today, untarnished by the passage of time save for its ageing tarmac surface, a civilian walking path and bicycle lane. Indeed, the road’s high-octane past is hardly noticed or known by many. All that stands to let passers-by know of this road’s heritage is a memorial stone put in place in 2002 to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the last race held — a stone you wouldn’t notice unless you were looking for it.

This, lack of of notoriety however, only adds to the enjoyment of experiencing the circuit. In fact, as a motor racing fan, it’s like discovering a well-kept secret. There are few disused circuits in the United Kingdom which are intact, security-free and close to civilisation. Sure there’s a twenty mile per hour speed limit, but when the circuit is as short as this and the views, on a clear day, as good as they are there really is no need for speed. You can relish too, in that great joy of feeling like you are treading in the tracks of heroes, such as lap record holder G.E. Rowley and his comrades, as they lapped the tight circuit at upwards of seventy miles per hour with crowds within touching distance.

Pendennis Point though, is not the only circuit Cornwall possesses. Davidstow Airfield, located fifty miles north of Falmouth, was utilised as a military airfield during World War Two but led an interesting post-war existence. From 1952 until 1955 the airfield was converted into a motor racing circuit. However, when we say converted we mean that the circuit was marked with hay bails rather than with the safety barriers and run-off areas of modern circuits.

Davidstow then, followed in the same vain as Silverstone, a circuit that had been marked out in the same fashion in 1948. History would dictate however that Silverstone would enjoy far greater success and aplomb. In 1953, as the Northamptonshire-based track was holding its fifth Formula One World Championship Grand Prix its Cornish cousin, now with added chicane, was still holding club races.

This isn’t to say that Davidstow did not enjoy great company. It was the site of several non-World Championship Grand Prix — Grand Prix that didn’t count towards the World Championship. One of these, the August 1954 meeting, holds particular note as the first Grand Prix victory for the Lotus Formula One Team as John Coombs won in the pouring rain driving a Lotus Mk8. Lotus’s first Official World Championship victory may have come six years later in Monaco with Stirling Moss, but Davidstow’s role as the site of their first victory should not be overlooked.

Davidstow, much like Pendennis Point Circuit, is easily accessible and has a museum dedicated to commemorating its past just inside its gates. Unlike Pendennis Point though, it does still have its original ‘racing’ surface; a warning given to those wishing to partake in re-enacting the past, as the circuit’s remote location does not lend itself to breakdowns.

Nevertheless both the Pendennis Point Races of 1931-1937 and the Davidstow Meetings of 1952-1955 deserve recognition for their roles in motorsport history. The former for bringing closed road motorbike racing to the mainland and the latter for marking the starting point for one of the great names in motor racing, Lotus Grand Prix.

I am currently an Undergraduate student studying War Studies and History at Kings College London. I report on both politics and motor-racing.