diamond geezer

 Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Miglia Quadrato is probably London's most peculiar treasure hunt. It takes place once a year inside the boundaries of the City of London. Competitors drive everywhere - this is essentially a car rally. There are sixty clues to find, and precisely five hours to find them in. To minimise traffic hassle the event kicks off at midnight and finishes as dawn is breaking over the rooftops. It's organised by the United Hospitals and University of London Motor Club, or UHULMC for short. It was first run in 1957, when the Suez Crisis inspired a motoring event using minimal petrol. This year's happened during the early hours of Sunday morning, while you were fast asleep. It's not a cryptic battle, more a navigational and observational challenge. And didn't that sound like fun, so I joined one of the teams, stayed up all night and took part.
NOTE: This is an event run under Regulation 5(B) of the Motor Vehicles (Competitions and Trials (England)) Regulations 1969. PLEASE remember to compete QUIETLY and inconspicuously, PARK SENSIBLY - and watch those one way streets.
The Miglia Quadrato is a proper old-school competition, as becomes evident when you sign up - all entries must be by post. A raft of instructions and regulations are then despatched, mainly to ensure that the event goes ahead safely and smoothly, and without causing any complaints which might prevent future MQs from taking place. Use of mobile phones is strictly prohibited, the use of GPS viewed with scorn, and rubber soled shoes and a good torch deemed essential. By the time you've ploughed through several pdfs of rules, security requirements and travel advisory you might be feeling slightly intimidated by the complexity of what's to come. But turn up prepared, with all due paperwork completed, and an exhilarating night awaits.

Cars start filling Finsbury Circus, the designated start and finish point, by 11pm on Saturday evening. It's possible to complete the Miglia Quadrato in your family hatchback, but many competitors choose to turn up in something special, simply to add to the spectacle and challenge. Amongst the vehicles parked up in 2016 were a DeLorean, a Rolls, a Jag, an Austin Metro, a Morris one-ton truck and a vintage fire engine, the latter pair now regular participants carrying students from Imperial College. A very friendly attitude prevails, this is no place for cut-throat scheming, but some long-standing teams exhibit a competitive edge and have been already out around the city practising for the big night.

At midnight precisely the clues are handed out - 20 easy, 20 medium and 20 hard - and teams rush back to their vehicles to begin the challenge. The first step is to translate a series of eight figure grid references into locations in the City, this using an large scale Ordnance Survey map of the area and a small cardboard square called a romer. Done correctly this narrows down the search area for each clue to a 10m square, hence it's well worth investing time up front to avoid going on a wild goose chase later. Here tactics kick in. Do you mark a few and rush off, completing the rest on the move, or mark the lot before planning the most efficient route? The less experienced are strongly advised to focus on the easier clues first, with the "difficult"s left to those who've done this before and have some idea how the organisers' minds work.

Once a location has been reached, the hunt begins. Each clue includes a question to be answered or phrase to be completed, for example "SITE OF which CHURCH?" or "... WITH ____ FACES", the capital letters signifying wording to be identified in situ. Usually this is on a plaque somewhere or on a wall, but could be on an item of street furniture, and the harder the clue the more likely it is to require a torch, squinting or crouching to spot. If the required phrase isn't immediately obvious a lot of rushing around can be involved, hunting round nooks and down alleyways, and remembering to look all the way up as well as down. After ten minutes you can begin to doubt your own map-reading skills, but are you sure you've checked absolutely everywhere within the grid square... oh thank God, there it is at the bottom of the pillar box.

Sometimes you know you're in the right place when you see flashlights on arrival, or when another team turns up and starts hunting too. It can then become a collective challenge, even unintentionally, with the correct answer easily leaked if yelled to teammates while others are listening in. Alternatively just watch to identify the last wall a team was searching before they suddenly left, and head over, and there should be the answer you require. But even with sixty clues and sixty teams taking part, it's often the case that nobody else turns up at all, and then you're properly on your own with only your wits and observational skills to help you.

The City in the early hours of a Sunday morning can be a surprisingly busy place. Up round Spitalfields the night-time crowds ebb only slowly away, and even in the heart of the financial district you're never far from a tottering girl in a cocktail dress. But elsewhere, blimey it can be quiet, particularly when a map is directing you up a sidestreet less well-trodden even in daylight. There you are, just you and your team, criss-crossing the cobbles and pointing torches at buildings... it's just as well the City of London Police are fully aware of what's going on, else your aimless inquisitive behaviour could look very suspicious indeed.

It soon becomes apparent that the most important factor contributing to success in the Miglia Quadrato is a working knowledge of the City's one-way system. A web of seemingly perverse traffic regulations exists across the Square Mile, blocking off streets, banning turns and often diverting you far from your intended destination. The Ring of Steel was deliberately designed to make travel around the city difficult, and succeeds, and it's inordinately frustrating to know precisely where you want to go but to be prevented by an endless sequence of one-way arrows and no right turns. Even though parking restrictions can be treated with rare disdain, it often seemed as if the challenge would be much easier on foot, rather than forever reversing down narrow alleyways or accidentally ending up on the wrong side of the river.

The five hours whizz by, despite the fact you ought to be asleep. Clues need to be tackled at a rate of one every five minutes if you're going to get them all right... which nobody ever has, incidentally. It's time-consuming trying to locate a year etched on the bottom of one of five flowerbeds, or squinting up at a date on a coat of arms and trying to angle your flashlight so it illuminates rather than blurs. Another challenge is the lack of facilities in the City. There is a 24 hour petrol station if you know where to look, and have failed to fill up first, but it's the lack of public conveniences that really bites when your bladder conspires to reach bursting point with absolutely nowhere to go.

It's important to be back at the finish by 5am - there's a penalty point for every minute that you're late. This means an increasing crescendo of arrivals as the clock ticks round, and one team member hops out to hand in their route card for marking. But it's still important to stay awake - I watched one unfortunate vehicle accidentally rear-shunt another at this point, and much concerned scrutiny of bumpers took place. If you hang around for another half an hour the marshals tally up the scores and post up the results on a big piece of paper. This year's top team achieved an amazing 57 out of 60, although the average score was only 29, and I'm afraid my team didn't even manage that.

Assuming next year's Miglia Quadrato goes ahead, you have a year to find a willing team and appropriate vehicle. There's also an "on foot" version called the Londinium Pedo, generally held in early autumn (and in daylight), should your body clock be more suited. No, there isn't a website for all this - Ian Visits has the details of the email address needed to get the information to get the form to post off to take part. But it is a proper retro-challenge, and enormously fun, and above all an annual labour of love on the part of the organisers. Long may the Miglia Quadrato continue.

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