This Heroic Rally Climbs Great Britain From South To North, In December
Photography by Will Broadhead
On a windswept clifftop along the most westerly ridge of the UK, I find myself surveying a a plot of 80 or so automobiles, arranged in a quasi-organized formation on the far from even terrain of the gravely car park. In the summer months, this space serves the many tourists flocking to Land’s End to take in the view from the point that the ancient Greeks called “Belerion,” the place of the sun.
On this day the view out to sea reveals only the tumbling waves, whipped into a mess by the storm systems cast landward from the raging Atlantic. It was just a prelude of what was to come the following day for the driver and navigator pairs. They will begin what for many of them will be one of life’s great adventures. It’s done for fun of course, but it’s still a mean challenge, a test of multiple forms of endurance, a way to get a little closer to the spirit of racing that existed when these cars were new—in our coddled times, this is surely a tonic we can all benefit from.
The rally that runs from Land’s End to John O’Groats is run by HERO, and if I haven’t made it clear already, it is one of the toughest classic car endurance rallies in Europe; a challenge not for those who can’t take a few tree limb scratches in stride. Across 74 hours, the 79 entrants will attempt the 1500-mile journey from the southwest of England to the most northeasterly point of Scotland. Across timed regularity stages, off-road tests against the clock outright, it’s all done by way of navigation that’s restricted to the in-period techniques, using paper maps, and without receiving route instructions until the day before the event. Add to that the requirement of putting up with the nastiness of winter in Britain, each team will hope to arrive in Scotland as close to the allotted time as they can, and even finishing at all is cause to celebrate. Not every car will make it, there will be minimal sleep for the teams, and there are two legs of the rally that must be tackled during the cold winter nights. In other words, it’s not a parade through sunny summertime weather with your buddies and a bottle of wine. Driving cars that most people would have put away for the winter is one thing, and this is more than a quick donut session in the cul-de-sac before the plows come through your suburb.
To some it seems like abuse to put these cars through this kind of driving in their old age, but as Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the first person to cross Antarctica on foot, once said of his expeditions, “I am doing this for many reasons, some of which I don’t fully understand. That there is an inner urge is undeniable.” I think we can all agree that we would have fun sliding an old car across some mud, but few of us would do it if the car in question belonged to us. The teams participating in this rally, while not traversing the poles like our quoted explorer above, have a similar pioneering spirit all the same. One that urges them to push themselves and their machines closer to their limits or at least well past their comfort zones. In a day where most classic car content is produced and lives on our phones, this event has an even more obvious vitality to it.
Fiennes was also a believer in the Nordic philosophy of there being no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing, and these wise words are the ones are ringing in my ears as I find myself standing on Bodmin Moor, already soaked to the core and only a little more than two hours into the rally.
The rain descends in vengeance for a summer that was much too dry and pleasant, and despite being swaddled in waterproof clothing it has made quick work of my feeble armor. Still, could be worse, I could be one of the crews of the two 1930s Bentleys that have entered—having to put up with this deluge hitting them in the face at 60MPH earns no plenty of sympathy from me, and I’m not trying to trade places. Thankfully the map books use truly waterproof paper (a nice modern concession to the older-school navigation process), but I still wouldn’t want to be attempting to navigate with frozen hands and sodden gloves, never mind the challenge of doing that at night.
This bit of empathizing gives me an extra bit of chill and I shudder on my way back to the rental car to rejoin the route that will take us first up through the narrow lanes and backroads of the west country and across into Wales before the first of the two night stages.
The rain refuses to change its mind, and the roads in many places throughout the day had turned into something closer to rivers as the great torrents of water sought the most direct route from the higher ground. Traction, or lack thereof, is causing me problems in the relative comfort of my gear-laden media wagon, so I can only imagine how difficult it is for the competitors. Each stage I visit is engulfed with water at least somewhere along the way, each test becoming more difficult than the last as the world out here saturates.
The weather’s bleak, but the smiles on the faces of the crews tell the real story. This is the kind of challenge that they signed up for. As night falls and the mountains of Wales loom on the horizon, the relentless precipitation has penetrated every piece of my being as well as every part of my camera equipment, and as I finally crawl into a sleeping bag at 3AM for a few hours of sleep, the drumming of the rain continues on the windows of the car, a sound that I would have had trouble sleeping without in this stage of my habitualization.
By dawn a brisk wind has whisked away the clouds and left us with a beautiful winter morning and some welcome sunshine that will stay with us for the duration of the second day on the rally. A nice respite from the wet, but as we push north from last night’s stop in the midlands to the day’s terminus just south of Newcastle, the evidence of the old storms is everywhere. The occasional swollen puddles and rivulets striping the roadway add a nice bit of extra difficulty to the otherwise fast and dry asphalt, and as we head further north the terrain becomes increasingly mountainous. We move through the glacial landscape of the peak district and the Yorkshire Dales, and it’s tremendous fun in the comfort of my wagon, navigating the steep and variable gradients of the hedge-lined road bisecting the landscape.
It leaves me wondering what’s to come as we enter Scotland, and as the short winter day succumbs to darkness once again my mind wanders to the challenge of the second half of the rally, legs four and five. Despite having covered three legs of the rally across the first two days, the the biggest challenge is yet to come with the night stages. A near non-stop, 26-hour stampede toward Scotland, half of which will be done under the cloak of true darkness. Before then, though, a few more snatched hours of rest. The crews will run over their navigation for the following day one last time and then go take a nap while the mechanics go to work to ensure that the mechanical casualties of the recent past are patched up for the near future, enough to make it to the finish. It’s a dream already dashed for some, but one that the majority still have at the very forefront of their minds.