Legendary rallycross commentator Arthur Debenham swaps fast cars for buses as he lends his voice to tours of Suffolk
There was a time when every fan of rallycross knew the voice of Arthur Debenham. For decades he was the man who delivered a running commentary as cars flashed by on the track at more than 100 miles an hour.
These days when he takes up a microphone things are moving at a much more sedate pace.
And those listening are not packed around a racing circuit but settled comfortably in their seats as the Suffolk countryside rolls past outside.
When Arthur retired he swapped the commentary box for guided coach trips around the county where he has lived all his life.
His day-long Suffolk County Tours have been running since 2008 and have just started up again after Covid forced a two year break.
They wind their way off the usual tourist trails and along every route he has a host of facts at his fingertips about the villages, the landscape and the history.
The relaxed style of Arthur the tour guide is a world away the fast-paced patter of his racing days when his mantra was: “if you don’t get excited you’re not doing your job properly.”
But there are things common to both ... the most important of which is ‘don’t be boring’.
Often his tours head out towards the coast, but one of his favourites remains closer to home through villages south of Bury St Edmunds which are filled with his own memories.
“I love Suffolk, and I love finding out things and telling people about them. It’s my hobby, really,” said Arthur, who has lived in Bury since he married in the 1970s.
His early childhood was spent in Somerton, near Hartest, where for a time his parents ran a pub called the Hare and Hounds.
But when he was about seven they moved to Hawkedon when his father got a job at Gallowgate Farm.
“I’m 100 per cent Suffolk. My mother’s family were gamekeepers and my father’s family were farmers,” he said.
“I left school at 15 and went to work on the farm where my father worked. My boss was Bill Vevers. He was really keen on motor sport and that’s what got me into it.
“At school I loved cricket, but when I found motor sport I found my home, plus on the farm I was quite interested in the technical side of things.”
He was a founder member of West Suffolk Motor Club in 1966, and before long became chairman, while his boss Bill was secretary. “At committee meetings I was in charge,” he recalled.
Arthur, who carried on working at the farm until he retired, realised early on he was not cut out to be a competitive driver although he did have a brief spell as a rallying navigator.
His first experience behind the microphone was with autocross, where competitors race one at a time against the clock.
“In the late 1960s Norman Greenway, a commentator I had heard before at the old Crystal Palace circuit in London, came to Bury to take over the Fiat dealership.
“I think he was the best commentator I had ever heard and he became my mentor.
“You have to say what you see, and be yourself. I remember Norman telling me ‘don’t mind if you have an accent, it’s your diction that matters’.
And Arthur’s distinctive Suffolk voice became a familiar and much-loved part of his success.
From 1974 to 2008 he was commentating on rallycross – a quickfire sport where drivers in turbo-charged cars that accelerate faster than a Formula One racer compete on a mile-long course.
He regularly worked at Lydden Hill circuit, in Kent, recognised as the home of rallycross, with his late wife Adrienne always at his side in the commentary box.
“We worked as a team,” he said. “Doing that we would be away at least 30 weekends a year.
“I did a lot of voiceovers for TV, mainly satellite. I would be commentating on a meeting and there would be a crew there filming it and I would either go to London or Cheshire to do a voiceover.
“I did some live work for ITV down at Brands Hatch. I did commentary for TV for about 10 years. The 1980s were the heyday,” said Arthur, who is also the long-serving motorsport correspondent of Suffolk News' sister paper the Bury Free Press.
He is also involved in Motorsport East – a show due to be held again in Bury town centre this summer when cars from all branches of the sport will be on display.
Arthur has written two books. One, Fifty Years in the Fields, describes his life in farming.
The other, about his time in motorsport, is titled Oh Dear, Oh Dear, Oh Dear, which became his catchphrase when a driver had a mishap.
Both were handwritten then typed up by someone else – he is not a big fan of keyboards although happy to research his tours online.
His love of coach tours goes back long before he ran his own. It was a tour in Spain that led to him meeting Adrienne in 1973.
“Our coach operator had two hotels in one town. When they picked up at the second hotel two girls got on, and Adrienne came and sat beside me. I didn’t see much more of my friends for the rest of that holiday,” he recalled.
The inspiration for the Suffolk tours came on a coach trip to Jersey many years later.
They realised how much more they discovered about the island than if they had just driven round on their own.
But another factor was chatting to the tour manager and finding out how little she knew about Suffolk. “She said ‘it’s all flat’, and thought Constable Country was in Kent,” said Arthur.
“When we got back home I thought I’m going to do something about this. I contacted Mulleys (bus company) and suggested the idea of guided coach tours, and they put it on their schedule for 2007.
“After that I suggested another one to Constable Country and Mulleys didn’t think it was viable, but said you can have a coach and put it on. So that’s what we did and 2008 was when we started.
“Adrienne came from Ireland and when members of her family came over to stay I would take them for a drive around.
“I based our first tour on one we had done south of Bury, taking in Hawkedon, Clare and Cavendish.
“It went down well, and we slowly increased to up to 14 tours a year. This year, which is the first year back since Covid, it will be 11 – provided I can get enough bookings to make them viable.
“Now I’m taking the bookings myself rather than going through a third party.”
The tours, which cost £25 per person, start from Bury bus station. “We normally have three planned stops, morning, lunch and afternoon.
“The first one this year was called ‘a taste of Suffolk’. We called at a farm where they grow and press rapeseed oil, and at a pickles and jams firm.
“I talk about the villages we’re passing through, and what we see, and try to put a bit of humour into it as well.
“Whatever you talk about on the coach you mustn’t bore people. Just pick out the points of interest. Talk in headlines. My motor sport commentating helps with that.
“The coach is moving, the cars were moving, so you can’t talk about anything for too long.
“I pick the route then research it. I would start about October this year getting places booked for 2023.
“Adrienne and I would always go out and research the route, finding places to eat and things like that. Try the food and – very important – the toilets.”
Arthur also draws on his long farming experience to add more details to his commentary.
“Sometimes I see things in fields and tell them about the conditions the farmers face – like wheat ‘chitting’, or sprouting, in wet weather, or if it’s too dry the wind knocks it together and the kernels fall out.
“Most of the people who come on my tours are retired. I have regulars who often come along. My favourite route is still the one around Hawkedon.
“There’s also one around the Shotley area that is so interesting with all the stories you can tell.”
They include Alton Water reservoir, the Tattingstone Wonder – cottages disguised to look like a church to improve the view for the local squire, and the HMS Ganges museum.
“There’s also a village called Erwarton, and Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn used to go there,” he added.
“A member of Anne Boleyn’s family lived in Erwarton Hall, and she loved that part of Suffolk so much it’s said she asked that after she was executed her heart should be buried there. When they were doing maintenance work in Erwarton church (in the 1830s) they found a heart-shaped lead casket – so it looks as if it could be true.”
While his heart is firmly in Suffolk Arthur’s tours do occasionally stray over the border into Norfolk.
And if there is someone on board with a connection to places they visit he is happy to hand over the microphone for a while.