If one is preparing to follow in the wheeltracks of Britain’s first Formula One world champion, Mike Hawthorn, around his stamping grounds in Surrey then a stout constitution is required. The villages in this part of the world are thick with hostelries, which were the number one choice of entertainment for the young racer and his gang of friends known amongst themselves as ‘the Members’.
At the age of 17 Hawthorn was apprenticed to Dennis Bros. in Guildford – the renowned manufacturer of trucks, ambulances, fire engines, buses and military vehicles. It was while here that he gathered the Members around him – like-minded souls who would share Hawthorn’s passions for the ‘three Bs’: Bikes, Boozing and Birds.
Although Hawthorn had inherited plenty of engineering savvy from a childhood spent in his father’s workshops, this brought precious little benefit to Dennis Bros. in exchange for his salary. More often than not Hawthorn was to be found riding his motorbike around the perimeter wall or planning his next expedition with the Members. He once took off in a brand new truck only to discover that none of the panels were actually bolted in place, causing the thing to disintegrate around his ears.
Playtime was altogether more interesting to Hawthorn. It was never really agreed what his gang were Members of, but there were one or two badges of belonging. The first was that everyone addressed each other as ‘Bo’ and the second was that they all wore ties. Hawthorn took to wearing a bow tie gifted to him by a girlfriend, prompting one of the Members to ask if they should all adopt similar accessories.
“No, you bloody fool,” Hawthorn was reported to have said in Mon Ami Mate. “It’s a bow tie, not a Bo tie!”
After a week at work (and providing that there was nothing going on at Goodwood, where they would eagerly head and squeeze through the fence and enjoy a free day out), the Members would convene on a Saturday at The Bush hotel in Farnham town centre.
The Bush was a handy, central spot to be but perhaps the number of ‘ordinary’ folk about in town on a Saturday morning curtailed the Members’ hi-jinks somewhat, so they would saddle up their motorbikes and head south.
Driving out past the railway station, their aim was for Tilford. Here you will find an idyllic little village with a generous green over which presides the Barley Mow pub. The friendly locals and sparse traffic which typify the place today mean that it is all too easy to imagine the Members coercing their favourite landlord to stay open all afternoon as they sat around discussing the three Bs over yet another round.
There’s a collection of Hawthorn-related photos and cuttings outside the Gents’ loo, although there’s no mention of the fact that this was the place where his beloved boxer dog, Grogger, met his maker after bounding out to welcome a car.
A mile or so down the road from the Barley Mow is the Duke of Cambridge Hotel, which is actually across the border in Hampshire and thus offered slightly later closing time for the rambunctious regulars. Today the Duke of Cambridge has one of the best pub menus in the area and getting a table can be a problem unless you book far in advance.
Even the doting Bishops would not always flout legal closing time, however, and Surrey had a much earlier finish to the evening than neighbouring Hampshire. So it was that the Members would wobble unsteadily onward for a nightcap. Quite often this would mean traversing the woodland lanes to get down to the Frensham Ponds Hotel, where they could usually sweet talk the staff into pretending that they were residents.
If getting down to Frensham was a bit of an issue then the final destination for the Members would be The Bluebell in Dockenfield, today nestling near the fantastic Alice Holt adventure forest on the road back up to Hawthorn’s home in Rowledge. Organising a lock-in at this secluded spot would have been a doddle, and the snug little bar is more than welcoming to this day.
From there, Hawthorn would have gone back to the family home, Merridale, in Rowledge – usually with a Member or two in tow. It’s a challenging drive today, uphill on a single-track road with a surface which resembles Passchendaele at its worst, but if the Members were feeling any bumps in the road then probably they would feel that it had been an unsatisfactory day’s drinking.
I followed their path back to the village but at that point drew a blank. Nobody in the Post Office, the village shop or the butcher’s could recall a house being called Merridale – or ‘Merry Hell’ as Hawthorn preferred it. There was a reason for Hawthorn’s black humour – and, perhaps, the wild roving and companionship he created among the Members. It was the wrench of his parents’ separation.
Leslie Hawthorn was a racer, a drinker and a ladies’ man and as Mike reached adulthood his mother called time on family life. She moved in to a flat in Farnham and then took a job as a receptionist in London and Merridale was clearly anything but merry – often empty as Hawthorn Sr enjoyed his second bachelorhood – meaning that his son doubtless felt the need to take his mates and a dose of good cheer home with him.
It’s also perhaps worth noting that of the seven founding Members, four of them didn’t live to see their 30th birthday. Simon Hayter died first in a road accident on the A3 not far from where Mike Hawthorn himself would perish. Another road accident claimed ‘Black Mike’ Crossley while in Germany and Peter Poppe went on to fly jets in the RAF, being killed while flying a Gloster Javelin while supporting a Search & Rescue operation over the sea during the Malayan emergency.
But in the early ‘Fifties, Hawthorn was on the cusp of life as an international jet-setter… and while the Members and their haunts would remain central to his life whenever he was in England, he had many more adventures in store.