Wednesday, February 17, 2010

LADS AT DRAGONS

by Bill Snelling:
In late 1961, the English motorcycle press debated whether an 'Elephant Rally' could be held in the UK. The Conwy Motorcycle Club of Wales picked up the gauntlet, and the Dragon Rally was born. As a boy, I thought this would be a very good idea and badgered Dad about it, just like I had done in 1960 to get him to come to the TT. Mum didn't fancy the idea of camping in mid-winter, so told us to crack on alone.

That first Dragon Rally was held in February 1962, at Bryn Bras Castle near Llanberis. The MotorCycle's Road Editor, John Ebbrell, promoted the idea. Our family transport at the time was a '55 Series 'D' Vincent, hitched to a Watsonian Avon chair. The Vin was not regarded as anything special, just a suitable vehicle to transport the family on holidays. We also had a trailer and this was packed with tent, primus stove, etc. and off we tootled to Wales. Even though the first stretch of the M1 had been opened in 1959, we chose smaller roads. The Birmingham MCC had offered coffee and soup for those making their way to the rally, setting up just off a big roundabout; a very welcome stop on a cold February morning! Dad suffered with 'white finger' syndrome on his right hand; his solution was to put the hand inside his jacket like Napoleon and ride left-handed on the throttle - try it some time, it's harder than you think!

The further west we went, the more bikes we saw on the roads. It was our first venture into Wales, I can always remember the sheer scale of the rocks going through the Llanberis Pass. As we got nearer to the rally site we stopped at a small country shop to stock up on eggs, bacon, milk. The owner was bemused but mightily pleased by the amount of trade he got that morning - no one had told him of the rally.


Arriving at Bryn Bras the field was already heaving with people. We found a suitable pitch and we (meaning Dad) had the tent up in no time, the family having taken camping holidays for many years. Our tent neighbors were a family who had arrived on a big old Brough outfit which disgorged a skutch of youngsters... only later did we realise it was V.M.C.C. founder 'Titch' Allen and family. For warmth, Dad had found me an old flying coat, the type that buttoned up to make quasi-trousers; quite warm, but comical to walk in. We found the organiser's tent, signed in and got our badge, then went bike spotting as the site rapidly filled. Some of the attendees were obviously camping newbies; Dad was soon assisting to get tents fixed up, but a few oddballs had brought the tent, but no poles! I did not realise until reading later news reports that accommodation was available inside the castle itself; I thought we all just roughed it. At 7 pm a call rang out to assemble for the Headlight Parade. What a tremendous sight to see so many bikes riding through the countryside, the headlamps like a necklace of pearls winding through the hills. I am sure this was where my enthusiasm for our favourite hobby was kick-started. We returned to find camp fires had been lit round the site, where tea was drunk and tales were told and retold. I remember it was a cold night, but we had been taught to strip off before plunging into the sleeping bag, piling the clothes on top. In those days camping was a fairly sedate affair, no beer tents or Miss wet-T-shirt contests! There were some very grey specimens of humanity the next day who had not slept a wink, but Dad and I were alright! With a suitably hearty breakfast inside us, we broke camp and retraced our steps back home to Mitcham in Surrey. I found this article written by 'Founder Allen' on a Dragon Rally website - I know how he felt

"You went to the Dragon Rally? And now you feel a strange restlessness. So do I, and I know the symptoms. What you have is a dose of wanderlust; you have been bitten by the tingle of adventure, by the yearning to get away and explore the land you live in. The Dragon trek was something unique in motor cycling history. The bonfire which blazed in the foothills of Snowdon that wintry night kindled in thousands of minds new enthusiasm for the open air. Can the Dragon spirit spread throughout the land? Can it be used to bring adventure to a generation threatened by the sleeping sickness of spectating - of watching instead of doing? What we want is more Dragon Rallies in more places . . and with a heavy accent on self reliance. Bryn Bras proved that to try to feed and house several hundred motor cyclists is a major undertaking. Even granted the necessary facilities and organization, the product is something between an Army depot and a holiday camp. To demand a roof and fodder for a couple thousand souls restricts the choice of sites, puts a heavy burden on organization. But are these necessary? Dragons ought to be tough. Tent, sleeping bag and cooking stove must be their battle order."

We attended the second Dragon Rally which was held in Grwych Castle. A small group of fellow Isle of Man residents were keen to repeat the winter ride to the 50th anniversary Dragon. The location is kept secret, you arrive at a holding control and are then told of the location of the campsite. Bryn Bras Castle has changed somewhat in the past 48 years, it now offers stately accommodation with suites ranging from £450 to £850 per week! A bit different from a muddy field full of unwashed motorcyclists.

3 comments:

RudgeRudge said...

Wonderful stuff, Oh for the "good old days," uncrowded roads and the simple pleasures of life. Damn the celebrity culture.

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece, really bringing a flavour of the time, and from the excerpt;
"...a (new)generation threatened by the sleeping sickness of spectating - of watching instead of doing?"

how true.

T, K & R said...

Wasn't it great? My story is similar to this - Mum and Dad went to the first and second Dragons (1963 went down in history as a toughie), and to the Elephant. Then in 1964 Mum was pregnant with my brother so I was taken along to, I think, Gwrych Csatle for my first Dragon at the age of 11. We had a Constellation with a chair that Dad had built - it ran a rod on the way home so we were towed back to Birmingham. The following year was my first Elephant. Dad had bought a Black Shadow and we were to go for the next four or five years - my growing-up took place in a freezing sidecar.

Eventually I was riding my own outfit to the Dragon with others from the Birmingham Sidecar Club. I just loved the whole feeling - it was special, exciting, I was only conscious of the adventure, it almost made me cry when I thought of the singing, the smiling, and the best part was that none of my mates at school or later at college and work, understood!