Lydden Hill Race Circuit, formerly known as Lydden Circuit, is approximately 6 miles north of Dover on the A2 Canterbury Road. Situated in a natural amphitheatre in an Area of Natural Outstanding Beauty the only access is from the A2. At one mile (1.6093 kilometres), it is the UK’s shortest road racing circuit but is challenging due to its many undulation changes. These days the events are mainly rallycross, drift, saloon, sports car and motor cycle racing.
The track’s history goes back to 1955 when Bill Chesson (1923-1999), from Sittingbourne, bought land on Lydden Hill, formed Autosport Ltd – the name he later sold to Autosport magazine – and opened grass-track racing for motorcycles and a stock car racing circuit.
At that time, stock car racing was popular but dangerous. On 13 October 1955 a stock car hit Jim Edwards, who was acting as official starter. Five years later, on the afternoon of 25 September 1960, a stock car, driven by Frederick Funnel of Cranbrooke, ran into a section of the crowd causing the death of Robin Goldsmith of Maidstone and injuring several others. These included Robin’s mother Lottie Goldsmith, his son David – who lost a leg – and his cousin Brian Willis. Frederick Funnel suffered head injuries.
High Court action ensued and centred on why Chesson had refrained from laying a tarmac circuit. He argued that it was not financially feasible as only temporary (10 years) planning permission had been given. During this time grass track motorcycle racing was a growing sport and in 1958 Chesson organised the country’s first international meeting at Lydden. This subsequently became an annual event attracting some of the top names in speedway and grass track racing.
About 1962 Chesson did lay a short tarmac track and by 1965 the Lydden tarmac circuit had been laid. Both motorcycle and racing up to Formula 3 level took place there and among the future stars competing was motorcycle champion Barry Sheene (1950-2003). In the meantime Bill Chesson paid a visit to the US where he saw the new sport of rallycross in which either production or specially built highly sophisticated rally cars take part in a form of sprint style racing. To rouse interest, Chesson badgered the then two UK television companies, BBC and ITV.
Robert Reed, a producer with Independent Television – ABC’s World of Sport programme was already interested in rallycross so took no persuading. He knew Bud Smith of 750 Motor Club, Tunbridge Wells, who was keen to organise an event and Lydden was ideal. The first race to take place at Lydden was on Saturday 4 February 1967 and was won by Vic Elford (b1935) in a Porsche. Soon the general public were hooked. In November that year, the first International Rallycross event was to be televised from the Circuit, which was expected to ensure success of both the sport and the circuit.
Unfortunately, there was an outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease, which meant that the Lydden Circuit was out-of-bounds. As Ministry of Defence land was not covered by restrictions, the event was moved to Camberley, Surrey and the International event, as Chesson predicted, raised worldwide interest. Two years of further lobbying and BBC’s Grandstand televised a rallycross event – from Lydden!
Chesson maintained his interest in motorcycle racing and in 1967 organised the country’s first of the annual International Grass Track motorcycle events at Lydden. In 1984, the European Championships were held there. Following its success plans were made for similar events in future, but due to problems with planning permission, potential investors were put off. Nonetheless, big names in speedway, such as Barry Briggs MBE (born 1934), Peter Collins MBE (born 1954), Don Godden (1936 – 2011), Ivan Mauger, OBE, (born 1939) and Ole Olsen (born 1946) all raced at Lydden.
Rallycross had, by 1968, a large following and in August that year Chesson struck a deal with BBC giving them almost exclusive rights. Within weeks, on 9 September, an unknown English driver James Hunt (1947-1993) won his first race at Lydden. Less than two years later Hunt returned and notched up his second win to that date. However, on 3 September 1972, a leading campaigner in the wearing of compulsory seat belts, John Gott age 58 and the Chief Constable of Northamptonshire, died after his sports car crashed during a race. Wilfrid Mowll, the Canterbury coroner recorded a verdict of Accidental death.
From when Chesson first opened the track back in 1955 residents living near by had complained about the noise from loud speakers, vehicles and crowds as well as traffic chaos on the local road network. The Track came under two separate but adjacent authorities, the Circuit was in the Canterbury area and for that the council there gave planning permission. Much of the remainder of the area and access was in the Dover District Council (DDC) area and they refused to give permanent planning permission.
In June 1986, the application for permanent racing went to Appeal and permission was granted. This was celebrated by a ‘21st celebration of opening’ even though the Track was much older! Albeit, the permission did have restrictions, including limiting the operation of the circuit to 52 days per year and forbidding racing taking place on consecutive days in excess of 12 occasions in any calendar year. The period ran from 1 April until the 31 March of the succeeding year.
The Motor Sports Association (MSA) also demanded that Armco barriers (the generic name for the corrugated steel crash barriers) to be erected to minimise vehicle damage on impact. Although Chesson recognised that this would be an asset for motor sports he argued that the barriers could be fatal for motorcyclists and refused to comply. The MSA threatened to refuse a new circuit permit so Chesson put the Track up for sale.
Rival rallycross competitor, Tom Bissett, bought the Track in 1989 for over £1million. He, along with Ron Dennis of McClaren, formed Lydden Circuit Ltd and they complied with the MSA demands. In 1991, outline planning permission was given to turn the Circuit into a test track to Formula 1 standard. This included telemetry to measure the entry and exit speeds at each corner, as well as a factory to house the production line for the new McClaren road car. However, an acrimonious dispute arose that ended with a court ordering Ron Dennis to buy out Tom Bissett for £4½million. McClaren International became the sole owner but in 1993, the McClaren Group decided not to proceed with their plans for Lydden and instead concentrated on their new Headquarters at Woking.
The following year the McClaren Group did apply and receive consent to extend the time limits of their planning application but were asked to give details of when they proposed to start. In the meantime, Terry Mount of the British Motor Cycle Racing Club (BMCRC) persuaded the company to reintroduce competitive racing at the Circuit and it was reported that BMCRC paid more than £50,000 for the privilege. South East Motor Sports Enthusiasts Club (SEMSEC) was given leave to promote events. These included specialist annuals such as the ‘Lord of Lydden’ and ‘Sidecar Burnup’ races and club motorcycle race meetings. The last European Rallycross event at Lydden Hill Race Circuit was in 1996 this included the European championship won by Kenneth Hansen (b 1987).
On 6 June 1999, Bill Chesson died aged 76 and that year saw McClaren applying for a planning package that included the production of Mercedes Benz sports cars on the site, providing some 50 to 100 jobs. This gained approval in January 2000 but the associated new circuit for motor racing or the testing of Formula One cars and other non-silenced vehicles, as well existing uses, were blocked. Discussions between Dover District Council and McClaren’s took place with the result that, in 2004, it was decided the Circuit would stay as it was providing both car and motorbike racing run under the auspices of SEMSEC.
The following year the management of SEMSEC was taken over by Tunbridge Wells Motor Club with the assistance of Borough 19 Motor Club and Rochester Motor Club. In 2007, a record crowd of 8,000 turned out for the 40th anniversary of rallycross but in November the lease on the site expired and it looked as if the racing circuit would cease. However, in January 2008, the five-times British rallycross champion Pat Doran, His son Liam and daughter Amy signed a five-year lease from track owners McClaren International. Amy Doran age 23 took over the day-to-day running of Lydden Hill Race Circuit Ltd.
A full programme of fixtures and track days were initiated and in 2009, the Motor Sports Association (MSA) signed the contract for both the British Rallycross Championship and the Grand Prix to be held at the Lydden from 2010 to 2012. The Circuit was also the host of the Federation Internationale de L’Automobile (FIA) European Rallycross Championship. Kenneth Hansen who won the event the last time it was held at Lydden in 1996 won this! The following year Hansen was beaten by Sverre Isachsen (b 1970) while Liam Doran (b 1987), the son of Pat Doran, was in Division 1 ‘A’ final.
Easter 2011 saw 13,500 people attending the opening round of that year’s European Rallycross Championship and victory went to Norwegian Sverre Isachsen. Tanner Foust (b 1973) and co-host of the American equivalent to the British motoring series Top Gear, won the start of the 2012 season. There was no doubt about it, the Circuit was going from strength to strength. However, in 2013, planning application was submitted to start the racing at 10.30hours on some Sundays and this included using the public address (PA) system.
Previously the circuit was restricted to opening at 12.00midday and to close at 18.00hrs. Forty-two locals, living in Lydden, objected, pointing out that not only would the earlier opening destroy the peace and quiet of a Sunday morning but that the noise would start much earlier than 10.30hrs with the arrival of cars and helicopters as well as music through the PA system. Dover District Council gave permission, saying that the Planning ‘committee could not find any planning reason to reject the application.‘
Over the Easter bank holiday 2013 saw the start of the rallycross championship and again Tanner Foust was victorious. Besides rally cross, the Lydden Hill Race Circuit also runs two rounds of the British Drift Championship, Bike and Car Track Days, and other major shows such at the APEX Festival, Truck and BHP Shows.
In 2014, a further planning application was approved for a major redevelopment of the Circuit that includes a new control tower to house timekeepers and officials and a VIP hospitality lounge. There are also plans for a new VIP centre with grandstands and workshops but this dragged although but the attendances to the events have grown year on Year. However, in January 2017, the organisers of the FIA World Rallycross Championship announced that from 2018 the event would be held at Silverstone, Northamptonshire. The owners of the Lydden Track are planning to create a new event with festival elements to take its place.
- First Published:
- Dover Mercury: 08 May 2008