Monday, July 12, 2010

Zig and Zag

One Caterham, 48 hours of freedom and a full tank of petrol, but what to do? The dilemma of how to spend my first free weekend in ages isn’t an entirely unpleasant one, granted. In the end I make the decision to head down to some friends holding a barbeque in Bournemouth. The trip is about 130 miles – mostly on the motorway – so it seems the ideal chance to try out the car’s touring capabilities.

To give myself a fleeting chance of avoiding the weekend exodus I set off at around 7am. There are already a reasonable number of people on the M25, but I appear to be the only one driving a stripped out ex-racer with no roof, an unpadded plastic seat and a competition gearbox of deafeningly low ratios. Funny that. In order to make things a little more bearable I’ve packed an MP3 player and a pair of powerful in-ear headphones that just about manage to make themselves heard over the engine. Although the Caterham emits a very pleasant racy bark under acceleration, the constant mechanical blare of a 5,000rpm cruise (in 6th!) rapidly becomes wearing. Unservoed brakes and a competition clutch make traffic somewhat fatiguing, while slightly dubious ergonomics make it very difficult to rest your legs in a comfortable position when cruising. Not surprisingly, the motorway isn’t proving to be the Seven’s forte.

As the A31 emerges from the New Forest I turn off to investigate a tip off I’d been given about a good driving road en-route. The B3347 from Ringwood to Christchurch is said to be something of a biker’s favourite, which is usually a good sign, but to be honest I don’t find much to recommend it for those on four wheels. There’s one nice set of S-bends, but they fall inside a 40mph limit and you have to contend with traffic for much of the rest of the route, even at 9am on a Saturday. And, while half of Dorset seem to be bumbling along the B3347, those I'm due to meet have yet to surface, so it seems like the perfect opportunity to satisfy a long held curiosity

There’s a section of the B3081, better known as Zig Zag Hill, which is officially the twistiest road in Britain. It packs seven tight bends into a little over half a mile, but does this actually make it a worthwhile driving road in the real world or just a curiosity for the map makers and statisticians? To find out, I first have to get there. The ‘Zig Zag’ part of the route is close to the village of Cann Common, some 20 miles to the west of the road’s start, but fortunately even the busy opening section of the B3081 is an improvement on the previous road. Once past Verwood, the traffic starts to thin out and there are some nice little sections as the road threads its way through the impossibly lush setting of the Dorset/Wiltshire border. There are still a few slower cars around, but the Caterham comes into its element here, nipping past traffic with ease thanks to its tiny dimensions and impressive power-to-weight ratio.

As the road tightens up even the Seven finds itself marooned behind a slow moving horse transporter. I pull in to the side to let a biker past, but he can’t find a gap big enough to get past the truck either. Finally the road clears, the bike takes off and the gap is just big enough for the Caterham to follow. The trees thin out and the long sweeping corners give the road a slightly unexpected moorland feel. It’s ideal bike territory and our newfound companion edges ahead under acceleration, while we claw back some ground in the car through the corners. It’s good fun, but eventually discretion kicks in and I ease off to watch the two-wheeled silhouette disappear over the horizon.
Soon the landscape changes again as we approach the top of the hill and descend towards the famous Zig Zags. It only takes one corner for you to realise that the hill lives up to its reputation. It feels like an alpine pass that's been compressed, with a series of tight switchbacks crammed into a small space under the trees. The road may be narrow, but it's not so tiny that you can't have some fun if you're sensible, particularly in something the size of a Caterham.

Heel and toeing my way down into the hairpins, peering round for a clear view of the road ahead and then slingshotting down to the next corner I start to grin manically. Before long the bike creeps back into view and we howl along the final section in unison.

Rather pleased with the result of my investigation, I turn round and head back up the hill. The ascent is, predictably, a hillclimb waiting to be staged and I’d love the chance to really attack it. Even on open roads, the Caterham just feels so right here, threading its way up a course that would leave something like an M3 struggling for space and render most hot hatches bloated and underpowered. It’s a superb drive and perhaps the best on-road experience I’ve had in the car so far.
After retracing my steps along the moorland section I take the local roads into Bournemouth and park up. Silly as this may sound it’s the first time the car’s been left out over night, so I assemble the tarpaulin I’d bought to keep any unexpected rain out and set about laying it up. In truth this highlights the biggest obstacle to ever using it every day as far as I’m concerned – even Seven owners who have a full hood report mixed luck at actually keeping the water out, and the flimsy canvas cover, held on with poppers, must look rather inviting to those of a criminal persuasion.

On the whole, the Caterham has coped well with its first long distance trip. Okay, it wasn’t much fun on the motorway, but it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared it could have been and the open road experience more than made up for it. With a suitably masochistic outlook, a strong set of calf muscles and a good pair of headphones you can overlook the Seven’s lack of creature comforts, even in the most basic ex-racing model. What you can’t do is keep it safe and secure outside in, say, a dodgy area of London. With that in mind, the solution seems clear – I need to move to a nicer location. The foot of Zig Zag Hill perhaps.

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