An Air of Optimism at the Royal Automobile Club
Throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic, we have maintained an open channel of communication with our reciprocal clubs both near and far, sharing stories, tribulations and small victories. Recently, we reached out to our clubs in Great Britain to learn how they were challenged by the pandemic and what they anticipate for their path forward.
“In reaching that first wave of the pandemic, the Royal Automobile Club’s (RAC) experience as an organization was much like ours. Forced to close their doors quite suddenly, as of March 21, 2020, they too had to make very quick, very painful decisions.”
Today, as vaccination rates climb and once-surging infections rates steadily decline across the UK, the RAC in London has renewed optimism for the future.
Once a month, on Pall Mall, nocturnal passers-by are treated to an oddly beautiful sight. It is the sight of a Ferrari 250 GTO, a Bentley Speed Six, or maybe a classic Daimler being driven – gently now – through a very grand (though clearly not vehicle-sized) doorway to a palace. Peering from across the street, one might then watch it being winched up a staircase via a pair of ramps to finally be pushed by hand, tires rolling over thick carpets, into an interior opulence, brilliantly lit. Instantly, this view will vanish as workers re-hang revolving doors of wood. Was it a dream?
LEGACY OF SERVICE
Founded in 1897 as the Automobile Club of Great Britain, the RAC found its patron in King Edward VII, an early driving enthusiast whose profile continues to grace their badge. “Motoring is still very much at the heart of the Club,” states Genevieve Griffin, Head of Membership, who spoke to us during England’s second COVID lockdown from the RAC’s country estate of Woodcote Park, a beautiful mid-17th century house set amidst 350 acres of Surrey greenery.
It was in 1913 that the Club purchased the estate (which dates back to at least 1202, when it was recorded as Wudcut.) The idea was to give members a destination for sport and leisure at the end of a white-knuckled (and oil-spattered) 30 M.P.H. drive down hedgerow lanes to the south of London. Facilities include guest rooms, a swimming pool, courts for tennis and squash, two golf courses, and a new family facility, built during the pandemic.
In fact, the RAC is unique amongst its St. James’s peers in possessing such a property, as Ms. Griffin explains:
It is unusual in London. You rarely find a private members’ club that has two clubhouses in the manner of a St. James’s Club. There are other clubs, like Soho House who have Soho Farmhouse, that sort of thing, but they’re more commercial. So we are quite a rarity, but I think members appreciate the value that it gives, especially at this time.
Membership dues are pooled and grant access to both facilities. Only green fees, classes, and personal training sessions are extra.
Also unique is the RAC’s grand city clubhouse, completed in 1911 by Charles-Frédéric Mewès (who had already conjured the Paris Ritz from a Ducal Mansion on Place Vendôme) and Arthur Joseph Davis (who would soon design the interior of Cunard’s RMS Aquitania.) Both had trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and, while the interior is a hybrid of French, classical, and English styles, its exterior is entirely in their milieu. The façade fronting Pall Mall is late French Renaissance. To the rear, a sort of château gathers shade from the plane trees of Carlton Gardens. So Gallic, in fact, was their vision that they imported steelworkers and masons from France during construction.
Leather Armchairs: The Book of London Clubs (featuring an amusing foreword by P. G. Wodehouse) gives a good description, albeit as of 1963, of some of the original features of Pall Mall’s ‘Parliament House of Motoring’: “Its premises and amenities are the most complete of any club this side of the Atlantic. It has a staff of four hundred, seventy-eight bedrooms, five flats, a post office, a cigar shop, four squash courts, Turkish baths, a swimming pool (once frequented by George Bernard Shaw), four billiards tables, a barber’s shop...” There was even a rifle range.
As was the case with The Vancouver Club’s 1913 clubhouse, the RAC’s facilities seemed hardly used by the outset of the First World War. Rapidly, the RAC sprang into action. In August of 1914, the RAC arranged for twenty-five of its members (including the Duke of Westminster) to accompany the British Expeditionary Force with their own cars to Belgium and France, providing transport and mail services for the British General Staff. In September, a second set of members put themselves in harm’s way, transporting casualties. Back home, the Pall Mall clubhouse became an officers’ club, as well as helping out the Red Cross, by Armistice Day having “…provided bed, breakfast, and baths for more than 200,000 officers and served approximately 2,000,000 meals.”
The RAC had also given over a large portion of Woodcote Park to a military camp and training school. By 1916, the camp was converted to a convalescent hospital for servicemen from Canada and the Commonwealth. In the beauty of the Surrey countryside, they would do their best to heal.
In the Second World War, Woodcote Park yet again rose to the challenge by setting aside 110 acres, as well as its walled garden, to grow crops. By the Battle of Britain, one golf course remained, which was fortunate for an RAF pilot who landed his bullet-riddled Hawker Hurricane on a fairway, collapsing the gear and shattering the propellor. Irons were drawn as Pilot Officer Peter Simpson staggered toward some golfers, but then he spoke, extracting further identification from his pocket with trembling fingers: a packet of Players cigarettes. Time for a steadying whisky up at the bar.
Back in St. James’s, Charles de Gaulle had established headquarters for the Free French behind the Club at number four, Carlton Gardens. Number four is kitty-corner to the garden itself. One can imagine him in that first winter of London exile, gazing through windows crisscrossed with tape, through leafless trees at what appeared to be…a château. And by the people of that château, he was embraced. The RAC offered free memberships to de Gaulle and his soldiers, providing them as well as other members of the allied services with food, drink, camaraderie, beds, and shelter from incendiary bombs. In fact, the clubhouse’s Great Gallery took a direct hit.
ETHIC OF SERVICE TODAY
We’ve gone into this wartime history at some length in order to reveal the heart of the RAC. This ethic of service has continued through the current pandemic:
We opened up Woodcote Park to the NHS. We have a local Epsom hospital, probably about ten minutes’ drive from here, so some of the staff would stay at the club so they didn’t have to go home to their families during the pandemic. And that was a nice thing to be able to have done…the Club is always actively looking at what they can do to help, and so this was a decision by the Board…
One can imagine the quiet of the old house, the dawn mist over the park, the birdsong – all giving strength for the struggle of the day ahead.
In reaching that first wave of the pandemic, the RAC’s experience as an organization was much like ours. Forced to close their doors quite suddenly, as of March 21, 2020, they too had to make very quick, very painful decisions:
We have about 650 staff and we furloughed almost everybody. We had about 100 that we kept working because we have two golf courses, we have greenkeepers that need to tend to the courses to ensure that they are still up to par.
Like us, the RAC has found that ongoing communications are key. The COO and Secretary have held Q&A sessions, managers have given monthly updates to their teams, and monthly wires have gone out as circulars via email. Plans were also in the works to send a gift to every member of staff on furlough.
Meanwhile, back in the Pall Mall clubhouse (as in our own), stillness had fallen: the glittering grandeur of the Great Gallery, gone dark; the Grecian swimming pool, rendered glass of palest blue; the squash courts, no longer echoing the squeaking of shoes, the whack and clatter of friendly combat. A minute strand of RNA, wrapped in lipids and proteins, seemed to have accomplished what air raids had not.
Life moved mostly online:
In terms of our offering for members, we started doing click and collect so they could come to the clubhouse, collect meals, takeaway food. And also, we expanded our offering online, so we now offer wine deliveries through our club website.
And so, the first lockdown went on until the start of June, when the RAC was able to open in a restricted way. Again, their experience was much like ours: out came the measuring tapes, much furniture went into storage, and recalled staff were trained in health protocols exceeding government regulations. The pool and gym reopened, but only via online bookings and with strict numeric limitations.
Perhaps most eager to return to Pall Mall during this easing were the RAC’s younger members. London’s real estate is astronomically expensive, forcing many to live either alone in cramped quarters or with flatmates, making working from home very difficult. Many had reached the breaking point, but the Club found a solution:
We have an area at Pall Mall called The Long Bar, and that is a dining area, but also, we’ve used it as a business area, so members can take their laptop downstairs, sit in the bar, and have a coffee and a sandwich and coffee all day for £20. A lot of our members are younger and stuck in shared accommodation, in their bedrooms, so using the Club is somewhere else to be…it was a good way of making use of the Club, whilst it was quiet, so we’ve just been trying to turn our hands to what we can.
In providing such shelter the old clubhouse perhaps echoed, in a very small way, the role it had played in war.
As to Woodcote Park, the Club actually had a very good summer indeed. Golf had never been so popular, and all the tee times had been booked. Unfortunately, in the autumn of 2020, rates of infection were once again rising. By mid-October, the government had installed a complicated system of lockdown tiers, but the estate’s outdoor spaces still provided opportunities:
We adapted our events program when we were allowed to when we were tier-3 (I think it was tier 3 – it feels so long ago now.) Anything outside, we did. So, we did some motoring drive-ins, with the cinema, which became quite popular.
What a lovely image! A collection of cars, old and new, pulled up on the cedar lawn beside the ancient house, leaves falling all around, the flicker of the silver screen. One can almost see a scene in black and white, reflected on vintage windscreens.
Nevertheless, in spite of the tiers, case numbers rose and the country effectively went back into lockdown by early November. Time slowly passed. During our interview in early February, Ms. Griffin described the Pall Mall clubhouse as empty, barring the odd traveller on essential business. As she spoke to us, only one of 108 beautifully appointed bedrooms was occupied. Life, yet again, had slipped into the virtual:
We have increased our provision of events online, so we have sixty Zoom events over the next two months. They range from anything from morning pilates classes to wine dinners and meals that you can cook along with the chef online.
These will certainly sound familiar to members of The Vancouver Club, but there were also events specific to the beating heart of the RAC, which normally holds at least one motoring event per week:
We have a weekly event called Wine and Wheels, which is a Zoom Q&A session with motoring individuals. We have one this Thursday with a Formula One boss…
As has been our experience, changing circumstances drove rapid innovation and adaptation at the RAC. Both their elections committee and membership processes are now online. It was hard work, but it paid off: in the last year they have gained only three fewer new members than in 2019. Furthermore, renewals are healthy:
I think members really value their club. We are doing our membership renewal process at the moment, and we’re currently at 92%, so that’s definitely an indication that members do value the Club, and that it’s more than a commercial transaction for them – it’s their other home. So members are supporting the Club through tough times.
Tough times they were through the long winter, but Woodcote Park yet again gave over its land to good purpose: for the first time, members were allowed to walk their dogs on those life-saving fairways. Those fairways even turned white for a few weeks: skiing and tobogganing were the gifts of those precious days.
And now? In spite of April snowfalls, spring has arrived in the UK. Sunlight warms the ancient walled garden at Woodcote, and when the wind blows, these same walls protect staff while they complete the Club’s new family centre, which features a sheltered play area, children’s lounge, soft play area, toddler splash area, and more.
In other words, the RAC is feeling optimistic. So they should, having re-opened on Monday with outdoor dining at both clubhouses (at Pall Mall on the rear terrace overlooking Carlton Gardens), swimming, gym workouts and squash, as well as shops and services. While accommodations are still earmarked for essential travel only, this will change as the UK progressively re-opens through spring and into summer.
We too should feel optimistic, in spite of our current “circuit breaker” lockdown. Rumour has it that Vancouver still possesses an international airport. Rumour also has it that the laws of aerodynamics (such as Bernoulli’s rather critical principle) continue to apply. It’s tough to predict things nowadays, but let’s pick a month: July, to partake in what we now know – freshly and therefore truly – to be the miracle of flight.
Having crossed the Atlantic, we will step out of a puttering black cab on Pall Mall to look up at history as a porter helps us with our golf clubs and our suitcases. Upstairs, in our lovely rooms, we will unpack our driving gloves, Grace Kelly sunglasses, and that scarf our friends voted “most likely to flap attractively behind a convertible.”
Perhaps we will then take a quick rest (maybe even appreciating jet lag as a symptom of freedom) before dressing in our finery to meet our friends of the RAC in their Great Gallery, where, over delicious food and old wine, we might share our modest war stories of a pandemic, gazing about (and especially above) ourselves at splendour kept alive by an ideal.
Later, perhaps the following morning, we will enter the Rotunda at the Club’s very heart to admire the featured car before stepping out for a walk in St. James’s Park, or a visit to the Royal Academy, or maybe even a trip down Pall Mall toward Haymarket and a play we’ve longed to see, which actors have longed to play.
When we have spent enough time in London, the concierge will connect us with a purveyor of fine automobiles for rent: luxury, sports, super, or perhaps even hyper, depending upon family and luggage status. Who knows, we might even choose our vehicle by forward visibility. Not of the road, but of a screen on a summer’s eve.
Whatever our ride might be, to southward we will motor from London. Though the drive is less rural than it once was, we will reach the fabled English countryside before we reach Woodcote. And we will drive down that long lane we dream of. Perhaps we’ll rest, having booked a tee time the following morning, or perhaps we will attend (Champagne in hand, the warm evening sun) a drive-in of the non-celluloid sort as described (let us close with this) by the knowledgeable Ms. Griffin:
You can bring your Mini, or your Fiat 500, but you can also bring an historic Daimler. We have a gentleman who brings a 1920s firetruck. Or even a Penny Farthing. It’s literally anything and everything. They’re put into classes due to their age, or make, and then members of the motoring committee will do a concours and there is a sort of best in show award. Best modern car. Best vintage car. And it’s a really lovely evening.
It most certainly will be.