The Pyrénées October 11th - 17th
The Tour began near the incredible old city of Carcasonne, at the Château de Floure which was a most civilised meeting place and a 'Relais de Silence' but we soon put paid to that. Numerous drinks on the terrace as everyone arrived and dinner was one of those pretentious performances with far more emphasis on presentation than content but all in beautiful surroundings. The swimming pool felt quite warm and I would certainly have considered a swim but they thought winter had come and the pool was covered up.
The real business started on Tuesday morning when Trisha Pilkington gave us route maps and we set off for Llo, near Mont Louis, in the real Pyrénées. We stopped at Minerve and walked along a dry river bed at the bottom of a gorge to a cave where the river emerged from the mountain. Richard Pilkington then said he could see daylight at the back of the cave and we walked about 200 yards emerging into a spectacular 'room' about 60 feet high opening into the gorge beyond. I thought this was pretty impressive but most of the others missed it. The weather wasn't too bad and everyone was kept warm by the Partridge fleeces they had been given, however I was glad we were not in the HWM as we drove through mist and drizzle, through spectacular gorges and mountains. I fell asleep so Alannah thrashed the E type round the hairpins. We took over the whole of the Hotel L'Atalaya where the noise of everyone wittering away drowned out most things except Humphrey Avon who seemed bent on getting us all drunk. A very good inner and the next morning Madame took us up the hill which was moderately hard work and steep in places but well worth going. Humphrey, Stephen Curtis and I swam in a naturally warm sulphur pool but I don't think there was much sulphur in it. We had to borrow bathing trunks which I found unappealing and which was the excuse the others used for not coming in! We then looked at an interesting early Roman church in the village where the graves had intricate wreaths made from beads. After a posh lunch of fois gras, duck fat and salad etc. which I passed on to Humphrey, we set off on more good roads to Arties on the Spanish side. The Parador Hotels are a chain right across Spain and are really very smart but less intimate than the night before. A good swimming pool half inside and half outdoor which was a novelty.
With no organised lunch on Thursday, I built myself a decent sandwich at breakfast in the naïve belief that everyone would picnic on a wild mountainside watching circling eagles, but they couldn't resist some café where they got stuck into the full business. Alannah and I ordered what we thought would be minestrone soup and got a pile of strange vegetables which were very good. We stopped at the Monasterio de Leyre which was impressive but slightly less interesting than the many birds of prey wheeling above and then we drove on to the Parador Hotel in Sos del Rey Catolico - a medieval town well worth a wander round.
The Spanish roads were generally well surfaced and ideal for old cars - apparently recently re-done with endless EC cash - and better than the equivalent French roads. Most people got pretty inspired at various stages with the hooligan element having plenty of scope. I have no idea what the speed limit is in Spain but I suspect it is rather less than 90 mph.
However no fuzz was seen at all, no one broke down and the roads in Spain were generally empty. Geoff Stamper was keeping up well in his hired Twingo (his TR3A having blown a head gasket, amongst other things before even starting the event) but no managing to stay with the Boswell (Frazer Nash), Rossi (Jaguar C type) and Avon (C) brigade who generally egged each other on and looked pretty impressive tearing up a mountain side. I prefer to get inspired along. The E type was very effortless and a lot less nerve wracking downhill than the HWM but the steering is heavy on tight bends.
On Friday we set off sharpish for a birthday lunch 156 convoluted miles away at St. Etienne de Baigorry on the French side. This turned into a predictably decadent affair with us lounging about under trees by a river in a charming setting commiserating with Anne - who came with François d'Huart, and who was coming to terms with being 50. François turned up in a splendid Talbot Lago 4.5 litre FHC which ran at Le Mans 5 times from 1948 and from the front looked not unlike an XK120 FHC on steroids. Later we drove on to Ascain and visited Jacques Rouffet's water mill which has a horizontal wheel, something I had never seen before. It wasn't working but I am sure he will get it going before long.
Saturday didn't involve serious driving and we went up La Rhune, the rack railway to the top of a fairly serious hill from which the views are truly panoramic across France and Spain with the border being represented by a yellow line painted on the concrete outside the inevitable hilltop café. Some elected to walk down which takes two hours and seemed daft to me without proper boots etc. so we descended on the railway and had a decent lunch at the bottom. The walkers arrived looking pretty sweaty and complaining of being stiff in all the wrong places just as we finished our coffee and set off to look at Hondarribia back in Spain - a most interesting town well worth a quick gawp.
Saturday night's thrash for Paule Rouffet's 50th was what the whole trip was about so at about 1830 Rossi persuaded me to wash the endless sticky finger marks off the E type and just as I had squirted it all over, said that we were now due to leave at 1845 and wee due at 1900 not 2000. Mild panic ensued but we arrived in time to leave with the others, but once we had parked all the TOPS cars in a neat line, some Portuguese guy told me to move mine to a special row for Jaguars. I was seriously tempted to suggest that he got stuffed, particularly when the next Jaguar was an XJS! The party took some time to get going but there was a decent selection of booze - I was terrified that it would be only winkle piss champagne - and so we stood about for at least two hours chatting up French people in monosyllabic grunts. I cornered a rather smart Dutch bird who spoke fluent American. Her husband - clearly rich - looked grey and exhausted, I hope for good reasons. Eventually we staggered into dinner and things got going - at least on our table. Having driven all the way from Carlisle for a party, I reckoned we had better get stuck in. I haven't danced so much for ages and I really enjoyed it as I think did most of us but the French mainly sat at their tables looking po faced - a French funeral must be awful. I was unjustly accused of being 'rat assed' by both Alannah and Nick. I confess that I don't generally have six large whiskies before dinner but these were exceptional circumstances. Enquiries after my health the following morning lacked sincerity and they were clearly disappointed that I was no worse than anyone else. Attempts to set Rossi up with a particularly athletic looking waitress sadly failed.
We set off home on Sunday morning with a view to staying in a hotel at La Rochelle on the way recommended by a man in a Ferrari which made me nervous but he assured me it wouldn't be too expensive as he also had a Jaguar. It poured down and I felt very sorry for those in open cars but again glad that we were not in HWM1. They seemed to survive. We took Trisha, to thank her for all the planning, to a very smart fish restaurant which had so many things hanging from the ceiling that it was like dining in a museum. Having dinner in a place like that with Humphrey Avon is an experience. He is just like Falstaff and does everything with such a flourish that his feeling of well being is contagious. After a brandy we drifted back to our hotel looking right over the bay and went to sleep to the sound of waves lapping below our window.
Drove up the coast and met in the bar, of course, of the overnight boat. We were woken at 0500 UK time and were on our way by 0630.
A very good trip. Some great roads and a happy bunch of people. We did 2,750 miles without any significant problem and averaged a fraction under 23 mpg which wasn't bad considering the amount of first gear hairpins we squealed round.
Those present were: Humphrey & Margrit Avon - AC, Alex & Jane Boswell, Stephen Curtis, Martin & Sue Morris and Richard & Trisha Pilkington all in Frazer Nashes, Nick Rossi - C type, Geoff & Doreen Stamper - TR3A/Renault Twingo and Chris and Sandy Wilson - Lancia Stratos, plus François d'Huart and Anne for part of the rally in his Talbot Lago.
Verdict - let's go back to Northern Spain as a great driving place before something spoils it.
Trisha adds: Our Frazer Nash broke down half way down France, en route for Carcassone and the start of the rally. The problem was a broken suspension arm, linking torsion bar to axle. There was no way of effecting temporary repair, so the correct part was essential. On the Sebring this is a Bristol bit, grafted onto an Austin axle. Luckily Martin Morris had not left home and stripped an old axle for a spare part - delivered "next day". A great relief - the thought of delivering all the route maps etc. to everyone in a Twingo and then doing our rally in it was alarming to put it mildly - thanks Martin!