This article by John Moffat, first appeared in Issue 32, the Spring 2020 edition of Classic Trial Magazine by CJ Publishing Ltd. Due to copyright restrictions the images used may differ between the two published articles.
Trials Guru writer, John Moffat looks back at the life and times of the doyen of motorcycle sport journalism, Ralph G. Venables MBE.
The title is a play on words, deliberately so, as Trials & Motocross News under the editorship of Bill Lawless ran a weekly column written by Ralph Venables which was entitled ‘Ralph Remembers’.
Ralph, pronounced ‘Rafe’ and he didn’t let anyone forget it, lived for much of his life in the small village and civil parish of Swallowcliffe, Salisbury in Wiltshire and was often referred to in articles as the ‘Squire of Swallowcliffe’ and the ‘doyen’ of trials journalist and writers.
Ralph was very much of the old school of journalism, he took up the task after he realised that he would never be a top-flight trials rider, even although he was brought up in the company of the famous Heath brothers, Len and Joe, who were re-known trials and scrambles competitors immediately post war.
Born in the year that the First World War broke out, 1914 in Oxford, it was recorded that his first motorcycling event was not until 1920, in company with his elder brother to spectate at the Southern Scott Scramble near Camberley, Surrey.
His parents moved to Farnham in Surrey where he met the brothers Heath and that became a life-long friendship and Len Heath featured many times when Ralph recounted his life in the sport, so significant was his influence.
It was further recorded that Ralph suffered injuries in a road traffic accident whilst competing in a Schoolboy Trial near Croydon, Surrey. Schoolboy trials are not a new phenomenon, some private schools promoted them early last century. The accident was sufficiently serious that Venables spent some time in hospital and resulted in compensation being paid to him for his injuries, so it is assumed the car driver wasn’t devoid of fault.
Other interesting facts about Ralph include being an official of the Sunbeam M.C.C. which is of course the club that presents the annual Pinhard Prize through the ACU to recognise meritorious performance or efforts by a competitor or club member under the age of twenty-one years of age.
In 1957, the year of the writer’s birth, Ralph reduced his motorcycle club activities and branched out into article writing for the then Motor Cycle when it was owned by the Illife family and of course now the title is owned by Mortons Media, Hornchurch.
Venables had a remarkable memory for people, places and events which was second to none. He may not have been a successful competitor in his own right, but he got to know all the top flight trials and scrambles riders of various eras and could spout forth many facts and figures, which earned him the moniker of being a walking, talking encyclopaedia.
I got to know Ralph many years ago, around 1988. Ralph had conversed with my late father on quite a few occasions and that was my effective ‘calling card’ to be able to speak with him.
It has to be said though that many Scottish competitors referred to Ralph as the ‘Poison Pen’ as he could be quite unkind with his description of some of our countryfolk in his columns and this did not endear him to competitors north of Hadrian’s Wall.
I wonder who recalls Ralph’s attempts to persuade the ACU to reduce the dimensions of the standard trials tyre reduced from four inch to three- and half-inch section back in the mid-1970s? Gordon Farley did a back to back test using his factory Montesa Cota using both sizes with the former British Champion failed to get grip on a variety of sections using the smaller section tyre.
I was fortunate, by the time I got to know him, Ralph had mellowed slightly, but he could still pack a punch. I had it on good authority that when I started writing some articles on Scottish competitors, Ralph had been heard to say: “I do hope that you are in no way paying John Moffat for his articles by the word, otherwise you will be severely out of pocket”. Ralph had made the incorrect assumption that I was writing for money. Being paid for journalism is one thing, I was only doing it for enjoyment and recording sporting matters for posterity. Ralph it is safe to say, wrote for money and I certainly never had a problem with that.
I did challenge Ralph on the point and he admitted freely that is what he had said, but gave me some advice at the same time. He told me:” Please be economical with words John, why write five when one will do?”. I took his advice on board and discovered that sometimes, less is indeed more!
Venables or ‘RGV’ as he was sometimes known in the motorcycle sporting circles was a trusted, unpaid scout for the British motorcycle factories, especially keeping company with their Competitions managers of the magnitude of Brian Martin (BSA); Hugh Viney and latterly Bob Manns of AMC, Jack Stalker of Royal Enfield and many more.
It was Ralph that effectively ‘discovered’ a sixteen year old from Derbyshire called Michael J. Andrews. Venables would have a quiet word in the ever listening ear of Hugh Viney and a factory AJS 16C was soon trundling its way to Matlock strapped to the inside wall of the guard’s van by railway from Plumstead in East London. Andrews would soon make his name on the factory machine, going on to ride for Rickmans, then Ossa and of course Yamaha. Mick only had a short and abruptly short apprenticeship with the Kenning Motor Group, but, made a living out of riding trials machines, a facet that was in its’ infancy in 1963.
Andrews was not alone in this special attention from Venables, many were tipped by him to these industry insiders and factory mounts were dispatched for these young men to try out the machine and eventually sign ‘works’ contracts.
Venables was the ‘eyes and ears’ of motorcycle trials and indeed scrambles in the 1950s and 1960s. He reported for the Motor Cycle and latterly Motor Cycle News when owned by EMAP (East Midland Allied Press) which had kicked off production the same year as Venables commencing writing for the rival paper Motor Cycle.
Ralph was a master wordsmith; few could beat or even equal him. He had a command of the English language and he used it sparingly but very effectively. It was indeed a matter of the pen is mightier than the sword when it came to his weekly columns.
Was he controversial? Of course he was, all good journalists can stir things up and get people thinking, it is part of their job, it sells papers, it gets people talking and R.G. Venables was in the master class at it.
Venables of course had great respect for Sammy Miller, eleven times British Champion and the most famous of all trials riders. However Ralph was not a fan of Sammy’s riding style. Ralph was quoted as saying that Sam was “far too crouched over the front of his machine for my liking”. Ralph wasn’t afraid to say what he thought or comment on what he liked or disliked. With Venables you either took it or left it, that was his terms.
When I got to know Ralph a little I told him that if I was being totally honest, the first page I used to turn to in Trials & Motocross News was the one in which his column appeared. Some months later Ralph actually commented how pleased he was when people told him that very fact.
In early 1994 I asked Ralph a few times if he could perhaps feature a few Scottish competitors in his column, to me that may make up for all the negative things he had written perhaps thirty years previously about my fellow countrymen. To my astonishment and delight in the April 29th edition of the paper he did indeed feature “Highland heroes on home ground” as his full-page column, ‘Ralph Remembers’. In fact, his opening short paragraph read “…John Moffat has been nagging me mercilessly in connection with my column. He wants me to devote a whole page to Scots pictured competing in the Scottish Six Days Trial”. Not only did he feature them once he did it a second time when suitable photographs landed on his desk at Swallowcliffe. Ralph first spectated at the SSDT in 1937 an event he attended as spectator, reporter and an official observer. He particularly enjoyed staying at Gordon Blakeways’ hotel at Strontian, Kilcamb Lodge, which he described as the ‘friendliest hotel in the Highlands’ on more than one occasion.
Sadly, Ralph passed away in February 2003, having suffered from Motor-Neuron disease, but my connection with him became very memorable indeed, as he died on exactly the same day as my late Mother, Betty Moffat.
Obviously I had my hands full in early February that year, so much so that it was only a fortnight later when I was able to catch up on affairs that I notice when Ralph has passed away and of course to my surprise that it was on the exact same day as my Mother. I wrote to Pam, his widow expressing my sincere condolences to her and mentioned that fact. Pam sent me a very nice letter, by return, thanking me and also offering her condolences to me on the loss of my maternal parent.
Sammy Miller once told me: “John, don’t tell me stories, bring me facts, I like facts”. Venables was similar and here is a fact, not a story.
I spoke to Ralph at an early Pre’65 Scottish, it was before I took up riding that event twenty-three times. He was up the ‘Loch Eild Path’, watching the trial as he had done for some years, it was a hot day and he had stripped off his shirt and was bare chested. I thought he looked very fit for an octogenarian. Later the same day I spotted him, still bare chested coming down at a fair old pace from the Pipeline back into the village of Kinlochleven. I shouted: “Hey Rafe, you must be fit, I saw you up Loch Eild Path not that long ago”. He replied: “Yes John, you certainly did and it’s not just a case of one being physically fit, but also knowing where all the short-cuts are, good day to you”.
As well as loving motorcycle sport in the form of trials and scrambles, that is of course scrambles and not motocross, Ralph had a love of fast, sports cars and he owned an Allard, MG, Aston Martin and Daimler before ending up with a Reliant Scimitar before dropping down to a more modest Ford Fiesta in later life.
He also liked the short-stroke 350 AJS, and he owned BFN10B, an ex-Mick Waller machine which he offered to me for around £3,500 in the mid-1990s, a motorcycle I regret not buying when I had the chance, I should have bought that one. Venables also obtained a rare Honda TL250 via Dixon Racing, a model that wasn’t officially imported into the UK by Honda as it was destined for the USA market primarily.
After writing three hundred columns of his ‘Competition Commentary’ for Motor Cycle News, nine-hundred and fifty-three columns entitled ‘Sporting Scene’ for MCN and a further five hundred ‘Ralph Remembers’ for Trials & Motocross News, Ralph finally retired at the age of eighty years of age. I think that must be some kind of record that will be hard to break, don’t you?
Copyright: This article first appeared in Classic Trial Magazine, Issue 32. Back copies may be purchased from their website: