Making tracks

Reluctant motorist Sarah Barrell gears up for the Land Rover Experience in the Malvern hills

Sunday drivers. Nothing worse right? Wrong. Consider the annual rent-a-car driver. The unpractised arrogance of these only-on-special-occasions motorists strikes fear into the hearts of hire car firms. There ought to be laws against them. And I should know - I am one. You see, I hate driving. I hate it with a passion that only applies to things I truly suck at. Driving is something to be done only when it can't be avoided. The idea of spending an afternoon doing it for fun? I'd rather go to the dentist.

Sunday drivers. Nothing worse right? Wrong. Consider the annual rent-a-car driver. The unpractised arrogance of these only-on-special-occasions motorists strikes fear into the hearts of hire car firms. There ought to be laws against them. And I should know - I am one. You see, I hate driving. I hate it with a passion that only applies to things I truly suck at. Driving is something to be done only when it can't be avoided. The idea of spending an afternoon doing it for fun? I'd rather go to the dentist.

So it was with the kind of nauseous jitters that usually precede an oral check-up that I made my way to the Land Rover Experience centre in the Malvern hills in Hereford and Worcester. This is where people who love driving come to get some "real" motoring experience - involving complex gearbox arrangements, hair-trigger clutch control and violently undulating topography. Land Rover has nine of these centres in picture-perfect settings across the UK, providing expert off-road training for enthusiasts. Or simply affording day-trippers the opportunity to spend hours scrambling around some of the UK's prettiest countryside in a 4x4.

The centres also provide training for professionals, including adventure-tour guides who need to access remote corners of the globe by car. The latter was more or less why I was here. I was due to go on a conservation holiday and had been asked to do a bit of off-road training in preparation. In the spirit of adventure I had reluctantly agreed. Arriving at Land Rover's HQ in a converted village hall in Ledbury, I was off to a surprisingly inspirational start. On the walls hung elegant posters of cars tackling exotic terrain. Underneath, a few choice pieces of kit were for sale - the kind of Indiana Jones khaki that only looks good when worn standing next to an open-topped Jeep in the African bush. I was at last beginning to see the potential romance of this driving thing.

My instructor, Chris Bartlette, sat me down to talk though some basics. The course is in the estate of Eastnor Castle, a 16th-century fortress set in 5,000 acres of wooded park. The terrain ranges from flat grassy tracks to stupidly steep slopes. Thankfully, the half-day course steers drivers across more gentle terrain. "As slow as possible, as fast as necessary," is the footnote to all excursions. Land Rover's Fragile Earth policy encourages a "tread lightly" approach to off-roading. I'm doing pretty well at keeping up with all this but then the handbook comes out. This manual displays mechanical diagrams - differentials and traction control - the magic things that make these vehicles such prized possessions. My mind starts to wander. "The good thing is," says Chris deftly, noting my thousand-yard stare, "these machines are built so you don't really have to think about all this too much."

Just as well, as after a swift demo drive up through the estate, I'm at the wheel. We're driving a Defender - the most robust of Land Rover's range. With high ground clearance and wide-tread tyres as standard, this no-nonsense machine sits as happily with the green-welly brigade as the Army. Simply sitting behind the wheel makes me feel capable, in a Lara Croft kind of way. We drive past a 150-strong herd of red deer. "They've been hiding since the Big Chill festival here last weekend," says Chris.

It's not surprising, then, that the beasts barely cast me a glance as I roar past at a frankly impressive 10mph. As we head into the woods I manage to grasp the principle of the gears. It's a shame I can't actually grasp the correct gear stick. The Defender works with high and low gears, each with five ratios. Then there's the "diff lock," the stick that shifts control from two wheels to four, thus making the car easier to handle. That makes two (stiff) gear sticks and one available hand.

We stop so I can put the car into low gear (using two hands). The view though the trees is spectacular. Rolling Malvern hills, castle crenulations peeking though the trees below, and a ruddy great muddy ditch full of water ahead of me. Chris is encouraging. "Just take it steady. Drop to first and nose the car in behind the bow wave." I do as he says and we roll into mid-door depth water, gliding behind the crest of a murky wave. Next we're faced with a steep climb out over tree roots. "Don't do a thing," he advises. "Take your foot off the gas. The car will do the rest." With a "look-mum-no-feet" thrill, I feel the car and its miraculous engine management system pull us out of the water like a sure-footed horse. Chris tells me that he finds women better students than men - applying less brute force and more listening skills. I set off again, feeling smugly like a model pupil.

But over-confidence breeds complacency. Having spent my life as a passenger, metaphors almost aside, I have an ingrained tendency to gaze out of windows. This, coupled with the fact that the car seemed so adept at driving itself, meant that after a while I realised I hadn't been paying the slightest bit of attention. If we were on a motorway we'd have been picking our teeth out of the central reservation. Thanks to the rutted tracks however, we remain on course. That is until I guiltily over-compensate with a sudden spurt of muscular steering. Chris is ever patient. "Well, you seem to have got the hang of the accelerator. Steering is the tricky part," he smiles benignly. "But you're pretty good at this... for an infrequent driver."

The next hour is spent trying to teach me how to handle tight turns without spearing a tree through the bonnet, and learning how to do hill starts without the handbrake after the car has stalled. Which is often.

"Don't worry. I've got a shovel if we get dug in," says Chris, as I hear the traction control buzzing automatically to my aid again. As the owner of five Land Rovers, two of which he drives competitively, it's clear from where Chris's dogged self-sufficiency springs.

Case in point is made as we approach a 45-degree slope. Chris talks me through the manoeuvres with such avuncular calm that I realise (rather too late to panic) that he is instructing me from the passenger seat, which is now somehow where my feet should be. If we didn't have the seat belts on we'd be in a very intimate position indeed. It's only after my inner ear has returned to its usual equilibrium that I realise what we've just done. That is, got as close to driving on two wheels as I'm ever likely to get. I have to concede that this is, well...enjoyable. So much so that we tackle the slope a couple more times before my time is up.

Driving back through Ledbury we pass Sunnyside, the village's celebrity chocolate-box cottage, a half-timbered thatched house so teeth-squeakingly pretty that its picture has featured on countless confectionery packets. It's near doll's-house scale and I can't help but think it would make for a novel obstacle course coupled with the village's Lilliputian stone walls. Hardly the sort of off-roading condoned by Land Rover's Fragile Earth policy. But still, I had miraculously developed the appetite for being behind the wheel. Minus the things like roads and traffic, it's fun.

Land Rover Experience (0870 2644469; www.landrover.co.uk) has nine centres across the country. A half-day introductory course costs £141 per person. A two-day training course, aimed to get drivers to an advanced standard of off-road driving, costs £352

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
peopleThreats follows actress' speech on feminism and equality at the UN
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Arts and Entertainment
Worldwide ticket sales for The Lion King musical surpassed $6.2bn ($3.8bn) this summer
tvMusical is biggest grossing show or film in history
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drink
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Manager

    £50 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Mana...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits