Think of the hardest assault course you can imagine, one so punishing it’d probably be illegal; then double the strain and the pain, double it again and you have, for a human, what Eastnor Castle is to an off-roader!
Eastnor Castle is in Herefordshire, home of the Hervey-Bathurst family, located in an area, at the foot of the Malvern Hills, where the SAS runs some of its survival courses and this says all you need to know about the terrain and it’s here where Land Rover has tested its vehicles for more than 50 years.
As it happens there’s a link between an earlier Hervey-Bathurst, who fought in Special Operations in WWII, and the founding of the SAS which famously used tough 4x4s in the deserts of north Africa during the war; we’ll leave the military history there for a bit although it does explain why there is such as strong connection between them.
Today you can book your own Land Rover voyage of discovery (or should that be Discovery?) through the 65 miles of routes of varying difficulty and the few thousand acres at Eastnor where, with an instructor sitting alongside, you begin to see why the maker of the toughest 4x4s in the world chooses to test and develop their prototypes here. In fact, Land Rover’s proud boast is that if a car does not pass its Eastnor courses it isn’t signed off for production.
The original Range Rover concept for a car that was both luxurious and a true 4x4 was perfected here and every Solihull car since has been put through their paces at Eastnor. The clever Hill Descent Control which made its debut in the Freelander and proved that electronics can do much the same job as mechanicals to keep the car under control and moving safely under extreme conditions, was tested on its courses. Not every Land Rover traditionalist liked that one!
For instance, on some occasions you will gently nose up to an edge with a sheer drop beyond and as the car slips over the top and feels to be going down almost vertically, around the time you’re beginning to wish you had updated your will, it’s scarcely believable how the Land Rover takes it in its stride and gets you down in one piece, seemingly in defiance of gravity.
The same applies going the other way when the tyres and axles find enough purchase on even slippery or rocky ground to let the engine power you up. Fording streams and pools where the water is almost broaching over the bonnet and you are wondering at what point the instructor will shout `Abandon ship!’ is no more bother either to these truly remarkable machines which get you through to the other side with no more difficulty than if you were driving to the shops.
Some of the sections have their own special names, Gearbox Hill for example, and Articulation Alley where the axles are forced up and down at crazy angles. Eastnor throws everything at the cars and the drivers too. In many places you have to suspend your fear and place your trust in the technology and the calm voice of the instructor to get you through.
All these are spectacular sections and tests, but oddly enough, one of the hardest would at first sight appear the easiest, which is a hill covered in short, wet grass. If you imagine a rectangle you start in the lower left-hand corner and drive up and across to the top right corner but on a reasonably steep slope.
It sounds a doddle, but on wet grass it’s one of the tougher tests of a 4x4’s grip and I have driven a couple of well-known brands (both German as it happens) which failed in similar conditions. You need good tyres but also brilliant transmissions which do just that, limit the amount of engine power being transmitted to the surface so there is just enough to maintain forward motion but not so much that the tyres cannot cope and they start to spin and you slide down the slope; not though if you are in a Land Rover which easily gets you to the top.
Visitors can try their hand on a variety of courses with varying length and difficulty, but all are eye-opening and will teach you new respect for just what Land Rovers are capable of, even the modern ones which are a far cry from those early machines.
A day at Eastnor Castle on the Land Rover Experience is well worth it and no matter what level of experience or skill you have in such conditions, you will leave with a sense of wonder at how a car can beat what appears to be impossibly difficult terrain.
Just bear in mind though the Hervey-Bathurst family motto of
Spes nescia vinci’ which translates from Latin into Hope knows no defeat’. Neither does a Land Rover.