Sean O'Grady wonders why they're so keen on time-travel

It's fair to say that living in the past has always held a certain fascination for the British. OK, we've had our neophiliac moments – White Heat in the 1960s, Cool Britannia in the Nineties – but the British, or leastways the English, have always been innately conservative (small 'c'), on the lookout for a better yesterday. For some, it's getting out of the European Union (or Common Market, as they'd term it); for others it is the socialism of Jeremy Corbyn, the spirit of '45 made flesh; for most it's wallowing in episodes of Heartbeat, Dad's Army and Downton.

For 150,000 or so visitors to the Goodwood Revival, it's about getting togged up in gear their parents, or grandparents, would have been familiar with, wandering round Lord March's pile in Sussex to watch some vintage racing, try some vintage food and generally pretend that you have been transported to Britain, circa 1955. (Suits me, though I have to declare an interest; as the guest of Jaguar Land Rover, my experience was more comfortable and less typical than most).

The Goodwood Estate, which also hosts the famous horse races and Festival of Speed, turns itself into a gigantic time machine for three days each September, as it has been doing for the past 18 years. The thing you most notice about the event is the mechanical noise. For most of the day, the historic circuit – which was used in earnest between 1945 and 1966 for competitive motor sport – is again the scene of intense, and screamingly loud, action between road cars, racing cars and motorbikes from the immediate post-war decades – for many, a "golden age" of motor racing, if only for the macabre fact that fatality rates were much higher in those days.

The Goodwood world is "frozen" in 1966 for these purposes, but the cars are still pretty lively. With the mechanics in period overalls and owners in tweeds and twills fussing over D-Type Jaguars, Ferrari Dinos and McLaren MBs, in the most charming moment, a gang of kids set out on the track to "race" their motor-less "J40" pedal cars – scale models, made in the 1950s, of an Austin saloon of the time. The race is emblematic of the sense of humour, attention to detail and catholic taste that pervades the whole event.

More prosaically, you can have your hair done in 1950s style, your make-up ditto and, a first for me, visit a period Tesco store, from the days when supermarkets were a friendly boon for modern living, not the voracious robdogs of today. With Hillmans and Triumphs parked outside, posters for Bold and Green Shield Stamps, red phone boxes and costumed hippies and coppers wandering around, it is the nearest I will ever get to Time Lord status or an HG Wells adventure. Sadly, the one shilling and threepence I offered for a bottle of lemonade was turned down. (Tesco isn't that old fashioned.) Blenheim and Lancaster bombers, and Spitfires – all less aerobatic now – complete the mechanical symphony.

Yes, it's all bogus; one would hardly expect the organisers of the Revival to expose visitors to the less lovely bits of our recent history – routine domestic abuse, back-street abortionists or rickets, for example. Nor is it what you would call a markedly "diverse" event (except maybe for the time I encountered a party of transgender people having a picnic in a car park). But I think the atavistic yearnings are well meant. I hope so, anyway.

I do have to admit that there is a good deal of the Goodwood Revival, as with the Festival of Speed, that is about corporate hospitality, even if you are taking lunch in a 1940s Naafi hut. Not every guest, I willingly concede, gets to drive the Queen Mum's own 1955 Jaguar Mark VIIM from David Lloyd George's old manor house. But even if you turn up in a Ford Focus, you'll soon forget about the 21st century, and mostly be glad to do so. µ


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