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Land Rover Experience at Eastnor Castle

By Dean Mellor | Photos: Nick Dimbleby & Land Rover, 15 Mar 2019 Explore

Land Rover Experience Eastnor Castle feature

Could this be a Land Rover fanatic’s ultimate adventure? 4x4 Australia's self-confessed Landie addict headed to the UK find out

A few weeks ago, Land Rover invited 4X4 Australia on a trip to the UK for a technical presentation on the 2010MY Discovery, Range Rover Sport and Range Rover Vogue for the June 2009 edition of 4X4 Australia. As you know, England is a bloody long way from Oz, especially for a one-day presentation that didn’t even include a drive of the new vehicles.

This feature was originally published in 4x4 Australia’s July 2009 issue

So to entice the Australian journo contingent to the other side of the world, Land Rover expanded the schedule to a mammoth two-and-a-half days on English soil. This would include a tour of Land Rover’s Solihull manufacturing plant, a drive of the new Freelander TD4_e, an off-road driving course around Eastnor Estate, a night at Eastnor Castle and the chance to drive a bunch of old Landies from the Land Rover Experience Heritage Vehicle collection.

Despite the brevity of the trip, five nights away from home with only two nights on the ground in Old Blighty, as a Landie-fan from way back, I was as happy as a pig in mud … and Eastnor Estate has plenty of mud.

Eastnor has been used for many years as a secret test facility by Land Rover and it’s here that all prototypes and new models are put through a rigorous off-road test regime. It’s also the home of the Land Rover Experience, a worldwide (except Australia) operation from Land Rover that facilitates driver-training and off-road adventures for owners of the British marque.

The grounds of Eastnor Estate, located in Herefordshire, cover more than 2000 hectares on which there are 48km of carefully managed off-road tracks. As we ambled up the long driveway to the estate, it was impossible to be underwhelmed as the imposing Eastnor Castle came into sight.

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And carefully lined up in the forecourt was a collection of old Landies ranging from a restored Series I and a mint Range Rover Classic through to a fully kitted-out SAS Defender and Lara Croft’s V8
monster, as seen in the Hollywood blockbuster Tomb Raider. I began to salivate at the prospect of driving these vehicles later in the day, but first we were directed to the castle’s Octagon Saloon where bacon sandwiches and cups of tea awaited us. Who said this job was tough?

It was here we met Roger Crathorne, aka Mr Land Rover, who was to be our off-road guide for the day. Roger was born in Lode Lane, a mile from the Land Rover factory at Solihull, in 1947 and he began working there in 1963. His current role with Land Rover is that of development engineer and he probably knows more about the brand and its vehicles than just about anyone else in the world.

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After brekky we met the rest of the LR Experience crew, had a short briefing and were shown to the fleet of Discovery 3s we were to drive around the estate.

Other than the addition of a Warn winch up front, all of the Discoverys used by Land Rover Experience are standard, right down to the road oriented tyres. This gives paying customers the chance to experience just how capable their own Discoverys are in off-road situations.

LR Experience offers a wide range of options for customers at a number of locations. The company also offers three levels of off-road driver training courses (introductory, intermediate and advanced) as well as winching, vehicle recovery and trailer-handling courses. Oh, and it also runs corporate and group events.

On many of the four-wheel-drive vehicle launches I’ve been to, the off-road driving loops used by vehicle manufacturers are either specifically designed or carefully researched so that they make certain models look good. After all, the last thing a company wants is for a bunch of journos to come away from an off-road drive questioning the off-road capability of a vehicle.

But Eastnor Estate, which has been used solely by Land Rover for a number of decades, is different. The tracks are tough and, although maintained, are variable depending on the weather and how often they’ve been used immediately preceding each drive loop.

Although the sky was unusually blue and bereft of clouds – I thought it always rained here – there had been quite a few downpours over the previous few days. What started as a gentle climb along a smooth gravel road across open fields soon degenerated into a slippery mud-fest through steep and deeply rutted tracks on a heavily wooded hillside.

Appropriately, we were instructed to select the mud and ruts program of the Disco’s Terrain Response 4X4 system.

I’m happy to report that I wasn’t behind the wheel when our Discovery’s forward progress was halted by a particularly rutted climb. A mate of mine, South African journalist Patrick Cruywagen, was the ineffective pilot of the Disco at the time.

A tow rope was brought into play to extract our Disco. I asked Roger Crathorne why the LR Experience team didn’t use snatch straps and he replied that they’re too dangerous, due to the immense forces built up as they stretch and then contract again. I’ve seen snatch straps fail in the past and it ain’t a pretty sight.

Roger claims that a gentle tug with a quality tow rope is enough to get out of most situations – if more is required, the vehicles’ Warn electric winches are brought into play. 

Quickly tiring of my goading, Patrick insisted that I have a turn peddling the Disco through the slime. I reckon I lasted a solid 10 minutes before I, too, succumbed to the mud. This was obviously a good chance for the LR Experience crew to perform a winching demonstration and we were soon on the move again.

What the LR Experience off-road driving course on Eastnor Estate displayed was how effective the Discovery 3 is in tricky off-road conditions. In fact, it went everywhere the lead vehicle – a Defender 90 – went and only got stuck where the Defender couldn’t get through.

If you’re a bit of a Landie fan, or just want to do some off-road driving the next time you’re holidaying in the UK, then I can strongly recommend the Land Rover Experience at Eastnor.

Not only will you get to play in the mud, you’ll also meet a bunch of very experienced and friendly off-roaders.

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Life in Eastnor Castle

Built by Baron Somers (later 1st Earl), between 1810 and 1824, Eastnor Castle was designed in an Edward 1st medieval fortress style. Around 250 men, working day and night, were employed in the first six years of construction. It cost £85,923.13s, approximately £8.5 million today (A$17.4 million), to complete.

In the following years, the castle was updated by the 2nd and 3rd Earls, but by 1939, the traditional aristocratic way of life at Eastnor Castle had come to an end and the castle was offered to the Australian High Commission in case it needed to leave London after the Blitz.

After the war, the family restricted themselves to the smaller, private rooms and much of the castle fell into disrepair due to a lack of funds. James and Sarah Hervey-Bathurst inherited the castle from James’ mother when she died in 1986, and a laborious restoration began.

The highlight of the Great Hall is its grand scale and decorated statues, stuffed animals and family portraits. Off to one side is the Red Hall which is packed with half of the Metrick Collection of medieval armour from Goodrich Court near Ross-on-Wye.

The huge and elaborately decorated dining room is dominated by a long table and is used today for corporate and private functions. Equally impressive rooms include the Gothic Drawing Room, Turret Room and Octagon Room, the last with a fantastic view over the lake in front of the castle.

Inside Land Rover's Solihull Factory

As well as off-road driving adventures, Land Rover Experience offers tours of the company’s Solihull factory where you can watch Defenders, Discoverys, Range Rover Sports and Range Rover Vogues being built. The Freelander is built at a separate facility at Halewood.

This Solihull tour gives a great insight into the complexities of modern vehicles and how all of the parts come together. And there are big differences between the way different models are constructed.

The Discovery and Range Rover Sport, which share a common platform, are built in the same area of the plant. As the chassis moves along the production line, suspension components and brakes are fitted and the engine, transmission and other driveline components are secured in place.

 

All of the body panels are stamped on site and, once they’ve been put together and painted, they move along the production line and eventually meet up with the completed chassis. It’s amazing to see the chassis and body bolted together; the whole automated process takes only a few seconds.

The dashboard and seats are then positioned by hand and the doors go on. All of the parts are bar-coded so the right components end up in the right vehicle.

The Range Rover Vogue, which is a completely different vehicle built with a monocoque (combined body/chassis) construction, is made in a separate part of the plant that is also heavily automated.

The construction of the Defender, on the other hand, is very labour intensive. As there are so many variables in body styles and chassis lengths – 90-, 110- and 130-inch wheelbases and single-cab, dual-cab, wagon and van bodies – Land Rover says it’s easier to continue to “build it by hand”.

Once you’ve completed the tour, you can spend your hard-earned at the on-site Experience Centre on T-shirts, scale models, adventure gear and just about anything else a Landie fanatic would want. 

Land Rover Experience Heritage Collection 

I’ve owned a couple of old Series Land Rovers in the past but they weren’t mint examples like these in the fantastic Land Rover Experience Heritage Collection.

I felt like a kid in a toy shop when I laid eyes on these beauties and, other than the Judge Dredd City Cab, based on a 101 Forward Control, I was allowed to drive all of them!

Land Rover Series I

Built in 1949, this rare 80-inch wheelbase Series I was among the very first 15,000 Land Rovers built. It initially saw service with the British Armed Forces and years later was restored by a fellow named Ken Wheelright.

The Series I was acquired by Land Rover Experience in 2003 and it has since been extensively refurbished, both mechanically and aesthetically, with the original specification being adhered to as much as possible.

Land Rover Series I Specs
Engine: In-line, 4-cylinder, 1.6L
Power: 37kW @ 4000rpm
Torque: 108Nm @ 2000rpm
Suspension (f & r): live axle, semi elliptic leaf springs

Land Rover Series III

This 1981 Series III Station Wagon, with safari roof and alpine lights, is in such good condition that it looks like it was just driven off the showroom floor. On closer inspection, there are some signs of wear and tear on the interior trim, but the restoration process is continuing.

One of the vehicle’s previous owners partook in the Solihull Experience and was delighted to find the wagon in such capable hands.

Land Rover Series III Specs
Engine: In-line, 4-cylinder, 2.25L
Power: 57kW @ 4250rpm
Torque: 168Nm @ 2500rpm
Suspension (f & r): live axle, semi elliptic leaf springs

Land Rover 101 Forward Control

This 101 FC was originally supplied to the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) in 1975 as a gun tractor. It also featured a drive system for a powered trailer, effectively making it a 6X6 when the trailer was hitched up.

The 101 is in such good condition because, as soon as it was supplied to the MOD, it was placed in storage. It was sold to an American collector who intended to ship it to the US, but changed his mind. It has only 500km on the odometer.

Land Rover 101 Forward Control Specs
Engine: 90 degree V8, 3.5L
Power: 87kW @ 5000rpm
Torque: 230Nm @ 2500rpm
Suspension (f & r): live axle, semi elliptic leaf springs

Land Rover Defender SAS Desert Patrol

This SAS specification Defender is on permanent loan to the Land Rover Experience Heritage fleet on the proviso that, upon eventual disposal of the vehicle, it must be returned to the SAS at Hereford for scrapping.

Built in 1986, this example has seen military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s kitted out with a host of recovery gear, camouflage items and gun racks. Unfortunately, when I got to drive it, no guns were actually fitted.

Land Rover Defender SAS Desert Patrol Specs
Engine: 90 degree V8, 3.5L
Power: 100kW @ 5000rpm 
Torque: 254Nm @ 2500rpm
Suspension (f): live axle, coil springs, Panhard rod, anti-roll bar
Suspension (r): live axle, coil springs, A-frame, anti-roll bar

Judge Dredd City Cab

Despite its futuristic looks, the city-cab built for the Sylvester Stallone movie Judge Dredd is based on an old 101 Forward Control. This was the only vehicle that we weren’t allowed to drive, as it’s almost impossible to see out of the small windows from the driver’s seat.

In total, there were 31 vehicles, in various stages of conversion, used throughout the shooting of the film. The design brief was for a city-cab set in the year 2139 capable of carrying six people.

Judge Dredd City Cab Specs
Engine: 90 degree V8, 3.5L
Power: 87kW @ 5000rpm 
Torque: 230Nm @ 2500rpm
Suspension (f & r): live axle, semi elliptic leaf springs

Range Rover Classic

I might be showing my age here, but I remember the launch of the Range Rover Classic, the final version of the original-shape Rangie, in Australia in 1995.

This stunning UK-market example was built in 1993 and has been on the Heritage fleet since 2003. It has undergone a major body rebuild, from the chassis up, which was undertaken by Land Rover’s Vehicle Operations at Gaydon. This exercise cost a tidy £15,000 (A$30,500).

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Range Rover Classic Specs
Engine: 90 degree V8, 3.9L
Power: 138kW @ 4750rpm  
Torque: 319Nm @ 2600rpm
Suspension (f): live axle, coil springs, Panhard rod, anti-roll bar
Suspension (r): live axle, coil springs, A-frame, anti-roll bar

Tomb Raider Defender

One of the three vehicles built by Land Rover Special Vehicles for the movie Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie, this monster is built on a Defender 110 Pick Up. While many of the special ‘features’ are non-operational, the Defender is powered by a 4.0-litre V8 mated to an automatic transmission.

It is surprisingly easy to drive although forward visibility is hampered by the low seat height and bonnet-mounted spare wheel – Angelina must be taller than me!

Tomb Raider Defender Specs
Engine: 90 degree V8, 3.9L
Power: 136kW @ 4750rpm  
Torque: 339Nm @ 2600rpm
Suspension (f): live axle, coil springs, Panhard rod, anti-roll bar
Suspension (r): live axle, coil springs, A-frame, anti-roll bar

Defender 4 Track

This amazing Defender was prepared to this unique specification for Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ Transglobal Expedition. The plan was to cross the Bering Straits using vehicular motive power only.

On land these tracks were used and on sea the vehicle had a pontoon floatation device and paddle blades. The 4 Track is based on a Military Specification Wolf 24V derivative of the Defender. Driving it is a real challenge as there’s no power-steering.

Defender 4 Track Specs
Engine: In-line 4-cylinder, 2.5L TDI
Power: 80kW @ 4000rpm 
Torque: 264Nm@ 1800rpm
Suspension (f): live axle, coil springs, Panhard rod, anti-roll bar
Suspension (r): live axle, coil springs, A-frame, anti-roll bar