Ralf Venables (1914 - 2003)
The Sage of Swallowcliffe
Dave Gittins tells the Ralph Venables Story
First published in February 1993 (Reproduced
by kind permission of Deryk Wylde - editor of Off-road Review)
Thinking of Ralph Venables the word 'doyen' quickly comes to mind,
my dictionary defines doyen as the senior member of a body or profession.
Few would argue that Ralph is the doyen of off-road motorcycle journalism
and that he has held that position, with his own distinctive brand
of commentary, for more years than even he often cares to remember.
Variously called the Squire of Swallowcliffe and a number of other
titles I am reluctant to repeat in a family journal, Ralph (pronounced
Rafe) is a legend in his own lifetime. Few can make that claim to
fame, especially in the area of off-road.
Duke, Surtees and Hailwood all became household names, but then
road racing was always the glamorous end of motorcycling.
In the field of trials and scrambles there is simply nobody to
rival Ralph's prodigious memory and vast experience which stretches
back almost sixty years. To followers of both disciplines, and they
include riders, officials, spectators and fellow scribes he is either
the best thing since sliced bread or a cantankerous old scribbler.
However, he commands great respect everywhere for the dedication,
commitment and professionalism that he brings to the sport.
who is this R. G. Venables? Who is this enigmatic character with
the drive and energy of a man half his age?
To find out some of the answers to these and similar questions
I recently went in search of Ralph and found him in the depths of
Wiltshire, just off the A30 Salisbury to Shaftesbury road in a small,
typically English village called Swallowcliffe.
I found his home, the Old Forge, easily. Ralph's directions were
precise and accurate like everything else he does, he had also put
up a trials 'Left' sign on the telegraph pole opposite the cottage.
Very soon Ralph was out in the road with a purposeful stride and
a warm welcome. We were soon deep in conversation.
What did I find? Well, on entering his study I felt that I could
fill a book. Memorabilia, artefacts, maps, photographs, books and
gramophone records filled every available space. It seemed easiest
to start at the beginning and in a sunny window overlooking the
village we talked.
RGV was born in Oxford in 1914 and spent his early years there.
It was from Oxford that he was to set out on his first journey to
a motorcycle event - a journey that was to influence the rest of
his life. On the pillion (do you remember pillion seats?) of his
brother's bike he went to Frimley, near Camberley to watch the second
Southern Scott scramble.
Riding pillion over a solid frame was a slow and painful process
in the 1920's but Ralph was hooked! He wanted to see more of this
new sport of motorcycle scrambling.
Unfortunately Oxford (unlike later years) was something of an outpost
in the motorcycling world in those days when much of the world's
motorcycle industry revolved around Armoury Road, Bracebridge Street
and Priory Street in the distant industrial Midlands.
Fortune took a hand and smiled on Ralph when the Venables family
moved to Farnham in Surrey in 1928. For the second time the 'gin
and Jag. belt' of Surrey was to have a unique influence in the formative
years of the young Venables.
Farnham was the home of Len Heath and his brother Joe, who were
already becoming known nationally in the fast growing sports of
motorcycle trials and scrambles. Len Heath quickly took the enthusiastic
young Venables under his wing to form a relationship that was to
last for the rest of Heath's life. More importantly, Heath was to
have a profound effect on the shaping and development of Ralph and
his standards and values.
Qualities of fairness and good sportsmanship that were to stand
him in good stead for the rest of his life, whether he was organising
a trial or a scramble, or simply acting as an observer at a trial.
As top riders of the day, Len and Joe Heath competed in most of
the major events. The Scottish Six Days Trial, the Scott Trial,
the Southern Scott, the British Experts and the like. Ralph accompanied
them everywhere, often riding in the boot of Len Heath's car. Ralph's
future seemed certain - he would become a trials rider and emulate
his hero, Heath.
That, however, was not to be. Whilst competing in a Schoolboy trial
at Croydon Ralph was involved in a road traffic accident and seriously
injured. He spent two months in hospital.
The rest, as they say, is now history. Instead of grappling with
the intricacies of balance and throttle control Ralph turned his
attention and all his energies towards the administrative side of
The car accident had resulted in a sizeable compensation payment
so Ralph was not penniless and so began a long and illustrious career;
first as an official of the Sunbeam MCC and then as a freelance
It is a measure of the energy and determination that he expended
in the good name of the sport that he was able to combine both activities
with such success. Well over 250 events came in for the well known
Venables treatment and benefited accordingly.
They included many nationals like the Sunbeam Point-to-Point and
the Southern Experts Trial. And the secret of his success? The Venables
method? Simple really, careful preparation, precise and professional
organisation, meticulous attention to detail plus regular doses
of fine tuning as the event unfolded. Those are the Venables hallmarks.
Additionally, Ralph is nothing if not a perfectionist and he rightly
expects the same standards of those working with him. 'Second best'
or 'enthusiastic amateur' are not phrases which trip easily off
the Venables tongue!
If something is worth doing, be it writing a column or organising
a trial, then it is worth doing well.
In 1957 he scaled down his official activities as an organiser
and administrator, although he remained a Vice-President of the
Sunbeam MCC. An article at the time in the 'Motor Cycle' indicated
that he had retired!
But Ralph was a long way from retirement. Instead he turned to
concentrate on writing and reporting. Reporting on the major events
of the day and writing about the characters and opinion formers
of the time.
During that period, often described by Ralph as the golden era
of off-road sport, every major scramble and trial in the country
received (at one time or another) the full impact of Venables critical
attention and his typewriter was never still.
His output during the 50s and 60's was phenomenal, both for quantity
and quality. As a result he amassed a tremendous fund of knowledge
which, linked to his famous memory, makes him a walking encyclopedia.
Moreover if he doesn't know the answer he will certainly know the
man who does!
It was during that period that he began to form preferences for
certain types of event.
That is not to say that he has excluded all else, far from it,
but events such as the SSDT and the ISDT (a long time favourite)
and long distance reliability trials such as the Exeter and the
Land's End became firm favourites.
Ralph has no time for the razzmatazz of modern trials and scrambles
where tantrums and temperament seem to be a common feature of the
competition. For Ralph the spirit of fair competition is all. The
enjoyment of taking part and the achievement of finishing.
Of one thing you could be sure, during that golden era, whenever
and wherever an important trial was held in the UK, Venables was
there talking to people, finding out what was going on and why,
generally getting around the course, the competitors and officials
to build up his own picture of the prevailing atmosphere, the features
of the hazards and the riders. And, of course, the results. All
this would later be converted into a creative mix of words and pictures
for readers of 'The Motor Cycle' or 'Motor Cycle News'.
During the period he also formed lasting friendships with competitors
and officials, many that continue to this day.
Ralph has very definite views on virtually everything. He is quick
to tell you that the period after the end of World War II and until
the demise of the British motor cycle industry were halcyon days
for our sport and I, for one, am not prepared to argue that point,
he has equally firm views about individual riders.
Long ago he came to the view that one Samuel Hamilton Miller was
the outstanding trials rider of his time - perhaps all time? A view
he holds to this day which few can argue the point.
Miller may not be to everybody's liking but he is an outstanding
rider who left nothing to chance; there is more than a hint of RGV-style
preparation in the way he tackles every hazard!
Ralph's nomination as the outstanding scrambler of the period was
unexpected. I had thought probably Jeff Smith or maybe Geoff Ward,
Dave Curtis or one of the Rickman brothers. Knowing Ralph's preference
for British fourstrokes I was certainly surprised when he pronounced,
after a moments hesitation, the name of the late Brian Stonebridge.
John Giles is his personal favourite and ranks with Jeff Smith
as the best all-rounders.
Ralph is as active as ever. In April  he will be 79 years
of age and still he writes a regular weekly column for 'Trials and
Motocross News' entitled Ralph Remembers. He also reports on modern
trials for TMX across an area covering most of Dorset, Somerset
and Wiltshire and contributes reports on such prestigious events
as the Talmag Trophy, the Pre- 65 Scottish and the Bonanza trial
for the monthly glossies, 'Classic Motor Cycle' and 'Classic Bike'.
I have a strong feeling that Ralph prefers the timeless civility
of a pre-65 trial but he is almost equally at home amid the roar
of an open exhaust pipe and the aroma of Castrol 'R' at a pre- 65
At Farleigh Castle I sensed an air of expectancy and excitement
building in him as the first race approached, a quality that hasn't
changed over the years, although he attends modern trials for TMX
he is much more selective about scrambles.
The Bonanza trial and scramble is a well-established must, mainly
to see the Pastmasters in action and to chew over the fat with the
likes of Sammy Miller, Gordon Jackson, Don Rickman, Jeff Smith,
John Avery, John Draper, etc., etc.
Also on his list is the main Pre-65 MXC event at Frensham but Ralph
confided that to date his intention to get along to see for himself
has been frustrated by his busy reporting schedule, He has, however,
fond memories of that venue where, over 40 years ago, he organised
a scramble for the Aldershot club! Maybe he will manage a trip back
to see the old British fourstrokes in action there in 1993!
In 1992 he was much taken with the Pre-65 Grand Prix at Farleigh
Castle. Again the main attractions were the Pastmasters events,
with the sights and sounds of well padded men, most of them well
past the first flush of youth, racing potent machinery (and if it
was British fourstroke machinery, so much the better!)
The presence of names such as Smith, Lampkin, Rickman, Burton,
Lundell, Aim, Allan, Roberton, Browning and the like is guaranteed
to set Ralph off on a very nostalgic journey indeed. You can rest
assured that come August 1st, 1993 Ralph will once again be at Farleigh
Castle to see the giants of yesteryear do battle.
But what of the man himself? There is no doubt that Ralph has firm
views on everything he holds dear. There is little chance of a 'half-way
house' state for Ralph! Why have second best when first is better?
He likes things done properly, or not at all. A trial or scramble
should be organised to the best of one's ability and should cater
for the needs of the riders, the officials and the spectators.
Late entries - which result in incomplete programmes - is one particular
pet hate of his.
Way back in 1957 when he first 'retired' Ralph's decision was prompted
by the strong desire to hand over to someone else. He had put so
much physical and mental effort in 10 years of organising that it
was time for somebody else to have a go.
The break was intended to sound dramatic, how else could the various
'somebody else' personalities be persuaded to actually put their
full efforts in?
I suspect that Ralph suffered from withdrawal symptoms for some
time after that announcement.
Even today he can point with unerring accuracy to what is wrong
with the sport in general and any specific event in particular.
That ability to identify the right ingredients of an activity is
another of his hallmarks. With Ralph no 'padding' or 'hype' is necessary,
instead he likes to get straight to the heart of the matter.
And his record? Well 'Competition Commentary' ran for 300 issues
in 'The Motor Cycle' and 'Ralph Remembers' has just chalked up number
500 in TMX. In between there was the small matter of 953 'Sporting
Scene' columns for Motor Cycle News.
When he finally retires on his 80th birthday in April 1994 the
total score of columns is likely to have passed the 1800 mark, not
counting the articles and features for the glossies!
The question now is, who will replace him? Indeed, can he be replaced
RGV is an institution, an integral part of off-road sport - today
and yesterday. His contribution is unique, at 78 his mind is as
vital and alert as ever, his wit acerbic and his analysis as pointed
as a pin. He is restless and mercurial; at times he can be cantankerous
and impatient, but he is never rude.
He has a keen eye and can appreciate a pretty face as readily as
he can admire a good looking British fourstroke circa 1960.
He is an authority on jazz, not just any jazz but the traditional
white jazz of the 1920's and 1930'5.
Something I didn't know until I visited him at Swallowcliffe but
which fits perfectly with the image of the man, he likes fast cars!
Over the years he has owned an MG Magna, Aston Martin Le Mans,
Allard, Daimler Dart and Jensen Healey.
His current set of wheels - other than for local pottering - is
a jet black Reliant Scimitar Turbo ("It's got a fantastic performance,"
says Ralph, "I can spin the wheels in top gear?") Like
his other favourites the Scimitar is open-topped to blow the cobwebs
So who will follow Ralph? Others may attempt to fill the gap when
he finally packs away his typewriter, but, to my mind Ralph is irreplaceable.
I warrant there won't be another quite like him. The mould was broken
some years back, the instructions on how to repair or re- make long
since discarded and lost. Jeff Smith once wrote of Ralph as "motor
cycling's best friend" and sidecar star Frank Wilkins once
remarked "there's only one Ralph Venables- thank heavens!"
Those two quotes may sum up reactions to the man but, when all
is said and done, off-road motorcycling needs champions and Ralph
has certainly been one of those.