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201214 May

land rover experience eastnor castle

The Land Rovers line up in the Eastnor Castle forecourt

 

It’s not every day that you are invited into the home of an aristocrat, to enjoy not just a sumptuous lunch, but are handed the keys to a Range Rover and let loose in the estate. We recount an afternoon of high adventure at Eastnor Castle, Southern England

 

Eastnor Castle, as the name suggests, is a castle in Southern England, close to the Welsh border. Commissioned by John Cocks, the 1st Earl Somers, and designed by the architect Robert Smirke, work began exactly 200 years ago, in 1812. Taking over 6 years to complete, 250 men toiled day and night to complete the castle. At the time, it cost nearly 86,000 pounds to build (the equivalent of 30 million pounds or Rs 250 crore in today’s money). The scale is impressive, and the Castle’s records state that over 4,000 tonnes of building stone, 16,000 tonnes of mortar and 600 tonnes of wood were used in its construction. Uniquely, a large part of the structural beams are of cast iron, and not oak as was commonly used at the time. This was because oak was in high demand for ship-building during the Napoleonic wars and Anglo-French belligerence of the time.

As the castle passed on to the 1st Earl’s descendants, the interiors continuously evolved to reflect the tastes of the owners, and Eastnor Castle today boasts of three distinctive phases of 19th Century tastes, viz. Regency Baronial, Catholic Gothic and Aesthetic Italian. The Octagon Saloon and the Long Library within the Castle have a bit of Indian heritage as well, with carpets which were sourced from Amritsar.

 

james hervey bathurst eastnor castle

James Hervey-Bathurst (R), owner of Eastnor Castle, in the Octagon Saloon. The original hand-made carpet was from Amritsar. This is a cheaper machine-made Chinese copy.

 

Our host in this historic setting was James Hervey-Bathurst, who, along with his family, is the current owner of Eastnor Castle. We began our tour in the Great Hall, which Hervey-Bathurst has fond memories of cycling in and playing badminton with his brother. We toured the Long Library, the Octagon Saloon, Little Library and the Red Bedroom. Our brief tour of Eastnor Castle barely whet my appetite, but the traditional British fare we were served for lunch more than made up for it. The menu included delicious pies with buttered baby potatoes, followed by traditional baked treacle pudding and strawberry mousse for desert.

 

Well-fed and satiated, we began the more exciting part of the afternoon – an off-road course in Land Rover’s range of SUVs. What was formerly the kitchen garden today houses the offices of the Land Rover Experience. The Eastnor Castle estate also hosts the annual Big Chill festival, while also welcoming film and TV crews. James Hervey-Bathurst and his family acknowledge that events like these are essential to bringing in much-needed revenue for the Castle’s upkeep.

 

The first car I drove on the course was the recently-launched Range Rover Evoque. Admittedly, I was slightly sceptical, given the antecedents of this ‘posh’ SUV, which Victoria Beckham helped design. The lead car was a Land Rover Defender, equipped with a winch, which provided some comfort, although I hoped I wouldn’t need it.

 

The Cocks and Somers family history predates the Castle, with the Cocks family having settled at Eastnor in the 16th Century. The Somers Cocks family estate exceeded 13,000 acres at its prime. The tracks we were driving on had been traditionally used by ox-carts from that by-gone era. Today, Britain’s environmental agency monitors even private estates via satellite images, and it is mandatory for vehicles to stick to these tracks. A deviation of even a few feet can earn a reprimand, or worse, sanctions and fines.

 

To make matters more interesting, we were at Eastnor immediately after the wettest April recorded in Britain. Indeed, much of the town of Tewkesbury, on our approach to Eastnor, had been submerged.

 

And the Evoque had road tyres…

 

As I gingerly tip-toed behind the nonchalant Defender which led the way, the Evoque motored through without so much as a hiccup. Easy-does-it is the off-roading mantra, and with the Evoque’s Terrain Response System (TRS) set to the ‘Mud’ setting, we plodded on. Just as I was gaining in confidence, the track got even more interesting. Clambering along a side bank, tipped over at nearly 30 degrees from horizontal, I had to ease the baby Range Rover into a water trough. With water lapping almost at the bonnet and mindful of any submerged stones, the Evoque creeped through easily to the other side.

 

range rover evoque at eastnor castle

The Range Rover Evoque possesses stunning off-road capability, which belies its road-biased underpinnings.

 

Shortly after, we stopped on relatively dry ground to swap cars. Next up was the Range Rover Sport. With a big V6 diesel and low-range gearbox, the going was a little easier, but one had to be mindful of the Sport’s extra girth, and a departure angle which isn’t exactly flattering.

 

range rover sport eastnor castle

The Range Rover Sport may not see much more off-road use than heading up the driveway at the country club, but it certainly is capable.

 

The last SUV I drove at Eastnor was the Land Rover Discovery. In many ways, the Discovery or Disco as it’s affectionately referred to, is the essence of Land Rover today. A big, comfortable SUV with 7 seats, it boasts of an on-off road capability which few vehicles in the world can match. A vast and fast family car for the motorway, or tough-as-nails off-roader, the Discovery is hugely capable. The last part of the route troubled the Disco not the slightest bit, and we concluded the Land Rover experience at what we subsequently learned was the original kitchen garden of Eastnor Castle.

 

land rover discovery at eastnor castle

The Discovery's massive wheel articulation is evident in this picture.

 

Land Rover has come a long way. At the event’s conclusion, I had the pleasure of meeting a senior gentleman who has been working with Land Rover for the last 44 years, having begun as an apprentice in a Land Rover workshop in 1968. He surely, has driven almost every Land Rover ever built, and I asked how different the vehicles are today to what they were when he began his career. “Not much has changed, if you ask me. Earlier, we pulled on a lever, and today all you need to do is push a button. But the vehicle is just as capable. The Evoque you drove earlier…if it couldn’t do this course, it wouldn’t be worthy of the Land Rover name.”

 

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