Two names stand out in the in the Land Rover lexicon capturing the brands heritage: Camel Trophy and Eastnor Castle. Many of us fell in love with Land Rovers after watching them battle the worst possible conditions in Madagascar, Brazil, Australia, Borneo, Siberia, Africa and South America. Camel Trophy will remain forever a part of Land Rover’s history, unfortunately it is history.
But long before there was Camel Trophy there was Eastnor Castle. In those fabled woods, shrouded in secrecy, all modern Land Rovers have been tested and proven. And not only vehicles have been put to the test at Eastnor Castle, but generations of expedition, military, rescue and relief drivers. While the closest we’ll ever get to a Camel Trophy is our living room’s TV, we can all experience first hand the hills, mud, and deep water that have challenged Land Rover engineers and off road drivers for decades.
You can imagine our excitement when we learned that we too could drive Land Rovers at Eastnor. A quick phone call to the Land Rover Experience in England and we were booked for a couple of days of driver training at Eastnor Castle, a tour of the Land Rover factory and a spin on the “Jungle Track”. We knew we were in for good off roading when, before hanging up the phone, the driving instructor told us to make sure we packed our wellies!
Our first shock on exiting Heathrow Airport was the number of Land Rovers we saw in the car park. Our amazement continued as we drove north to Solihull. Sharing the road with us were brand new Defenders, Range Rovers, Discoverys, and a sea of Freelanders. But it was the older models that kept turning our heads, 88s, 107s, 109s, Classic Range Rovers, even 3-door Range Rovers.
The next morning we drove the few miles from our hotel to the sprawling Land Rover factory. There were literally tens of thousands of Land Rovers, all models, shapes and colors parked on every available inch of parking area awaiting shipment to lucky owners. We felt like kids in a candy store.
Pulling up to the Driving Experience office, we were welcomed by Zoe, one of the Driving Instructors, who went over our schedule for the next few days. First up was a tour of the factory.
The Freelander and Range Rover assembly lines hummed with robotic activity. From different parts of the mammoth building, conveyor lines delivered car components to the central assembly line where multi-armed robots put it all together. At the end of the line, we watched in amazement as drivers hoped in each vehicle, turned the key and actually drove them out of the building.
Walking into the Defender plant, we felt we had walked through a time tunnel. Instead of the hum of robotic machinery, the building was full of people doing work not just pushing computer buttons. We watched as sheets of aluminum were pressed into body panels and hand carried to ‘staging’ areas where groups of individuals were hand assembling each vehicle. Each and every rivet was drilled by hand with only the craftsman’s eye guiding its placement.
After lunch, we rejoined Zoe who put us in a brand new Defender and led us to the famous Jungle Track. The Jungle Track is a winding, rock-strewn watercourse, a river in all but name, that meanders among tall trees and lush vegetation. Gingerly we nosed the Defender into the water. Because of the thick vegetation and the perennially cloudy English skies, peering into the water revealed only an inky blackness. With the water level rising above the bumper, Zoe calmly told us to accelerate gently to create a bow-wave. The trick was to get just the right amount of speed. Too slow and no wave was formed; too fast and the vehicle overran the wave. Fortunately the Jungle Track is quite long giving us ample opportunity to practice getting the bow wave just right.
Between the lush vegetation and the concentration required to “surf” the Defender, we soon forgot we were in the middle of a sprawling industrial complex. It’s amazing that such an elaborate and natural looking off road training track is located smack in the middle of the factory grounds; we could have been in deepest darkest Borneo.
Once we had mastered the Jungle “River”, Zoe led us to some of the other off road tracks at Solihull. Driving up the infamous staircase, we had to fight the temptation to lean on the gas trusting instead to the Td5 engine’s low RMP grunt. It was amazing how at idle, the engine happily pushed the 110 up the stairs. On a high and very steep man-made hill, we learned to rely on the Td5’s amazing engine braking for safely descending steep terrain.
We spent the next couple of hours driving very muddy trails getting “comfortable” with the Defender and smoothing our left handed gear shifting (the Defender was a right hand drive with a manual transmission).
Recently the Driving Experience has put every single person that works at the Land Rover factory through the Jungle Track. Now the people assembling our Land Rovers know first hand what we put the vehicles they build through. Having an off road test facility right in the middle of the factory and putting all who work on Land Rovers through it speaks volumes of Land Rover’s commitment to build the best 4x4xfar!
As we parked the thoroughly muddy Defender at the Driving Experience office, a light rain began to fall. By the time we reached the motorway the rain was coming down in buckets. The rain’s intensity only increased during the hour and a half drive from Solihull to Ledbury, home of Eastnor Castle. Checking into our hotel, a sixteenth century Coaching Inn, we fully expected a message calling off our off road driving at Eastnor. However, there were no messages.
It rained heavily all night, but by dawn it was down to a light drizzle. With no “cancellation message” we threw our wellies and “waterproofs” in the back of the Land Rover and drove the couple of miles to the Castle.
The overriding impression one has upon seeing Eastnor Castle is that this is indeed a Castle! The massive stone building with its round watchtowers, gatehouse, and battlements is exactly what one imagines a castle should be. This storybook medieval castle was actually built in 1820 and is one of England’s foremost examples of Norman Revival architecture. The “Medieval” fortress is massive. It required 250 men working day and night for 6 years to build it (not including interior work!); in just the first 18 months of construction, 4,000 tons of sandstone blocks, 16,000 tons of mortar and 600 tons of wood were used. The Castle is the home to the Hervey-Bathurst family who just happen to be Land Rover enthusiasts.
Eastnor Castle and Land Rover go back, way back. Shortly after his young bride inherited the Castle, Major Benjamin Hervey-Bathurst bought his first Land Rover. The year was 1949. There have been Land Rovers working the 5,000 acre estate ever since. And that original Land Rover was still hard at work well into the 70s!
By the mid sixties, Eastnor had become Land Rover’s unofficial testing ground. Every Land Rover since has spent countless hours on the trails that crisscross the Eastnor woods. When Major Ben, as he liked to be called, died in 1997, Land Rover lost a dear friend. The Major was a true gentleman, equally at ease presiding over a banquet in the Castle’s Great Hall, as working under one of the estate’s many Land Rovers. He often joked that he had just cut a new trail that the Land Rovers couldn’t climb. When they did climb it, he just went on and cut a new, more difficult trail. Fortunately for Land Rover, James Hervey-Bathurst not only inherited the Castle but the Major’s love of Land Rovers, stating that he regards “Land Rover as part of the family.”
Feeling like kids on the first day of school, a mixture of excitement and apprehension we pulled into the Castle’s parking lot. Not only were we going to be driving the Eastnor tracks, but at the end of the training it would be Don Green, the legendary Land Rover driving instructor, who would decide if I had what it took to become a Land Rover Driving Instructor.
Like the Castle, Don Green and Land Rover go way back. He has not only trained countless generations of expedition drivers and elite military units, but has traveled the world demonstrating what Land Rovers can do. He has often spent months at the time in hostile environments teaching foreign military forces how to get the most out of their Land Rovers.
Steve Vaughan, our instructor and designer of the Driving Experience Driver Training courses, met us at the parking area. His wit and infectious sense of humor soon had us at ease. He explained that we would be driving with him for a couple of days and then Zoe would join us for the winching and vehicle recovery portions of the training. When I mentioned the night’s rain, Steve chuckled and said it should make for “interesting” driving.
With the preliminaries out of the way, we got into the Defender and headed down the Castle’s Deer Park towards the woods. Along the way Steve went over gear selection, Diff-Lock, and how to shift from Low Range to High Range on the move. That was something new to us. He explained that when pulling a heavy trailer or in heavy sand, it was often necessary to start in low range, but that once the vehicle was moving high range was needed. Later Don Green would put it differently, saying: “sometimes you need to go to high range, because someone is shooting at you!”
Just when we were thinking that this wasn’t going to be so difficult, Steve had us turn left onto a track that seemed to disappear into thin air. Instinctively I slammed the brakes and felt the Defender sink into the mud. Steve’s wide, mischievous grin told me I had goofed. Lesson one: “recce time” is never wasted time. In other words get out and scout an unfamiliar trail before committing to it. Lesson two: when driving in deep mud, don’t slam on the brakes. The Defender was stuck, not being able to move forward or backwards. I thought our vehicle recovery class would start a couple of days early, but Steve showed us that 2 minutes of shovel work was all that was needed to get the Defender out. Lesson three: don’t be afraid to do a bit of “spade” work.
A bit further down the track I again got stuck, this time high centering the Defender in very deep ruts. Once unstuck, Steve had me drive back into the ruts and try to drive out. The combination of the ruts’ depth and Eastnor’s super slippery, glutinous mud made it impossible. The shovel once again came to the rescue. By digging precisely placed “exit” ramps out of the ruts, we were able to drive right out. Later, we learned how to use a rope and a handy tree to drive out of deep ruts.
When I complained about how tight some of the track’s turns were, Steve smiled, unlocked the center diff lock, and had me try again. Big difference. With the center diff unlocked, I could easily maneuver the Defender around the turns. I knew we could lock and unlock the center diff at any speed, and that having it locked increased the vehicle’s turning radius, but hadn’t thought about unlocking it to make a tight turn.
The day’s last challenge was to drive up a grassy slope to a hilltop stone monument. After battling axle deep mud all day, this task seemed like the proverbial walk in the park. Boy, were we ever wrong! The wet grass provided the traction of black ice. Driving Experience Defenders do not have traction control because “that makes things too easy”. Spinning the tires only succeeded in burying the tires. Steve had me turn off the Defender and think about traction, torque and wheel speed. He pointed out that part of the problem was the tremendous torque the Defender, in low range, was putting to the wheels. I shifted to high range, 2nd gear and eased out the clutch. It worked. The tires were gently rolling over the grass finding the little traction there was and moving the vehicle up the slope.
Knowing how slippery the grass was, we knew coming back down the hill would be “interesting”. Back in low range we pointed straight down the fall line and started down. Steve told us to keep one foot covering the accelerator pedal. When the back of Defender began to slide sideways, Steve had me add a bit of power, which quickly pulled the back end back in line. This technique, often called “a trailing accelerator” proved just the ticket to make a safe and controlled descent on super slippery ground.
Back at our Inn that evening, we realized we were physically and mentally wiped out. The driving and shovel work had been physical, but it was the sheer volume of information and know-how that had been poured on us that had us spinning our mental wheels.
Day two saw us heading toward the “Camel Trophy” tracks on the back of the estate. The hills were steeper, the mud deeper and more glutinous, and we had numerous deepwater crossings to negotiate. While the Jungle Track had a solid base, Eastnor’s water crossings, ponds really, had, as everything else at Eastnor, a deep muddy bottom. The temptation was to plunge into the crossing and blast through it. This was of course the worst way to do it, often resulting in a buried front end, and in petrol vehicles, a drowned engine. The proper way was to slowly, using engine braking, ease into the water. Once the back of the vehicle had cleared the bank, accelerate smoothly but forcefully to create the all important bow wave.
The glutinous mud made driving a physical and at times a contact sport. When we felt the tires begin to loose traction, we were told to “saw” the steering wheel from left to right. This not only allowed the lugs on the tires to bite, but threw a bit of the vehicle’s weight first to one front tire then to the other. By increasing the tire’s pressure on the ground, we were in effect creating a primitive traction control system. All day long Steve kept refining our driving technique and showing us different ways to tackle tough terrain. His easy going teaching style made learning a pleasure.
The next day, Zoe and a Defender 130 joined us for the vehicle recovery training. We began with simple tow recoveries and moved on to the many uses of a high lift jack. We covered “pole-vaulting” the Defender out of ruts and winching with the jack. Our off roading high lift jack use had been limited to the dry trails of the southwest. Using the jack in the slippery bottomless mud was a whole new experience.
The afternoon was spent winching. Under Steve and Zoe’s watchful eyes, we worked through various winching scenarios. We used single line straight pulls for self recovery and a double line straight pull to recover the 130. When the winching 110 started to be dragged into the quagmire, Steve pointed out that if we dead-ended the winch line not on the 110 but on a nearby tree, the load on the 110 would be halved.
Next came using snatch blocks to change the direction of pull, allowing us to winch around corners. By attaching the snatch block to a rope wound around a tree, we could change the angle of the pull as needed. Likewise a snatch block could be used to direct the winch line back onto the drum for tight and gap free re-spooling.
Our final winching exercise involved winching up a hill. This involved having to “tie-off” the vehicle at various points of the climb to re-rig the cable. Using a choker chain and tree strap we securely anchored the Defender to a tree and took the load on the winch cable off. Steve smiled maliciously and said “Well now, let’s pretend your winch no longer works. What would you do?” Smugly I said: “We’ll drive back down the trail and find another way up”. “OK, Steve said, ”Do it”. Lesson 38 or was it 47: when tying off a vehicle on a hill, make sure you can un-tie it without having to move the car up the hill. The way we had tied off the car, we couldn’t undo the choker chain or the strap until there was slack on the line, which meant the vehicle had to move up the hill. A physical impossibility without the winch. Zoe pointed out that the better way to tie off was to wrap the rope around a tree creating in effect a “capstan” winch.
“Final exam” day dawned cold and misty. Over tea Don Green smiled and said that he would be my student for the day. I gasped and shook my head, Don Green, my student? Me teach off road driving to Don Green? Seeing my puzzled face and opened mouth, Don explained that the certification test consisted of demonstrating to a senior driving instructor one’s teaching and driving skills. I was to start at the beginnings, assuming Don was a rank beginner. Just wrapping my head around that concept was difficult enough, Don has probably forgotten more about off road driving than I’ll ever know.
Once in the Defender, Don was a good sport, asking all the “right” questions: how does four wheel drive work? What’s permanent four wheel drive? Why low range? I began to loosen up and by the time I put my “student” behind the wheel, I was feeling pretty confident.
In the blink of an eye, my docile pupil became the “student from hell”. I had my hands full just keeping him from crashing into a tree. He seemed to sprout extra hands and feet, all doing precisely the wrong thing at the worst possible moment. Somehow I managed to get control, kept him from killing us and was able to begin “teaching”. We went over gear selection, Hi/Low range, Diff Lock, hand placement (On the wheel, Please!).
Before I knew it the four-hour “lesson” was over. Don smiled and said, “that wasn’t bad. Now let’s just drive”. And for the next few hours I drove the fabled trails of Eastnor Castle with Don Green riding shotgun, thinking that off roading didn’t get any better than this!
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