Abarth Brooklands to Brighton Drive – July 2016

One of the most popular Abarth events in 2015 was the epic London to Brighton drive. It took all day, but we managed to get 19 Abarths, drivers and passengers from a meeting point at the Ace Cafe on the North Circular, to Brooklands, in most cases down some A roads through the Surrey and Sussex countryside, to a (rather late) lunch stop at Monza Tuning, and finally all assembled in Brighton. It was clear that we needed to plan a repeat of the activity for 2016, and apply what we learned from the 2015 event. That bit was easy: Starting at the Ace was all very well, but the traffic getting away from there on a Saturday morning was one of the main reasons why we were quite so late arriving at our lunch stop, so we decided we would start elsewhere; anyone who simply programs destinations, even if they are the next stop, as opposed to just “Brighton” in their sat nav is going to end up on a different route from the rest of us, and likely arrive well before the main group, so we needed to provide more guidance on the route; we also needed to be more explicit about where precisely we were assembling in the Brighton Marina, at journey’s end, as in 2015 we had ended up in several different places. What was not so easy was to find a date that was going to work for everyone, as the summer months get packed with other diary attractions. Noting that Sundays are generally preferable to Saturdays for many people, I eventually spotted that there was a clear date towards the end of July, and hoped that not too many people would declare that they would be on their summer holiday. I need not have worried, as word had clearly got out about just how much fun the 2015 event had been, and far more people signed up for this one (and indeed turned up!). All we needed now was to hope that the weather gods would be kind, and to plan a route. The first of these was out of our hands, but luckily, did not present a problem, with a mix of sun and clouds all day, and the second, well, let’s just say that the “just in time” delivery came into effect and we did have one, but only about 24 hours before setting off. Doing a recce would perhaps have been a good idea, but there was no chance to do that.

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Assembly point was declared to be at the Mercedes-Benz World at Brooklands. We had used this as our first stop in 2015, and the area at the end of the old banking, which is these days used as an overflow car-park had been a popular spot for people to take their first set of photos. That was the plan. Like all plans, though, they are subject to change, as I would find out. I spotted my first Abarth as I pulled into the adjoining Tesco petrol station to fill the tank, which turned out to be the car of Edward Sinfield and his girlfriend Kiara Jade, who had been on the same errand, and they promptly followed me around the corner to Mercedes-Benz World. When we got to the point where you head to the banking, there was a very locked barrier precluding us from doing so. We decided to carry on to the end of the road, and use the gravel parking opposite the entrance to the Brooklands site, and there we found a couple of Abarths had beaten us to it. And no, neither of them was Paul Hatton, who usually manages (by design) to arrive before everyone else. Moments later, Jerry and Carla Rigden arrived in their Biposto, and as you don’t see one of these very often, once some introductions were over, there was plenty to look at as we waited for others to arrive.

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When no more cars did appear where we were parked, I decided to investigate, and sure enough that locked barrier had been unlocked, and everyone who had subsequently arrived was starting to assemble where we had always planned. The four cars that were with me duly moved to join the others, which were in a long line, with the exception of one Legends Blue car, parked among an array of other vehicles. The owner of this one came over, and I wondered if she was perhaps a new member who knew none of us, but it turned out that she was in fact employed at Mercedes-Benz World, and she was intrigued as to why quite so many cars like hers were suddenly on site. She went into the building, to work, whilst we waited for more what promised to be a large group with over 30 cars expected, to turn up. There was quite a mixture, of course, with plenty of Punto models as well as the 500s, and we were also joined by one classic 595.

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You can’t accumulate this number of cars without drawing attention to yourself, and it was not long before the Site Security came over to see what was going on. We assured them that we would be moving soon, and they left, but about 20 minutes later they reappeared and told us that we needed to leave immediately, as the space was needed for customers (the fact that several of us had been into grab a coffee from the cafe in their building was never really going to cut it, so I did not try!).

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With some people still expected, we clearly needed to try to ensure they could find us, but departing was what we were going to have to do. Back to Tesco, who have a large car park, which at this time on a Sunday morning was still pretty empty, seemed like the obvious choice. What we should have done was left one car on the entrance to M-B World (there’s only one way in), to tell people, but enough people have each other’s phone numbers that a combination of that and Facebook Messenger allowed us to ensure no-one failed at the first hurdle.

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The first planned stop was at Ryka’s Cafe, on the A23 just outside Dorking. Everyone had been given details of the planned stops, and the recommended route, which many had programmed into their phones or sat navs, but even so when we got the cars to the roundabout with the A3, I was surprised to see cars doing a complete lap, and heading off on every exit, in all directions. I don’t think many people followed the route we had actually suggested, and the consequence was that the cars got somewhat separated. Certainly I ended up in a convoy of 1, which was OK, or so I thought  My route brought me out on to the A23, so all I had to do was to find the Cafe. Not sure quite what I was looking for, I drove past it, and had to loop back, which, as the A23 is a dual carriageway, means quite a few extra miles. I got to the correct roundabout, and turned right, suspecting that the rendez-vous’ entrance was not on the main road, and actually turned into the correct car park, which was jammed full of bikers, saw no Abarths, and concluded that I was in the wrong place, so left, and headed further up the road. At this point, I met Oliver Sormaz, equally lost. The problem with this now rather rural location is that mobile phone signal was next to non-existent, so trying to contact the rest of the group to find out where they were was not easy. Eventually, we found out – having gone back to the main road, and done a bit more on the A23 that the place I first went to was indeed correct, but that had I gone further into the car park, there was a turning through a height-restrictor and into a field, and the Abarths were all parked in there. So, reunited with the group, it was time to take some more photos.

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A quick count suggested that Oliver and I were not the only ones to have struggled to find this one, as I noted that there was no Biposto here, and a couple of other cars were missing. Noting the passage of time, we decided to set off, for what turned out to be a very interesting next section of the drive. This was down a series of country lanes which would take us “the back way” to Ashington. There would be no lunch at Monza Tuning this year, as they would be closed, it being a Sunday, but there was a pub, The Red Lion,  just up the road, and that was the next assembly point. The lanes were quite a challenge as they were barely wide enough for an Abarth, and we kept coming across cyclists, masses of them practising for a London to Brighton cycle race scheduled for the following weekend (note, ensure you avoid that sort of thing when planning an event like this!),and whenever we met a car, someone generally had to pause or even back up. Progress was slow, and the journey of less than 20 miles, which would have taken less than that straight down the A23, took nearer an hour. Cars did stay in groups here, and I have to say that as a sole driver with no navigator on board, I would have struggled with this route had I not been following anyone. Eventually, we came into Ashington, and there was the pub, and a load of Abarths. The hungriest of the group decided to order food, and this would have been a good idea, as it would be some time before dinner would be available. A couple of people who had been missing from Ryka’s cafe were here, so it was good to learn that we had not lost them, but it emerged that Carla and Jerry had given up, sadly, and gone back home.

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Leaving The Red Lion, the route would take us on some faster roads towards Haywards Heath, down to Burgess Hill and then to our third stop, Ditchling Beacon. It was much easier to keep cars in groups on this part of the route, but even so there were challenges and surprises. A whole load of cars turned off down a minor road that was not part of the route, and I recall reaching a junction where at least 50% of the cars went one way and 50% a different one. I struck lucky, as I was following brothers Hugo and Felix, who live in the area, and know it well, so following them ensured I got to the destination easily. Ditchling Beacon is, as you might expect, on the top of a hill, and has only quite a small car park. Certainly not big enough for 30 Abarths, and that is assuming there is no-one else there. But there was. Because there is a Bus which goes there from Brighton, the car park has to be kept clear enough for it to get in, and turn round, so there is a warden to ensure that once the car park is full, it is a case of one car out and then one in. That meant we caused a bit of a traffic jam on the approach road. Some decided not to bother and simply to head on to Brighton. but it only took a few minutes, and I was in, and parked up. And it was definitely worth waiting, as the views from here over the Sussex countryside were very impressive.

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From here. it was an easy journey to the Brighton Marina, and the Asda car park, which we had declared to be the finishing point. We had also suggested that everyone aim for the far corner, as last year we had two different groups in the car park who failed to spot each other. It was by now around 4:45pm, so the journey of 60 miles (as the crow flies) had taken us around 6 hours including stops. But lots of fun had been had on the way, and that was the whole point of this day out. It was not quite over for those who wanted to stay on and grab a bite to eat. Although it was across to the other side of town, we decided to go back to La Choza, as this had been a favourite haunt for Bertie Bryant when he was a student in the town. Even with a relatively small group of us, we had to wait til a quite specific time for a table booking, as when we turned up early, the place was packed and could not accommodate us. It was worth it, though, as the food was as good as I remembered from the year before. A great end to a fun day. I have no doubt that there will be a repeat in 2017.

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