The Transport Research Laboratory's Test Track is now a Woodland Walk

The Transport Research Laboratory, apparently nestled between Beijing and Muzzy's landmark Kebab Van
Having had to find and rotate between different routes around the same streets on my 'Government-approved outside hour' walks for the past two months (or is it three months? Or has it been 84 years?), finding a new walking location is quite pleasing, especially if it acts as an excuse to get the car out for a bit in order to travel there. A few days ago, though, I found out about one I wouldn't have expected: the site of the old TRL test track in Crowthorne.

A British Pathé report showing the vast central area of the facility (1963)

The Transport Research Laboratory as an entity has existed in various guises since 1933, when it was established (then as the 'Road Research Lab') by the Ministry of Transport in response to the rise of the horseless carriage. Since then it has been used for testing new ideas around infrastructure (road signs, lights, junctions), vehicle safety and capability, crash barriers, road surfaces and all manner of other things in the ongoing mission to understand and influence (through legislation) the automobile's impact on society and the environment. They've even made films about their research, like this one:


Having been at work since the 1930s, it was inevitably also involved in warfare research during WWII, apparently playing a part in the creation of such things as the 'Disney Bomb' (a rocket-propelled explosive named in reference to an animated propaganda film funded by ol' Walt, which depicted one), the dam-busting 'bouncing bomb', plastic armor, and new techniques for building runways. Post-war, it even became the home of one of the now decommissioned Broadmoor sirens (1952-2016).

Another British Pathé clip, on a 'hands free' DS and a crash test (unrelated), from 1963

The research lab initiative was originally based in Harmondsworth, but in 1967 it was relocated to the facility in Crowthorne (their archived 1973 report goes into more detail), where it could better test vehicles and road layouts in a controlled environment. The mini-roundabout, the zebra crossing, speed bumps, a cyclist-friendly roundabout layout, and even the Green Cross Code were all developed through the TRL.

A road noise testing truck takes the banked corner

Personally, I first became aware of this site as a child. When I was being driven to band practice, I'd look out the car window and see, through gaps in the trees, a barrier for an unknown road running parallel to Nine Mile Ride. It sweeps up into a banked corner that arcs away and into the mysterious woods. As a young car addict it was a highly evocative sight, making you imagine what must go on there. I'm pretty sure I once saw a Caterham on the banking, which was exciting!

Over time, the test track also got used as a filming location, as well as a site for private companies and car shows – although the latter activity was halted due to local complaints about hooliganism. One thread on Pistonheads suggests that BTCC teams even used to use it for shakedown tests. By around 2013 though, the track had stopped being used as the TRL's activities there were scaled back, and it steadily fell into disrepair. Such a huge facility is expensive to maintain, and eventually the whole test track got sold off for redevelopment. The research lab's head office is still located in the middle of it, though, aptly accessible via a roundabout.

Aerial photo of the south-west corner of the track, before it was reworked. Those buildings and the dark-brown patch of land are now all covered in new houses
There's an interesting website here that shows photos of what the disused facility looked like in 2016, just before redevelopment, including shots of what looks like a crash test building with a cable track down the middle of it.

Buckler's Forest


When I found out the site had been repurposed and was freely accessible to the public, I had to go and have a nosey around it. Originally the land owners' plan was to turn the place into a 'mini town', but public resistance and calls to protect the woodland area around it changed those plans a bit. Instead, the track was simply dug up and, as the museum-esque info boards around the site call it, "de-engineered." The place is now known as Buckler's Forest, referencing the Buckler sports car company that existed in Crowthorne in the 1950s (which was news to me).

An introductory info board. There are three recommended walking routes, with very pessimistic time estimates.
It is now possible to trace roughly half the route of the old figure-of-8 test track via gravel paths, with only a north-western section of the site seemingly reserved for housing estates (which are currently half-finished and, pleasingly, use motorsport-themed street names). You have to drive past those houses to reach the car park at the south-west corner.


Walking the route anticlockwise takes you around the smaller part of the figure-of-8 first, flanked on either side by dense forest. Dotted around the site are green boxes which previously contained "electronics" (presumably data gathering equipment for recording the weather or something related to testing) and now either contain information cards, are hollowed out to make small benches, or are stuffed with wood and bricks to make insect habitats.


At the end of this long sweeping curve, a forest fire watchtower reveals itself, now used only as a framework for mounting bat boxes and bird boxes to encourage the return of local wildlife. It's quite an impressive structure, towering (appropriately) above the trees and overlooking where a six-hectare (14.8-acre) circle of tarmac, dubbed The Pan, used to be.



Needless to say, it's not going to be any use for trying out new roundabout designs anymore. Unless they're for dirt bikes. When the pan was dug up, they discovered a watercourse beneath it, which subsequently received attention to establish it at ground level as part of a "blue network" (as the landscapers put it) through the whole area.

Take in such views as Some Murky Water and The Tops of Two Trees. Also the fire tower
The circular central area of the site now has been shrunken down a bit compared to the old skid pan, to make more room for houses. Considering how big it still looks, it must have been quite hard to take in the scale of the tarmac expanse when it was here. All the better for testing road layouts, of course.


But the first time I went, I simply went right at the fire tower and kept following what's left of the track route anticlockwise. Even the dirt path that replaces the asphalt would be wide enough for a rally car, I reckon... certainly social distancing on foot wasn't hard to do out here.


But the best bit of this place is yet to appear. Take a break inside the little green box if you need to (mind your head), and then follow the curve between banks of trees... after a while, it will gradually reveal itself...



At last, I can see the other end of that mysterious banked corner! They've left it intact, allowing the tarmac to 'fade in' from under the grass and briefly assume its original width.


There's just something inherently impressive about a banked corner, especially one surrounded by trees to sufficient extent that you can't see where it ends. It reminds me of trips to Brooklands – albeit a fair bit smaller!

This one was designed to be taken at speeds up to 155mph (250km/h), which, considering it was the tightest corner on the main test course, isn't too shabby at all. Imagine something properly quick rounding this curve (towards us) at 155 and then firing out of it and straight across the flat open pan...


...alas, no such shenanigans are possible today, not least because an amphitheatre has been bolted onto the banking halfway around. They encourage you to climb up it and "admire the view" (of... some trees?), although the metallic staircase bears a resemblance to the Spa-Francorchamps 'death stairs' loathed and feared by motorsport reporters whenever it rains...

They're quite proud of Quadrophenia and the Sinclair C5, aren't they... those factoids were on the skidpan sign as well

If this place isn't challenging you as a walking route, then feel free to try walking up that banking without the aid of those stairs a couple of times. Just make sure to descend safely... or stay at the top and walk further around from up high on the grass. Before long, you'll notice the curve start to level out enough for a safer shuffle back down to flat ground.


It is at this point that we must leave the main test course, as the long straight coming off it is blocked off and doomed to get housed-over. Instead, you'll notice a gravel 'slip road' uphill and into the woods.


But remnants of the vehicle testing facility are still to be found between these trees, as a network of small roads were threaded through them to test ideas for junctions in less well-sighted environments.


Just got to walk up this hill first...


Aha, some more tarmac. The route straight ahead shortcuts most of the remainder of this route, but that's no way to go about a photo blog! So instead of Forest Walk, let's detour around to Hill Start Hill, which you'll be surprised to know is a hill that was used for doing hill starts.

Pictured: not a hill
Some trees have been here longer than others, and this area has been wooded for decades (developing infrastructure isn't just about urban environments, you know). Now though, the tarmac has been left to get grown-over a little more.


Following the curve around the perimeter of this partially-preserved area takes you to a junction for cycle routes, the markings poking through from under the dirt until the adjacent road disappears completely under new grass.


And here's what the intersection looks like the other way, joining onto the shortcut I've avoided (or as they appear to call it, Beaconsfield).


A staggered crossroad (well, it would be if the stretch of tarmac left-of-screen was still there) then takes you off-road for a brief meander through the trees...


From in there, you emerge out here. Spin around and there's a fork in the road. One way takes you back onto The Pan, and the other up Hill Start Hill.

Follow the watermark...
While previously it was used to test handbrakes and clutches, now it would make a good bit of exercise (again) to sprint up it a few times – or, as a kid on a scooter did, scoot up it and then rocket back down again at exhilarating speed.


There are actually three different 'hills' (I presume of different gradients – one sign said 1:6) all converging at a plateau at the top, which is now a tranquil little picnic area.

Round these parts, Wednesday is Speed Control Hump Day
It's true all around this place that there is a clear aesthetic juxtaposition between the site's past and its present, but somehow, seeing road signs surrounded by nature and appearing to relate to little or nothing around them made it all the more obvious. There's a faint air of post-apocalypse about it, actually...

Actually sign, it is you who must give way to nature
...especially since a large area of the site hasn't been finished yet, meaning that beyond the walkable southern section of it there's a rather barren-looking expanse of land waiting to be sorted out.


If I've understood the map correctly then this (very steep) route off Hill Start Hill will eventually lead to a 'community hub' for the people living in all those shiny new houses.


Upon returning to the central area, you can just see the TRL head office overlooking all of this. Work continues to go on, although one assumes that most of the tests formerly conducted around here are now possible to simulate instead, or are otherwise done elsewhere at somewhere like MIRA.

It would've been cool to see the track being used as-was, and walking around here isn't quite as evocative as visiting an old race track... but at least I know now where that banked corner through the trees goes.

Comments

  1. Visited this place a week ago, and if I'm honest was saddened by it all, I had mental visions of running over Belgian Pave in an Austin Landcrab, or indeed whizzing around the banked curve at over 100mph.
    The whole thing would have been better preserved as was, instead of cannibalising the roadways and test tracks and building yet more soulless housing.
    If nothing else I made it up the banked turn without rupturing any ligaments, and managed a quick lie down afterward on one of the strange seating points, made from "deengineered" drainage covers

    ReplyDelete
  2. There never was a skid pan there was a central area and a long straight with a terminal area at the end that had a Bridport stone and tarmacadam surface for Braking tests plus a 200ton concrete block for crash test's. The hill was actually used for blind summet testing not hill starts. And the Bank bending had a speed limit of 100mph you was never able to do 155mph however it did allow vehicles to exit the bend at higher speeds into the long straight which in itself had a glass panel room where a camera could take pictures of tyre treads and it was able to soak that part of the track with its water bars built in to simulate wet weather conditions

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment