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

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