Earlier this year I spent a day on a motorcycle event like none I've tried before.
Organised by Past Tracks MC, the premise was to honour the skills and abilities needed to become a WW2 Armed Forces Despatch Rider, a role no longer required of course.
Based at the fabulous Sammy Miller Motorcycle Museum in the New Forest, the day consisted of four tests.
Riding skills - slow speed stuff round cones at a nearby mo'bike training school.
Off road riding - a couple of miles on forestry tracks and paths on a local country estate.
Navigation - using a map to navigate between 20 or so rural phone boxes.
Shooting. Yup, live round clay pigeon shooting.
When I signed on at 09:00hrs I was given a map and log book.
The map had the locations of the various tests on one side and a large OS on the reverse marked with the approximate locations of the phone boxes scattered about villages in North Dorset and into Wiltshire. The phone boxes were marked in different colours, denoting different scores, with the farthest afield being worth more than those clustered nearer to each other.
It was then that I realised that there was a competitive side to the day. One picked up points for cleaning the riding skills, starting and finishing the off-road section, for the phone boxes visited and for clays that were shot. Points were also earned if you rode a WW2 bike, a classic bike or if the rider dressed appropriately.
All these scores were recorded in the log book which also showed the time you needed to be at the shooting site, a field near the appropriately named village of Tarrant Gunville.
James Page - Mr Past Tracks, who conceived and organised the whole deal - gave us a riders briefing explaining that in each phone box we would find a number and a different colour pen to mark a corresponding number in our log books. As everyone had been allocated different shooting times we had to work out the best routes to take in order to get around all the tests and fit in as many phone boxes as possible before checking back in at the museum before 16:00hrs. Points would be deducted every 10 mins up until 16:30 after which we would be disqualified, MIA.
Motorcycle legend Sammy Miller MBE waved off the 70 odd riders along with Past Tracks girls in WW2 uniforms, which added character and atmosphere.
Participating on my 1942 WL45 Harley - my only road bike - earned me points, being a former military bike and a classic. I was surprised to note that it was one of the oldest participating. My shooting time was 13:00hrs so first I went straight to the riding skills, where there was a bit of a queue, but it gave me a chance to meet other riders and find some interesting machines. All sorts were entered, scooters, step-thrus, modern stuff and old, big and small. The event is open to teams of two and there were a few with pillions plus a couple of sidecars, the nicest being a Triumph twin in a Greeves Trials outfit (above).
I'd never seen one of these lovely sixties Guzzis. Fab silencer!
I got through the slow speed cones, tight figure of eight and stopping on a dime without dropping any points (all fun with a foot clutch) and set off for the off-road section. I've ridden the Harley off-road a few times before (ground clearance is a bit of an issue on a WL) and enjoyed it so much I wanted to go round for a second run but was advised at the control to hunt phone boxes instead.
I set off into Cranbourne Chase and worked out a route that would take in as many as I could before getting to the shooting site at my appointed time. I ran with some others for a while, but as we had all worked out individual routes was soon back riding the lanes on my own. Now, I've lived in Dorset for over 40 years and thought I knew all its treasures, but found myself in places I've not seen before. Ancient, sunken lanes with wild garlic and bluebells covering the steep sides; wonderful tunnels of oaks covering seldom used lanes with grass and moss established in the middle of the road; wonderfully named villages seen on maps but never previously visited; beautiful old houses, cottages and stately homes that I had time to take in and appreciate rather than dashing past in a rush to get somewhere. Many had home owners out in their gardens tending their veg and flower beds. It was a wonderful pastoral scene of hidden rural life and I loved it all.
At one stage I eventually found a remote phone box (Sixpenny Handley) and thought I'd take a short cut along a green lane, an opportunity for more off-road. It didn't go well and I had to turn back, but that was all part of the adventure.
Arriving at Shooting field on time I found a few other riders there. There were two traps set up. One with the clays going across and the other with them going away from you. Five shots at each, after a short briefing and instruction. I was pleased to hit seven out of the ten, but annoyed at missing the other three through rushing them. Huge fun though and a great feature to fit into a day of motorcycling.
Back out chasing phone boxes I realised I would have to drop some if I was going to complete on time, so concentrated on the higher scoring ones. The great thing about making up your own routes was that one regularly encountered other riders going in the opposite direction, filling up at a fuel station, disappearing down a different lane at a cross roads and at the phone boxes. Rarely did I see the same people twice.
Some of the boxes were in plain sight, well kept, painted and housing defibrillators or free libraries, others overgrown, hidden and unloved. One or two even had working phones still intact. A couple had had the pens removed by locals offended by regular motorbike arrivals in their village.
I took some wrong turns late in the afternoon on roads I thought I knew and ended up getting back to the Museum 45 minutes late and therefore disqualified from the competition.
There was food and drink on offer, live music, a look in Sammy Miller's workshop where he was fettling some interesting old stuff, a quality raffle, speeches from Mr Miller and James and the prizegiving. Despite being DQ'd I did derive some satisfaction from being the highest point scorer of the day, acknowledged at the prizegiving and given a consolation prize of a tasteful Despatch Rally tee shirt; perfect for me! My son took ownership when I got home. [John stopped wearing T-shirts 25 years ago]
My old Harley did me proud, 143 miles from HQ and back, 210 for the day in all. My clutch started slipping at Tollard Royal, but dried out and got me home.
The day had been one of pure enjoyment doing something different and unexpected. It didn't need to be a competition, but the point scoring added to the fun. Bravo and thanks to James and his crew, Sammy Miller and the other participants. See you all next year.
Find out more at despatchrally.co.uk
Photos by Howard Brown, Ellen Watson, John H