At England’s Shelsley Walsh, it’s all about the thrill of the hill
Every day is an uphill battle at Shelsley Walsh. That’s what makes it so much fun.
Considered the oldest continuously used hill climb course in the world, Shelsley Walsh has been at it since 1905. The name is hallowed among competitive hill-climb racers, from those who live within driving distance of this small village in Worcestershire, about 140 miles northwest of London, to top professionals from around the globe.
One of those racers is Simon Durling, who has a more intimate relationship with Shelsley than most. That’s because the legendary race course is also his driveway. Durling and his wife, Charlotte, live at the top of the hill, and it’s the only way to get to and from their house.
“This is a lovely place to live,” Durling says. “It has its drawbacks, but there are sheep and cows all around, and we get to enjoy them even though we aren’t responsible for them. It can be difficult to get around on event days, but Shelsley is a special place… a magical place. I love showing it off.”
Durling raced here long before he called Shelsley Walsh home, so it probably goes without saying (but we’ll say it anyway) that Durling’s daily drives up the hill have a very different feel than those in the other direction.
“It’s difficult to say how many times I’ve raced up the hill,” says the classy gentleman racer, who began competing at Shelsley in 1988 and lived in Kent before buying his home here 13 years ago. “I imagine a lot.”
More than a thousand?
“Most definitely,” Durling says.
Clearly, it never gets old for Durling or his fellow racers. On this day, our travel group, hosted by Subaru of America, will get an opportunity to experience Shelsley Walsh for ourselves. Among the highlights is riding shotgun as Durling charges up his driveway.
Before we’re allowed to get behind the wheel of a turbocharged 2019 Subaru WRX STI and challenge the 1000-foot course ourselves, however, we’re asked to spend some time in the classroom—first to learn a bit about the venue’s history, then to receive some driving tips and strategy.
Four years after the Midland Automobile Club (MAC) was formed in 1901 and began holding hill climbs for club members, the first official event at Shelsley Walsh took place on August 12, 1905. In the early years, these hill climbs were run “on Formula.” Winners were determined by factoring car weight, engine capacity, and time to the top. Cars first drove to a neighboring town to be weighed on a special scale bridge, passengers included.
Ernest Instone was the first Shelsley winner after he roared up the stone incline in his 35-horsepower, 8462-cc Daimler and completed the course in 77.6 seconds.
A fastest time-only class was established in 1913, but it took another 17 years before the “on Formula” discipline was tossed. The track’s surface was changed from rolled stone to normal tarmac in the early 1930s, and in 1939 Raymond Mays drove a 2.0-liter English Racing Automobile (ERA) to the fastest pre-war time of 37.37 seconds. Mays is a bit of a legend at Shelsley Walsh; he notched 20 victories here.
At first glance, the course seems both short and not particularly challenging—that is, while we’re simply walking the track, which has an average grade of about 11 percent and tops out at about 16 percent. Things change quickly, however, when you’re behind the wheel of an agile, 310-horsepower driving machine like a WRX STI. Overconfidence can be costly. The course is narrow and lined with stone walls, wooden barriers, hedges, and trees, as well as a steep drop off on the left side, and simple mistakes at speed can be disastrous. Get it wrong and not only does your time suffer, your body may also. Thankfully, emergency crews are on site and spotters are positioned at every bend.
If you position your ride to the extreme right at the start line, the course begins with a fairly straight, confidence-boosting sprint through “Kennel Bend” and the “Crossing.” But a slight left is followed by the make-it-or-break-it “Bottom S” and “Top S” curves, which can be humbling if you take the wrong line, shift too soon or too late, or time your exit poorly. Do everything correctly—or at least satisfactorily—and there’s nothing like the thrill of that pedal-to-the-metal dash to the finish line. Of course, you also have to immediately brake or you’ll end up in Durling’s yard.
These days, cars and motorcycles of all sorts charge up Shelsley Walsh on a regular basis; even F1 cars get their turn. [Ride along here with Clive Austin, who drove his Empire Wraith to a personal-best 27.53 earlier this year.]
The crowds are huge at the major events, and photos taken decades apart show the same sea of fans lining every foot of the course. The current record holder is Martin Groves, who in 2008 drove an open-wheel race car to an astonishing time of 22.58 seconds. Shelsley instructor Mark Goodyear (yes, that’s his real name) tells us that anything under 40 seconds in a street-legal machine is considered quick.
For the record, after multiple runs, most of the other attending auto journalists broke that barrier, but I just missed. All the more reason to go back and give it another shot, right?