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Motorcycle racing at Osmaston Manor in the 1950s

PUBLISHED: 00:00 09 October 2018

Grasstrack racing at Osmaston Manor on 12th August 1950

Grasstrack racing at Osmaston Manor on 12th August 1950

michael mee

Gamekeepers and the ‘ton up’ boys learned to live in harmony – and for a time they somehow made it work!

Osmaston Manor Saturday 23rd May 1953.  G Mellor (AJS) from Meltham leads RS Simpson (Aston Auto) of Birmingham - note how narrow the Osmaston Manor track was!Osmaston Manor Saturday 23rd May 1953. G Mellor (AJS) from Meltham leads RS Simpson (Aston Auto) of Birmingham - note how narrow the Osmaston Manor track was!

I would imagine the present day team of gamekeepers that manages the vast estate at Osmaston near Ashbourne would shudder at the thought of dozens of non-silenced racing motorcycles thundering around the roads within the grounds of their highly prized shoot. But that is exactly what happened during a rather bizarre period during the 1950s.

Somehow, the persuasive committee representing the Pathfinders and Derby Motor Club Ltd managed to convince the owner of Osmaston Manor, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Ian Peter Walker, that the introduction of motorcycle racing around his historical estate might be a good idea!

The Pathfinders club had been organising motorcycle sporting events from as early as 1933, these being mostly trials and scrambles meetings held on private farm land. Such was their enthusiasm that their members would be found competing in some form of two wheeled activity in and around Derbyshire on most weekends during this period and right up until the outbreak of the Second World War.

The very first of these meetings took place on 12th February 1933 at Day Park Farm near Coxbench when 12 riders competed on a treacherous cross country course which quickly became a muddy morass after early morning rain. Derby-based Alf Briggs was finally declared the winner as he slithered his Triumph home in a time of just 38 minutes, beating E Simms, Henry Burrows and R Cox. The conditions had become so difficult by the time the chequered finishing flag was unfurled, that these four were to be the only finishers in that first historical race. But the seeds had been sown in that clinging Coxbench mud which would see the Pathfinders club grow in strength and continue to thrive right up until the present day.

Local Derby rider Molly Briggs riding her 200cc DOT machine at Osmaston Manor in 1952Local Derby rider Molly Briggs riding her 200cc DOT machine at Osmaston Manor in 1952

War brought an end to most sporting activities and of course motorcycle racing was no exception. However, Pathfinders founder member Harry Burrows was intent on the club surviving and when hostilities finally ceased, the club was busy preparing for its biggest venture to date. The Easter Monday of 1946 saw them promote their first Mountain Grass Track at Wingfield Park, situated between Ripley and Belper. The outcome was to be beyond all expectation as an estimated crowd of some 30,000 to 40,000 turned out to watch the action as competitors raced around a fast and furious track which meandered its way through the 38-acre site. Such was the excitement and ensuing confusion, the bewildered Derbyshire Constabulary demanded that the club make entry to the car parks free in order to clear the roads from a total grid lock. This was a quite extraordinary situation in an immediate post-war period when few vehicles had been manufactured for public use, petrol was rationed and money was scarce!

The next event at Wingfield Park was scheduled for Whit Monday 1946 and this time the police appeared to be one step ahead, putting in special measures to cope with the anticipated heavy traffic. However, typical Bank Holiday rain all but scuppered the meeting with only a ‘few thousand’ enthusiasts turning out to brave the weather. This was a big disappointment for the club and they reckoned to have made a loss of £100 when they counted in all their costs.

Unfortunately for the Pathfinders, Wingfield was never again going to reach the dizzy heights of that initial meeting and amidst reports of the track becoming bumpy, too rutted and dangerous, the popularity of the venue began to decline. A planning application to build a hard-surfaced track was put forward and in part granted but never managed to get further than the drawing board. The next stop for the Pathfinders was to be Osmaston Manor.

With the full blessing of Lieutenant Colonel Sir Ian Peter Walker, the initial motorcycle events took place at Osmaston in August 1950 in the form of grass track races around the Polo Ground – venue of the present day Ashbourne Show. However, the eager Pathfinders’ members had taken a peep over the fence and spied the road network which linked the estate grounds and felt sure that they could fashion a ‘proper’ road race circuit from these. Further expeditions ‘over the fence’ saw them set out a 0.75 miles triangular-shaped track. Once it was in place a rehearsal meeting was planned for 14th June 1951.

Osmaston Manor Riders Paddock (near the cricket pavilion) on 21st August 1954Osmaston Manor Riders Paddock (near the cricket pavilion) on 21st August 1954

The purpose of this was to ensure that the proposed circuit would be wide enough for a massed start and safe enough for overtaking manoeuvres under racing conditions. The outcome was promising but a ‘no passing zone’ had to be incorporated as the bikes thundered past Osmaston Manor House and into a left-hand corner only wide enough to allow single file traffic!

The fastest men at the rehearsal meeting, which included Milford’s Bill Lomas and Derby’s Alf Briggs, were circulating the track in under 50 seconds, which produced an average speed of some 53 miles per hour. Competitors quickly discovered that rapid acceleration and hard braking was the key to a fast lap around Osmaston, rather than top speed, so opted for straight-through and totally unsilenced exhaust systems on their machines – a trend unlikely to endear them to the local parishioners, and certainly not to the gamekeepers! But from July 1951 to June 1957, the oily leathers of the motorcycle racers and the smart flecked tweeds of the shooting parties had to learn to coexist at Osmaston as the circuit gained in popularity.

Derby-based motorcycle journalist and TV commentator Chris Carter was just a school boy when motorcycles were hurtling around Osmaston Estate but tells his readers of those days in his book, Chris Carter at Large. He recalls being in charge of programme sales in the car park at the Polo Ground and then finding time to watch the racing, where he saw Derby’s John Cooper making his debut and winning on a 200cc James. Chris also mentions the escapades of Molly Briggs (wife of Alf) who raced DOT and Triumph machines and regularly beat her male opponents!

Carter has fond memories too of Peter Ferbrache, a fearless racer who travelled up into Derbyshire from his Enfield home in north-east London. A real character of the time, he raced a trio of Ariel machines and during 1956 held the lap records at Osmaston for 250, 350 and 500cc classes. The Londoner made a big impression on the young Carter, who describes Ferbrache in his book as, ‘A bit oily, a bit greasy and a bit of a spiv!’ Chris also describes how Ferbrache crashed into the trackside trees whilst negotiating the infamous ‘no passing zone’ at full throttle speed!

The Londoner was eventually to further his racing career on the Grand Prix circuits, chasing World Championship points aboard AJS machines. He sadly lost his life whilst competing in the 1960 Dutch TT at Assen.

Despite its popularity with riders and spectators alike, time was called on the Osmaston Manor circuit when a change in farming practice meant that cattle grids were fitted across the roads in two parts of the track. The final meeting was held in June 1957, when once again Alf Briggs was victorious along with fellow Derby-based rider Pete Minion, Long Eaton’s Fred Wallis and Fritchley’s Peter Tomes.

Strolling through the village of Osmaston today, I would imagine that very little has changed here in the ensuing years. A cluster of thatched cottages and half timber-framed houses share space with the elegant St Martin’s Church, the village school, the duck pond and the Shoulder of Mutton pub. Quite difficult to believe that once upon a time, they had their own motorcycle racing circuit too!

Maybe the 1950s was a period when people were more open-minded and tolerant of each other. I would like to think so. The fact that they were tolerant to the extent of having the ear-splitting thunder of racing motorcycles interrupting their weekend peace, I find quite surreal!

Walking my dogs along the pleasant footpaths of the present day Osmaston Estate I regularly hear the distant echo of gun fire – sometimes even the pungent smell of powder and shot. But the crackle of high-powered motorcycle engines and the rich blue fumes of racing fuel have gone forever – cocooned in a distant past.

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