The One (Two) and Only (Two) Preston

Having been a member of West Essex since 1970, I very sadly decided late last year to transfer my allegiance to Chelmsford MC, as they seemed to be very active in many disciplines, and I had been marshalling on some of their events the previous year and had bumped into several old faces such as Geoff Lobb and Gary Nicholls.

And so it came to pass that 2013 has seen Steve Stringer and I marshal on the Brands Hatch Winter Stages (January), the X-Part Endurance Rally (Feb), the Woodbridge Targa Rallies (March and Novemmber) and finally the 'One and Only Preston' (Dec 7/8th), with the odd trip to Belgium to Service for Craig Salter and Preston Ayres thrown in for good measure.

The X-Part Endurance Rally took me right back to my Suffolk Stages days, as we were Timekeepers for Test Sections (must NOT call them 'stages' ! ) at Great Ashfield and a track near Herringswell that I remember arrowing for the Suffolk Stages in pre-historic days.

I had read about 'The Preston' in years gone by and was intrigued to know how they could run a road rally with about 180 miles of route,120 miles of which is unsurfaced ! The ASR's contained the following - "The route itself will continue to be highly challenging, with the accurate timing used in previous years. There will be the occasional horrendously overgrown narrow bits, numerous bumps, yumps and thumps, puddles you can lose a car in and the infamous Preston mud! Notwithstanding the dry summer, unless it is frosty, mud is guaranteed. As the saying goes, it is only the depth that varies." The format, then, is very akin to a multi- venue stage rally, run at night. Competitors get pre-plotted route maps at the start which gives them the route to and between the special sections on private ground where the competition takes place.

Having in the last 20-odd years only been involved with 'proper' stage rallies, I was somewhat taken aback on the X-Part in February to be given two Passage Checks to man at a T junction just after the start of a special section. This was because cars would leave the start, turn left at (our) T, do a circuit around some woodland, coming back to the top of (our) T twice before turning off for the Finish control. So at our Passage Checks the cars would stop for us to initial their timecard, and if two cars were at the junction at the same time it was a case of "after you" or "no, after you ! " The same system must be used on the Preston, as our first Finish control was at the end of a section where the cars went for a glorious thrash twice round a stubble field, with the resulting merges controlled by Passage Checks while the splits looked after themselves. It is always a surprise how many Navigators cannot keep track of numbers above one !

Prior to the event, I really thought that I had assembled the most prestigious and experienced Marshal Crew in the northern hemisphere, with a 2002 BHRC Champion Co- Driver (Preston Ayres), an HRCR Clubmans Champion Navigator (Ray Crowther), a past British Autotest Champion and star of many Top Gears (Steve Stringer) and little ole me all set up for an'all-nighter' ,. I had got plentiful beef casserole, the X-Trail was kitted up with towrope, jump leads, hammers, gas cooker for the midnight feast, beds available for a kip before the assembled throng went home on Sunday - what could possibly go wrong ?

Navigators - that's what could go wrong ! The first to wimp out was Piston, citing some cobblers about bringing forward Christmas by two weeks so that he could see some Swiss relatives. Very bad timing by the Swiss if you ask me . So that put paid to the newer than 1967 maps, and hot soup that he was going to bring.

And then there was Mr Technology himself, Crow. He of the super computer that rivals the Met Office, he of the zillions of different email addresses, The One with the Garmin GPS that can sniff the air and find a geocache simply by tracking the ions remaining from the shower gel of the last person there. The One with modern (as in 21st Century) maps ! Nope, he didn't make it either. But he did send me a text explaining that our plans had, shall we say, gone down the tubes. But I don't switch my phone on at home, as there is no coverage ... Why is it nobody uses the landline anymore ? ?

So it was just The Dynamic Duo who left for The One and Only Preston. The signing-on at Barton Mills took me right back to the dim and distant past, with the shuffling line of competitors in their jeans and sweatshirts. Not a fireproof balaclava in sight. We were given the details of our three Section Finish Controls, the stop watch and some pens and went back to the car to sort out where we were supposed to go. It transpired that to marshal on this event at least, Navigators were not needed as the paperwork was up to the normal high standards of Chelmsford. In other words, idiot proof. We were given an A4 map showing where our controls were to be set up - with not a map reference to be seen ! !

First Control was at Badlingham, just round the back of Red Lodge, which opened at 22.10 and consisted of a thrash round a stubble field. A driver's delight. With a full entry of 62 cars, we finished there at 24.00 and had a brew of strong coffee.

The next Control was another name from the past, both from WECC road and stage rallies - the Fox Pin white near Euston Estate, which opened at 01.24 and we closed at 03.26. There had been a bit of a delay in Dukes Ride due to cars getting stuck, but there were big smiles all round when the crews got to us - Fox Pin is one of those smooth whites that make drivers grow horns. Maybe that's why we only had 45 cars through there !

Our final Control was at Weeting, just over the level crossing at Brandon. What a bizarre track they found there ! ! It was a tunnel , almost a mile long, formed of trees covered in ivy, and was only just wide enough to get the X trail down.. In the darkness, I expected Voldemort or Something Nasty From The Woodshed to make an appearance, attracted by the aroma of our Beef Stew abubbling on the gas ring. At four in the morning it certainly attracted us ! We opened at 04.45, and closed after just 33 cars at 06.32.

The Finish at Elveden Estate Restaurant was by far the most impressively organised I have seen in quite a while. Ooodles of hot coffee, and a Full English breakfast was laid at your table almost before you were sat down. That done, it was a (thankfully short) run back down the A11 to Rose Cottage and crash into bed just as the sun came up.

I haven't done an all-nighter for many years, and this was quite an adventure. It really is the One and Only Preston.

Roll on next year, with the Brands Hatch Stages in January and the X-Part Endurance in Feb. I'm starting to enjoy UK motorsport again !