Medium Hard-packed sand, slight to medium hills with minor obstacles in all weather.
Medium Hard-packed sand, slight to medium hills with minor obstacles in all weather.
We finally slither to an agonising, ignominious halt half way up the slope in the ankle-deep clay, steam billowing from mud-packed tyres. We’re not stuck, exactly… but we’re not going forward any time soon, either.
“Okay… so that didn’t really work, did it… I think there’s just one solution left to us,” muses my instructor, Howard ‘Howie’ Corbally. “Let’s back her down the hill a bit further… and then just bang it.”
What we’re about to… ahem… ‘bang’ is a very expensive Range Rover up a long, muddy, greasy uphill chute that stretches at least eighty metres ahead of us. It’s beaten me twice already, thanks to a churned-up base that’s created deep, unforgiving trenches that just won’t hold a wheel. It’s not especially steep, it’s not rocky… it’s just not that easy.
Although I’m usually pretty unfussed about off-roading – slow and steady, I find, eventually wins the race and keeps the shovels in the boot - I’d be lying if I said that this obstacle, now populated by a brace of Range Rover employees and my journalistic peers, all scenting blood in the water, isn’t starting to piss me off a little bit.
Driving a Range Rover at Eastnor Castle
The track – and the Range Rover – belongs to the Land Rover Experience, which is based at Land Rover’s oldest active test facilities in the grounds of Eastnor Castle, which is about 80km from Birmingham in the UK’s midlands.
There’s over 100km of trails in the grounds that cover the gamut, as one instructor puts it, “from pretty to pretty ridiculous”.
The castle itself isn’t from the era of Richard the Lionheart or the Magna Carta – rather, it’s more of a lawyer’s and banker’s affectation that wasn’t built until 1821, and set amid rolling, lightly wooded emerald-green grounds that run for more than 20km corner to corner.
In fact, if you’ve ever Googled ‘English castle grounds’, you may well have come up with something very much like Eastnor Castle – in parts, at least. With lots of elevation, acres of woodland and the occasional exposed ridgeline, Eastnor comes directly from the ‘wooded English countryside’ playbook.
We have to negotiate a burgeoning army of gaffers, grips and best boys on site filming a TV series for the US.
Pheasants dart in and out of undergrowth – hint; they are just as dumb as kangaroos when it comes to cars and their own personal safety, so take care – while yew trees that were once harvested to make longbows and arrow quills stand quietly amongst giant oaks that litter the grounds. It’s every bit the landed gentry-spec English estate.
A private tunnel was built from the nearby train station at Hereford in the early 1800s, so said lorded gentry could commute to the palace without needing to be seen by commoners. Sniff.
Owned by one Lord Bathurst – no relation to the Bathurst we know and love – his sons James and George still run the estate to this day. “Y’ know, weddings and raves, that sort of thing,” says one of our guides. Raves? Are they still a thing?
Eastnor is actually castle-esque enough that it’s starred in several movies and TV series over the last decade, including the 1969 Sammy Davis Jr classic One More Time and, more excitingly, Antiques Roadshow.
In fact, we have to negotiate a burgeoning army of gaffers, grips and best boys on site filming a TV series for the US. “All hush hush, apparently,” says our gossipy guide… though marquees that could probably be seen from space seems like a silly way to achieve the whole hush-hush thing.
Land Rover heritage at Eastnor Castle
The site has played host to Land Rover since the 1950s, when troops from the nearby SAS base at Hereford started taking their government issue Mk1s into the woods for a wee spot of off-roading – which gave the factory an idea.
An official relationship between the castle and the company began in 1958, and evaluation of Land Rovers and Range Rovers has carried on almost uninterrupted on site over the last 70 years.
HQ at Gaydon is barely 80km away, and despite several changes of ownership over the years, one constant has always been the castle and its myriad of trails.
The vehicles range from Evoques, through to Range Rover Autobiographies and the Land Rover Velar.
The idea of adding the experience component came about eight years ago. It’s designed primarily as an added extra for people who buy Land Rover products and want to give them a go in the woods.
“People are given a half-day experience when they buy a car, and they’ll often upgrade it to a full day,” says Howie.
The cars are not prepped in any way for off-road work, and the team use road tyres at road pressures. Various options like cameras and cooled console bins are added, but the idea is to give customers an idea of the capabilities of their cars as they are.
“We don’t want to fool our customers into thinking their vehicles have more performance than they actually have,” remarks Howard.
Each will do a 12-month tour of duty, with a trip back to JLR headquarters at Gaydon every six weeks for a service. “At the end of the year, they’ve done the equivalent of a lifetime of work, or 180,000 miles (300,000km),” says Howard. Some are pulled down and assessed for wear before being crushed, but others are completely refurbished and sold at auction – so if you ever see one with ‘Land Rover Experience’ in the logbook… Each tester completes a log for each car and each experience after each day, and most cars will have 12 complete logs before being retired.
A tough, but fun, time on the Land Rover Experience
Our day is clear but chilly, and the trails are boggy from an atypically wet and cold winter, even by English midlands standards. Pockets of snow dot shady glades, the last remnants of the most recent ‘Beast of the East’ snowstorms that brought most of the UK to a standstill.
Flinty access roads soon give way to rich, dark soil that stays just this side of the consistency of clay, and we’re soon engaging Land Rover’s all-terrain modes to begin our ascent up to the ground’s tallest peak. Our Range Rover Velar quietly picks its way across the well-defined doubletrack, not fazed in the least by either its rookie pilot or the occasional patch of deep ooze.
In fact, the biggest take-out from the day is working out just how much you can trust a combination of zeros and ones to help you navigate stretches of terrain that, at first glance, look damn near impossible to navigate. The hill descent mode in Land Rover and Range Rover products, for example, can be adjusted for speeds between 5km/h and 18km/h, depending upon the will of your instructor and the laws of physics.
One instructor relates a tale of a client who let fly down a hill at well over a comfortable limit, but the car managed to rein it in before carnage ensued. “What’s wrong?” the client is said to have asked her hubby and the instructor, by this time hugging each other in unadulterated terror. “We made it, didn’t we?”
After a few kilometres of moderately slippery terrain, we swap into a Range Rover Autobiography, tackling a series of artificial obstacles including a staircase and a set of steep moguls that show off to dramatic effect the articulation abilities of the cars, as well as an astonishing ability to handle loaded tyre sidewalls. In fact, some of the obstacles that look truly terrifying are completely nullified by the vast scope of the Rangie’s loose terrain trickery.
Tackling a massive hill in a Range Rover Autobiography
We continue up and over a long, grassed hill, looping back around what would prove to be my nemesis, a 80m long stretch of doubletrack flanked by metre-high banks that gained in height all the way along its length.
Colleagues aboard a Discovery 5 and our Velar slipped and slapped their respective ways up the slope, churning the formerly firmish top layer into something that now resembles undercooked brownie. Our big Rangie sits patiently, its six-potter petrol engine gently humming as I eyeball my options – which look slim.
“Let’s go,” urges Howie, and I start steadily, building up a head of steam to keep momentum on our side. Try as I might, though, I can’t keep her in the wheel ruts of the earlier cars, with the soft soil simply churning into batter and spitting us into the soft, sticky stuff. This then gums up the tyres, which reduces my traction and stops us dead.
I back down the hill, regather my thoughts and punch it again. I get a little further… but no far enough. This is starting to annoy me now. As we ratchet back down the slope, the hillside now resembles a no man’s land set from a WW1 movie.
I nod, point the nose up the hill and floor it.
This is where the experience of the Land Rover crew and the dry wit of the English comes to the fore. After some gentle jibes about needing a cup of tea, we back even further down the hill, and I’m gently encouraged to abandon all semblance of mechanical sympathy. I nod, point the nose up the hill and floor the Rangie.
If you ever wondered what it might be like to ride in a large tumble dryer, then this ride’s for you. I’m savagely bashing the steering wheel hard over to try and get the leading edge of the tyre to bite into the earthen bank, while the body is slammed mercilessly through the deep ruts.
My hands fly off the wheel in the midst of it all before I gather it all up, throttle pinned and goopy mud raining vertically down from a massive height, and I’m aware of Howard shouting “c’mon, man! You’re still moving forward!” repeatedly.
We inch agonisingly upwards, the engine shrieking in protest, before we burst over the crest into a field, our windscreen obscured and steam billowing from the front of the car. “See? Not so hard, old chap,” says Howard, motioning us to pull up for – literally – a cup of tea.
Getting the most out of your Land Rover Experience
The rest of the day follows a similar pattern, including some amazing water fords that wash over the bonnets of the cars, some rocky descents and a terrific view of the castle from the ground’s highest point. It’s a long day in the saddle, and we’re quietly relieved to see tarmac again as we negotiate tractors towing lighting rigs down in the castle grounds.
If you have a thing for Land Rover, you will absolutely get a kick out of negotiating the same terrain that the company has used for the last 50 years to build its still enviable off-road reputation, you’ll gain a new-found appreciation for the ability of a stock Land or Range Rover, and you’ll certainly learn new skills that will help you get more from offroading’s latest tech.
And see if you can nail that climb first time. It’s a belter.