Shelsley Walsh: The most breathtaking 1000 yards in British motorsport

Thursday 09 June 2022

As the oldest motorsport venue in the world still using its original layout, and an undisputed jewel in the crown of hill climbing in the United Kingdom, a trip to Shelsley Walsh is a ‘must’ for any fan of the sport.

Framed against a backdrop of the picturesque Worcestershire countryside, a quick wander around the paddock on arrival feels like a nostalgic trip back through time, whether that be the charming wooden sheds to house competitors, the water mill adjacent to the course or the 200-year-old, idyllic courtyard at the heart of the venue.

It all began back in 1905 when the Midland Automobile Club was forced to relocate from Sun Rising Hill near Stratford upon Avon by the authorities. Back then, Shelsley Walsh served as the perfect marketing tool for car manufacturers looking to seize the ever-growing market, as Toby Moody, renowned motorsport commentator and a key part of the commercial operations at the venue, explains.

“Shelsey Walsh is the oldest motorsport venue that’s in constant use in the world,” Moody says, kicking off our conversation at the recent British Hill Climb Championship event. “We first came here on the 12th of August in 1905, and we’re still here today.

“In August 1905, there was just one run for each car. It was done on a handicap weight basis, so there were sometimes four people in the car, but it was a way of the British motor manufacturers proving that these strange contraptions could not just transport people but actually get them up a very steep hill.

“And it is a steep hill. It’s so steep that actually the very first car that went up the hill didn’t make it. It just conked out. The prize money in those days was, was knocking on £300 then, which I think we worked out the other day is £10,000 today. So, it’s great. But once you get two human beings in competition, then you’ve got a race.”

And it was that shift to competitive action that brought the outright record for the hill down by some 40 seconds in a little over three decades. The 1000-yard course starts with a jink to the left at Kennel bend before cars blast uphill, over the Crossing and carry speed through the technical Esses before heading flat-out to the line.

It’s an impressive bit of tarmac, and quite the spectacle from the spectator areas up on the hill. An entry list boasting an eclectic variety of machinery, from 4-litre single seaters to iconic sportscar brands such as Porsche, Caterhams, machinery from yesteryear and even a school of Vauxhall Astras for Shelsley’s young driver programme only adds to the thrills. It’s an overcast and drizzly day overhead, but the sights and sounds of the hill stop any spirits from being dampened.

The venue quickly developed into and then sustained a reputation for being a perfect proving ground for a number of the sport’s household names, including the late Sir Stirling Moss, who first competed at Shelsley back in 1948.

“Very quickly, the outright hill record went from 77.6 seconds in 1905 to pre-war in 1939, when it was 37 seconds,” continues Moody. “So, it tumbled very quickly. Raymond Mays came here, Hans Stuck came here, Carracciola came here. Neubauer, Mercedes, works Auto Unions. Raymond Mace cut his teeth here with a white Riley that then turned into ERA, which then, of course, turned into BRM and went on to a bigger world stage.

“Derick Bell used to go to school in Worcester and used to skive off school to come here at the weekends. Andy Priaulx cut his teeth here and went on to become a European and World touring car champion, as you know.”

As a discipline, hill climbing is very simple. Get the car from the bottom to the finish line at the top in the fastest possible time. Drivers have the hill to themselves for the duration of their ‘runs’, removing any risk of collisions or conversations in the stewards’ room.

And, for many, coming away from a meeting with a personal best is as good as winning outright. As two-time champion Wallace Menzies recently put to Motorsport UK during our Q&A, “first and foremost, I’m racing against the hill”.

“There’s something about hill climbing that is very intense,” Moody explains, his life-long enthusiasm for the discipline laced into every word. “It’s you and you only. It’s like a time trial. Nobody can knock you off. There’s no arguing either. Some people are going for a championship, but a lot of people are just trying to do their personal best.”

Although Shelsley Walsh continues to go from strength to strength in the modern day, it hasn’t always been plain sailing. In 2004, the original 99-year lease on the site expired, and it was only through a mammoth effort from enthusiasts and the community that over a million pounds was raised to renew the lease and secure the future of hill climbing at Shelsley for generations to come.

“The lease was £1,000,000,” Toby recalls. “And we had to spend another five, six-hundred thousand pounds on that in the courtyard area, which is not small change for a little motor club. We’re not mega corporate. But we glued things together and it worked. And that, 15 years down the line, has put us in some very good stead with what you see today.

“We spent a lot of money on the wooden barn. We’ve got a simulator in there at the moment. We’ve got kids drawings. We’ve got a young membership that’s growing at the moment, junior membership for under 21s. We’ve got a record membership of the club at the moment – ever, full stop in 2022. And we’re only at the beginning of June.

“We’ve got some partners on board in Motul, Pirelli, Hagerty Insurance and other local businesses and they are just blown away with what we’ve done but we’ve worked hard to get here. And as you’ve spoken to other drivers there’s a bug about getting a record at Shelsley and driving at Shelsley.”

If it’s a “warm, fuzzy” nostalgia hit, as Moody describes it, or simply the thrill of seeing some iconic machinery pushed to the very limits on one of the most challenging courses in the country, a trip to Shelsley Walsh is one for the bucket list.

And, if the prevailing opinion in the paddock last weekend is anything to go by, you’ll just keep coming back for more.