For the first hundred miles you see no other motorcyclists and begin to think that you are travelling on the wrong weekend or to the wrong place. But as soon as you stop for fuel the other riders, who have been travelling at the same speed in the same direction, begin to stream past. Turning from the A5 at Capel Curig towards Llanberris and Snowdon the road becomes a coiling snake of motorcyclists.
Jan Heiland (Belstaff) waxes lyrical...
Originally founded as a "British" (or Welsh!) equivalent of the then well-established Elephant Rallies at the Nurburgring in Germany, the first Dragon was held in 1962 at Bryn Bras Castle, near Llanberis in North Wales, by the Conway & District M.C.C. To allow Elephant rally-goers a couple of weeks to thaw out a little after the January snows of deepest Germany, the Dragon was set for the second weekend in February and, with the odd exception, has held to that date ever since. It is believed that only about 200 riders attended the first Dragon, and the "badge" was a fabric patch. (see Jan's update!)
Shortly afterwards, the Dragon moved to Gwrych Castle (a Victorian "replica") at Abergele, and the attendant numbers grew, promoted by extensive articles in the "Motor Cycle" magazine.
By 1965, the Dragon needed a bigger venue, and so it moved back to the Llanberis valley, to a site now known as the Glyn Rhonwy business park, but then more commonly known as Glyn Padarn. Sited between the mountains and Padarn lake, Glyn Padarn had started life as a series of slate quarries, following the exposure of the slate seam up the hillside. Abandoned between the wars, the old quarries were adopted for a munitions factory during W.W.II, when a system of tarmac road was laid around the site to give access to the bomb storage sites. There was even a huge underground factory, which partially collapsed during the war years, burying quite a tonnage of explosives. When the disused munitions site was used by rallyists in the late 1960s, very few realised that much of the site still contained pieces of live ordinance. Such places are, of course, a wonderful playground for children, and I have spoken to some locals (now grown up to better sense) who remember throwing live shells over a cliff to see if they would explode (some did!) The site was cleared of all dangerous remains in the '70s, and the only oddments to be found beneath the trees now are old beer bottles - dating back to the late '60s or so....
From 1965 to '69, the Conwy Club struggled to contain the ever-growing Dragon at Llanberis, but numbers were soon exceeding 5000. I think that it was 1969 however that saw a drastic shrinking of the rally - not through lack of interest, but through blizzard conditions. Many riders didn't make it, and the surplus badges (so they say) were sacrificed to the lake (such sacrifices are an old Celtic tradition, dating back to the dawn of pre-history. You won't find them now, as the lake-bed is a jumble of slate waste that moves in huge volumes each winter.) Mind you - that's not so strange as the year a rider went home and forgot to take his bike with him.....
Managing the size of the Dragon had by now caused rifts within the Conwy & District club, and for 1970 and 1971 (Gwrych at Abergele, and then back to Llanberis), the Dragon was organised by a break-away division of the club when the badges changed to roundels with a bar beneath
By 1972, the rift had healed, and the Dragon was held at Glyn Padarn for the last time. The end of the great era of rallies was already creeping over the horizon.
In 1973, with Glyn Padarn unavailable, the Dragon was postponed to October, when, much diminished in size, it was held one cold, wet, windy weekend on a desolate hilltop near Conwy, where the only landmark was a bleak radio mast.
For 1974, the Conwy club gained the use of a farm in the Lledr valley, near Betws-y-Coed, and riders were given an approach map that took them on a pleasant tour of the surrounding forest tracks. The site was easy to get on to, but after a weekend of rain, many bike wheels and many more drunken wellies, it was reduced to a liquid mud-bath, in places more than knee-deep! Getting off the site was an object lesson in what Dunkirk must have been like...
1975 and '76 saw the first use of the now-familiar waterworks site at Capel Curig, but in 1977 the rally moved to the upper end of the village, and to another windswept hill....
For 1978 and '79, a remote up-hill farm was used near Llanrwst in the Conwy valley, to be followed by a pleasant campsite near Betws Garmon in 1980 (now about to have the re-developed and locally unpopular Welsh Highland Railway driven through it!)
For 1981, it was back to the farm at Llanrwst, then back to the waterworks at Capel Curig for many years, with occasional alternatives such as Pentir near Bangor for 1984, and back to Gwrych at a snow-bound Abergele for 1985.
Recent years have seen the Dragon move around again - Beddgelert, then Llandwrog Airfield (famous as the birthplace of the RAF Mountain Rescue Service in the 1940s, and less famous for storing the entire stockpile of German "Tabun" nerve-gas bombs after the war...) and back to Capel. But old hands have been slowly drifting away, realising that the once great Dragon has been reduced to little more than a badge-gathering pilgrimage.
For many, Llanberis in the late '60s will always be remembered as the definitive Dragon location. If you visit the remains of the site today you might still sense a glimpse of the old bikes, rattling and covered in salt and mud - Vincents by the dozen, the low BWM semi-racing outfits from the continent, a gleaming Brough, and every mongrel conglomeration of British machinery you could possibly imagine. And anyone at these early Dragons will also surely remember the "Dragon Parade", on Saturday night, when the headlamps of hundreds of bikes wove a magic ribbon for miles over the old mountain trails.
The old roadways are still there, overgrown and largely impassable now, but despite some new industrial developments many of the trees at the heart of the site still remain. If you're lucky, you might - just might - catch the smell of early morning bacon sizzling over a smoking wood campfire, and feel the rumble of engines beneath your feet.....
For those of us who were there, the magic of the '60s and early '70s still exists as a memory, in faces and stories never to be forgotten while we live, and as a time, a feeling, and a camaraderie that has been allowed to slip away. Each year, those of us who still remember let our minds drift back. I often wonder how many other "old-timers" still go to reminisce at Glyn Padarn on Dragon weekend, even though we gave up on the rally itself years ago. I'm writing this the week before the rally, in February 2003, and will be at Glyn Padarn (or Glyn Rhonwy as it's now called) for a few minutes of sentimental heartache, sometime over the weekend. Maybe I'll see you, or the ghost of your memory fleeting between the trees.
Happy days - completely, utterly mad, - but happy ...
- Jan Heiland
Jan added some extra information.
In 1985 only about 600 riders made it through the blizzards out of the several thousand who had pre-booked. In a strange twist of logic, the Conway Club came up with the idea of selling the unused badges to the riders who didn't make it, but with the proviso that the top bit that said "Dragon Rally" had been ground off. Mine's a complete one, 'cos I got there!
- Jan Heiland
Alan Jarvis recalls some early Dragons - with teeth!
I did three Dragon Rally's. I don't remember what years, but the first one was brutal (might have been 1962) we drove through lots of snow! The last Dragon I did I think was in 1967, I had Dirty Eddie on the back of my bike and we took a 50 mile an hour spill on ice without damage to bike or person.
- Alan Jarvis
On one rally I was stood at the side of the road in the pouring rain trying to clean and dry the magneto of my heavyweight 500 cc AJS when a LPMCC biker pulled up and produced a priceless piece of dry emery paper. Thanks Kevin Brewin.
For many riders like Jan Heiland, ex-member of the Worcester Auto Club the Dragon began a long and happy rallying career. Jan writes:
My first rally was the 1965 Dragon, all alone from Worcester, age 16 and one month (just got my prov. licence) on a BSA C.10 (250 s.v.) lovingly known as Ratty-Tatty-Gutless ...... 1970 Dragon?
- Jan Heiland
Andy Smith adds his homage to the legendary Dragon. I hope he can scan some of the missing badges for us.
I was very interested to read Jan Heilands history of the Dragon Rally! For me the Dragon is still a very magical event. I've been going for 24 years now and still feel as excited as a kid on Christmas eve up to a month before! For me and my friends these are still great days - every year has it's own unique catalogue of adventures, breakdowns and madness and anyone who got through to Abergele Castle last time - (in the '80s - I forget the exact year) made it through conditions as tough as any. I was 12 hours in the saddle there and back, often in total blizzard, never on solid tarmac and once had to be dragged out of a wind scooped drift that caved in on me when I rammed it! It was an epic journey and definately no mere badge gathering! My lights failed at Corwen but I teamed up with a nutter from Holland on a Guzzi with clip-ons that showed me how to ride on snow at night!! - I had to keep up, he'd have left me stranded in darkness otherwise!!
- Andy Smith
Alan Jarvis was inspired by Andy's enthusiasm to rake up some more old memories of long ago.
My first Dragon was in 1963, I think it took me about 7 hours travelling alone from Leicester up the A5 to reach the site. The weather that year was awful and it was always an issue on every Dragon I went on!
- Alan Jarvis
For a long while the badges were white and a different shape every year. Then they changed to green and also tried the round badge with a year bar.
In the Sixties it was almost certain to be snowing in North Wales in February. However, by the mid Seventies the weather was getting milder and guaranteed midsummer type rain.
Shed awarded this page four stars and added the following comment . . .
My first was '66 through '69 then a break whilst in the RAF. Back at it in '86 to now. Badge gathering? Don't think so, nostalgia maybe. It's my motorcycling Mecca, the one event I want to attend every year if possible. Though as the time draws nigh I find myself wondering why. I guess, old git that I am, it proves to me that I am still alive.
Similar warm recollections were stirred in comment Don Wilson who sent these thoughts . . .
First time I was at the Dragon'66, be 15 then, with a bunch of mates setting off from Chorley, Lanc's. I was with a mate called Pete Walley on his then pride 'n' joy Arial Red Hunter which developed head gasket trouble on the return journey but it got us home. The Dragon was rated as a bit of a pussy that year 'cause of the summer like weather. I didn't even use a sleeping bag, enjoyed getting drunk on the obligatory cans of Party7, singing those silly songs around the bonfire wi' some German bloke who worked for V em V (I think BMW) that's all I could get out of him, he was off his head.
- Don Wilson
Ah yes Don, we know exactly what you mean.
Jan Heiland adds a bit more to the story...
Well, after many ponderings and arguments - both with you and with others - here it is:
The genuine and only - 1962 Dragon Rally badge!
Like wot I said - this - the first - was a cloth sew-on badge, and I have secured one for my collection at extortionate cost.
This particular item belonged to a gentleman who attended the wet, cold, snowy, salty rally on his 1939 Brough Superior outfit - remember the days when people actually used them?
I have also since acquired a copy of the Motor Cycle report of this rally to find that not 200 (as I had believed and put in my earlier report) but around 2000 rallyists attended. I also need to correct the date, as the first one was on the weekend of 24/25th Feb 1962.
- Jan Heiland
Bob Nash still suffers flash backs of a BBC 2 television spot regarding the Dragon Rally when Brian Porter and he shared Brian's Velocette "Vipom".
During my stint at the sharp end, fellow riders decided on a pit stop at Betys Coed to defrost. Unfortunately as a car exited through the car park gates I decided that there was sufficient space for me to enter the car park. However with my feet at the "ten to & past ten" angle on the footrests I totally misjudged the clearance between the car and the gate support post, resulting in my ankle and knee colliding with the post. Fortunately the bike wasn't damaged. Can't say the same for Brian's underwear.
- Bob Nash
Richard Bailey was inspired by Dave Cockerton's contemprary account of the 1976 Dragon in the Megaphone section.
I was also at the 76 Dragon, my first rally. I returned in '77 but not been back since. So 30 years on and I am going to go back, not to relive it, but to see if it's changed.
- Richard T Bailey
One thing is certain, Richard. You and I have not changed.
Not a mention of the year of the foot and mouth when the Dragon was postponed a few weeks. Don't recall the year, but do recall the rain and having to abandon my Royal Enfield outfit on Denbigh Moor - in a sheep pen. Was picked up by a lad in a mini until we hit flood water somewhere near Betwys. Walked from there and at one point was wading through water waist deep. Finally picked up with others by Mountain Rescue Land Rover and dropped at the rally site. Got a ride home on the back of a mates Norton and picked up my outfit a week later in more clement weather.
1964 1965 1966 went on my Norton 88DL with mate Keith. Saw a ghost on the mountain road one year, got stopped by 60mph headwind, tent froze to the ground once, overtook everyone down the Horseshoe at 60 then realised why - black ice.
- Bob T
After seeing a ghost I bet you are stuck to the Norton by something brown.
I attended a number of Dragon Rallies starting in 1965. I remember them well; cold, wet, damp, snowbound, but above all, wonderful.
- Gordon Roberts
I've been through Llanberis in the summer and it is just the same; cold, wet, damp, just needs the snow.
This was my first ever rally. I went on the back of my mate's 500 Velo. I remember we travelled through floods along the edge of the river Wye on our way there.
- The Black Russian
1966, Honda C72 knackerd rings, sprayed oil like the Torrey Canyon. Freezing our nuts off, having to stop in a telephone kiosk to warm up.
- John Dugen
I remember my dad dressing in his Belstaffs, black crash helmet and goggles preparing for the Dragon Rally each year. His name was Stephen Edward Hall (known as Steve or Stush) and the only bike club I can remember us belonging to was the South Durham Motorcycle and Sidecar Club, although he rode just the bike solo to the rallies. I think his friends were Eddie Churchill and Billy Bell. Other children were terrified of them in their layers of scarves and goggles! Both were from West Hartlepool as it was then. He would give me and mam a goodbye kiss and pull on huge leather gauntlets and say "I may be gone some time" before setting off on his adventure from Hartlepool to Wales.
- Lesley Turner, nee Hall
My brother picked me up at the works gate as I finished my night shift in the steel plant, I was aged 17. My brother had his A10 Super Rocket and sidecar loaded up as we left Middlesbrough. We were making good time until we approached Altrincham on the M6 motorway a piston seized which led to a stop at a BSA dealer in Altrincham who gave us room in the corner of a workshop to do some repairs.
- Jim Satterthwaite
From age 11 in 1962 until 1969 we used to come with my family from Liverpool. We had some really good times with friends as well, digging holes in the snow so we could pitch the tents.
- June Pennell nee Thomas
June is trying to trace the 1965 TV episode with her family going to the Dragon. It is well before video recorders but there just might be a copy out there somewhere. Can you help?
I and my mate went on my Arrow first four years. It was magic.
A spur of the moment idea, we set off from Chelmsford Essex. Easy days ride on Bonneville. One hairy moment on North circle, diesel spill on a roundabout.
- Tony Sparks & Bob Burling
1968 I think, on my Triton, wearing my leather jacket, jeans, unlined gloves. Leaving Southend in cold but dry conditions on the M1 it started to rain but pressed on regardless. Glad to get onto the A5, stopping at various cafes and by now soaked through but at 20 I was so, I thought, going to make it.
- Bill Smith
Glad to hear you are reaching your prime, Bill.
Went to the Dragon Rally in 1969 from Hull two up on my 1959 Velo Venom. This was, of course, pre motorway days so had to cross the Pennines via Snake Pass. That was not too bad but Llanberis Pass was blocked. Had to move the barrier to get through. Only fell of once (into a snow drift!)
- Bryan Payne