On a course at Eastnor estate that teaches drivers how to handle their 4x4s, Charles Rangeley-Wilson gets a glimpse of the new Land Rover Discovery.
Halfway through my journey across Land Rover’s proving ground in Herefordshire, I glimpse something that looks as if it’s straight out of a scene from The X-Files. We’re coming down a hill; Rob, my instructor, is explaining how my inside wheel will lift off the ground at the bend at the bottom and that I should go slowly and wait for the car to tip downwards, when a zebra-spangled shape flashes across the gap ahead of us.
‘What’s that?’ I ask. ‘What’s what?’ replies Land Rover’s press officer, Tracey, craning forwards from the back seat. ‘Test vehicle,’ says Rob. ‘It’s nothing,’ adds Tracey, quickly. ‘Don’t look.’
The apparition has stopped on the track to our right. This thing—whatever it is— appears to have been camouflaged for life on a sunny day near the North Pole. It sticks out like a polar bear in Borneo. Two men in white hazmat suits have climbed out, one on each side. They’re examining the wheels, but look up in alarm as I pull to a halt.
‘I said don’t look,’ Tracey growls. ‘I’m not looking. I’m glancing. Okay. I’m guessing that’s the latest Dis…,’ I stutter. ‘Don’t even say it. Just move off slowly. you’re not allowed to see that.’
‘Okay, okay,’ I say, obediently nudging the car into gear and tilting it, as instructed, into a downhill toboggan slide. It’s the last I see of test drivers Mulder and Scully and the forthcoming ‘don’t say it’. But what this close encounter shows me, bidden though I am to complete silence, is that Land Rover really does test its new models—not that it’s a new model, of course, it is nothing and it never happened—on the kind of terrain they’re built for. I mean those guys were mud-plugging and they were having fun doing it.
And so am I. I’m not in the new ‘don’t say it’, of course. I’m not even in the current ‘don’t say it’. I’m in the lounge lizard of the range, much more slippers than wellies, but I’m in my slippers in the biggest puddle you’ve ever seen.
Keen to show that the 2wD baby Range Rover is more than just a fuel-sipping commute wagon, Tracey has arranged for me to take it around Eastnor’s 5,000 muddy acres. What I am discovering is just how much you can be taught about driving off-road in a day under Rob’s instruction. So much, in fact, I’d say most drivers would be better venturing off-road in a 2wD with a day’s instruction than a 4wD machine with no instruction at all.
What can you learn, then? Starting in a sort of romper room for cars, all concrete slipways and corrugations, we establish the off-road basics, the first being angle of attack and ground clearance. We drove across an enormous concrete fretboard with ridges and ruts that would have beached a tractor, but, taken at an angle and rarely with more than two wheels on the ground, we rocked and squeaked our way over the junior Maginot line. Interesting.
The second is traction, or lack of it, and how to find some when there isn’t any. A concrete ramp with insets of steel rollers perfectly imitates an icy hill. First go, my offside front wheel hits the rollers, loses grip and spins crazily. I back off, trying to control the spin with the throttle, falter and slide impotently backwards. With Rob’s encouragement, I try again and keep the wheel spinning, long enough for the traction control to bite at it with a brake and feed power to the wheel with its rubber on the deck. Up we go. Even more interesting.
Finally, we have rollers on both sides. Offside and nearside, lit up like Catherine wheels, progress halts, revs climb and we slide back down the hill. ‘Now, you need momentum,’ advises Rob.
These three basics, simple though they sound, underpin our way through, over and around more or less every hazard the rest of the day throws at us: rock crawls, traverses, mud, ruts and water. I slide down hills, clamber up them, spin the wheels until burnt rubber fills the Herefordshire forests, positively toast the clutch, ford pools I could have fished in and generally slip-slide my way round and round Eastnor’s 53 miles of tracks as if I’m in an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard. It’s wild fun!
The Eastnor estate has long ties to Land Rover—the firm has been testing and developing vehicles there since 1961—but the outrageously amusing circuit isn’t a lock-down for journalists or ‘don’t say it’ test drivers in hazard suits. Anyone who buys a new Landie gets the chance to take his or her vehicle there and learn how to drive it off-road. Anyone else can book themselves in for half a day or a full day’s tuition, ‘advanced’ days and night drives.
All highly recommended if you’re like to avoid being the chump who gets the new ‘don’t say it’ struck on a shoot.
To practise your off-road driving in the grounds of Eastnor Castle, near Ledbury, in Herefordshire, telephone 01531 638779 or visit www.eastnor.landroverexperience.co.uk