PUBLISHED: 10:20 18 March 2008 | UPDATED: 15:05 20 February 2013
Nikalas Cook travels to the south of the county for the ultimate off-road experience
Having lived in London for eight years and during that time commuted daily by bicycle, I wasn't the biggest fan of four wheel drive vehicles. On numerous occasions I was driven off the road by these hulking tanks. Behind the wheel, more often than not, was a 'yummy mummy' oblivious to all other road users and cocooned in her personal steel womb. Her vehicle would never be driven on a country lane, let alone off-road. She'd justify having it on the grounds of safety for her and her brood but the truth is, it was a fashion statement and that 'Kitty next door has got one'. However, moving to the Peak District, seeing these vehicles at work and in their proper setting I began to warm to them. The first snowfall of the winter saw our little hatchback slithering uncontrollably and almost ending up in more than one ditch. Even without the snow it struggled on steep and slippery lanes. A dirty dog and even dirtier bikes soon gave the interior a distinctly farmyard feel and before long both my wife and I agreed a slightly more robust vehicle might be more appropriate.
As well as organising some more conventional test drives I was really keen to have a go at driving off-road. Aside from it looking like a lot of fun I was sure the techniques I learned would come in useful and could be applied to regular driving in challenging conditions. My environmental conscience did keep nagging at me as to whether this really was such a good idea and I had witnessed at first hand the damage that 4x4s can cause to by-ways. Having mountain biked the Ridgeway National Trail the deep ruts that had been gouged out make sections of the trail almost impassable for bikers, walkers and riders. I started therefore to look into dedicated off-roading centres and found Forest 4 Wheel Drive, discovering a location in the south of Derbyshire where off-road driving is co-existing with, and even benefiting, the environment.
Located near Swadlincote, Forest 4 wheel drive was set up in 1998 by local farmer Robert Jackson. Since then, and in conjunction with the National Forest Company and the Forestry Commission, he has not only created a top class off-road driving venue, used by the likes of Nissan for vehicle launches, but also a rich and diverse habitat for wildlife. As well as re-creating hedgerows and planting over 24,000 trees, the otter holts he has built on the nearby river appear to have attracted occupants with spraints being regularly found.
Meeting up with Robert he first set about 'introducing' me to the vehicle I'd be driving for the day. The Defender 110 Station Wagon looked big, sturdy and up to the job. We then walked around the vehicle and Robert pointed out the low points, such as the tow-bar and sump that I needed to be aware of and try to avoid snagging. We then set off with Robert driving out of the farmyard, across the road and to an area that was suitable for getting me used to the vehicle. Swapping places he first of all explained that we'd be using the vehicle's lower range of gears where third gear would roughly be equivalent to first in a normal gearbox. This would provide better traction and, even with such low gears, we'd spend most of the time in second and rarely go above 15mph. He then explained the importance of the 'diff lock' to me. This feature, when properly engaged, guarantees equal wheel speed on all four wheels preventing spinning wheels. On steep and slippery terrain this can make all the difference between being able to move or not. Trundling along the lane, Robert pointed out one of the keys to successful off-roading is knowing where your wheels are going. Although this sounds obvious, if you're driving in muddy ruts it's possible to be going in a straight line but with your steering off at almost ninety degrees to your direction of travel. All that needs happen is for one of the wheels to suddenly bite and you'll veer violently off course and, if the terrain is steep or off-camber, even overturn the vehicle. Concentrating hard I negotiated some small muddy dips, foot off the gas on the way down - allowing the engine to brake the vehicle - and then light controlled acceleration to pop out. After driving around for a while Robert was happy with my progress and it was time to have a go at some of the obstacles on the off-road course proper.
Trying to remember everything I'd already learned we stopped at the foot of a large mound. Robert reinforced the need to keep my wheels straight and reminded me of the possible ramifications if I didn't. To add to my nerves he then explained the procedure if I stalled going up the steep rise. Happy that I'd taken on board what he'd said I started up the slope. Suddenly the steepness of the slope became apparent and all I could see through the windscreen was sky. It was at that moment that Robert reached over and turned the ignition key cutting out the engine. As if on auto pilot I stood on the foot brake, depressed the clutch and selected reverse gear. I then took my foot slowly off the clutch and, having checked behind, came off the brake. Not touching the pedals I then turned the engine back on and reversed back down under perfect control. Coming to a standstill back at the bottom of the hill I was suddenly seventeen again and post emergency stop in my driving test. Promising he'd let me get over this time, I gradually applied the accelerator and was able to feel the correct amount of power from the traction I was getting. Cresting the top the ground dropped alarmingly away but I was now confident in the engine's ability to slow the vehicle and was happy to take my feet off the pedals and not instinctively leap on the brakes. I was really enjoying myself and getting a feel for the Defender and what it could do. For such a large vehicle the steering felt light, giving plenty of feedback and allowing fine and precise control. We moved through a series of different obstacles including a steep off-camber slope, mounds on alternating sides known as an 'axle twister' and parallel telegraph poles. At each one Robert would clearly explain the technique needed giving me the knowledge and confidence I needed to negotiate it.
Taking some time out for a cup of coffee I broached the subject of the possible negative impact on the environment of off-road driving. Robert pointed out that as long as a responsible attitude is adopted off-road driving can have a minimal impact on the environment. Dedicated centres such as his were obviously the ideal but even 'green laning' on byways is sustainable. Many off-road magazines publish routes and, as long as weather conditions are taken into account so as not to cause excessive rutting, these can be used. It is legal to drive on a byway but never on a bridleway. If there is ever any doubt you can contact either the local council or highways agency who'll be able to inform you where driving is legal. Problems arise when exciting or technical sections are driven over and over by groups of irresponsible enthusiasts to the point of getting intentionally bogged in. This causes immense damage to the trail, can send vast amounts of sediment or oil into water courses and damage trees if winches have to be used. If people want to do that sort of thing, go to an off-road centre and make as much mess as you want but that sort of practice is totally unacceptable on rights of way.
Back out on the course I first dealt with some deep holes where the benefit of the diff lock could be demonstrated. Without the diff lock on, reversing out of one of the holes was very hard and it was almost impossible to prevent wheel spin. However, with it engaged, it was as easy as backing into a spot in a car park. Robert then directed me to the very muddy and deep-looking pond at the bottom of the course. Again, slow and steady control was the solution. Once into the water a bow wave formed and the knack was to follow the speed of the wave and never to overtake it. For a final challenge Robert directed me over to a newly wooded area for some precise driving practice. As the ruts got deeper the way ahead became narrower. Saplings overhung the track and, more worryingly, the clearance between some substantial looking fence posts got less and less. Every so often the narrow track would take a sharp turn demanding a blip on the gas to hop out of the ruts before quickly backing off and straightening the wheels to prevent a collision. This was even more challenging than the spectacular obstacles and I needed to use everything Robert had taught me. Although I barely got above 10mph, I found this section exhilarating.
I'd had a great day and learned an awful lot, much of which would benefit my day-to-day driving. Robert had shown me not only the basic techniques of off-road driving but also how it can be done in a green and environmentally friendly way.
Forest 4 wheel drive offers personal and group instruction in all aspects of off-road driving from fun days for stag parties to preparation for overseas expeditions. For information go to www.forest4wd.co.uk, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07711 496532.