For half a century an ancient castle in deepest Herefordshire has been at the heart of Land Rover conception. Sue Baker pays a nostalgic visit to where many of Britain’s iconic 4x4s have been born and tested to destruction.
Eastnor Castle. The very name of this ancient fortress near Ledbury on the Welsh borders is enough to send a thrill through the very soul of a Land Rover aficionado. It is where, for the past half century, many of the most famous cars ever to wear a Land Rover badge, from the Defender to the Evoque, have undergone their brutal development testing. This is where some of the toughest off-road driving tracks in Britain are to be found, with precipitous gradients and axle-deep mud troughs in the midst of dense English forest. It is where special forces soldiers secretly undergo gruelling training for foreign assignments. It also plays host to Land Rover engineers working on projects still on the secret list, just as they have done down the decades since the winter months of late 1961.
Eastnor is “the jewel in the crown of what Land Rover is all about”
Eastnor is “the jewel in the crown of what Land Rover is all about”. So says Roger Crathorne, known both inside and outside the company as ‘Mr Land Rover’, and regarded as Britain’s foremost off-road driving guru. “For 50 years our engineers through all the series of our cars have tested and developed them here,” he says proudly. It has been the proving ground for world-renowned technological advances including electronic traction control, hill descent control, adjustable air suspension and terrain response.
It was there, at the tail end of last year that a rare gathering of historic Land Rovers and some of the company’s most modern vehicles were assembled, filling Eastnor Castle’s forecourt for a very special occasion. It was in celebration of all that the estate’s vast acreage of tortuous terrain and jungle tracks has meant to the Land Rover story. Their two histories have been very fruitfully intertwined over an eventful half century. Credited to this ancient slice of rural Herefordshire is much of the success and authenticity of what makes Land Rovers known around the world as ‘the best 4x4s by far’.
It all started back in late 1961, when Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister, Carnaby Street was in its heyday and the Beatles were the band of the moment. Land Rover back then was still a relatively youthful company, and when it was looking for an assessment venue to put early examples of the Series II through their paces, someone happened upon Eastnor. Engineers Geof Miller and Bill Morris were the first to visit, taking with them a 129-inch wheelbase prototype. They were so impressed with the toughness and variety of the terrain Eastnor had to offer that within a few weeks they were back using the land for testing and assessing development vehicles.
Credited to this ancient slice of rural Herefordshire is much of the success and authenticity of what makes Land Rovers known around the world as ‘the best 4x4s by far’
So the long relationship between Eastnor Castle and Land Rover began. The rugged rural estate’s exceptional value to the company was best summed up by Spen King, the legendary chief programme engineer of Range Rover from 1967 to 1989: “If it can get around the Eastnor estate, it can go anywhere!” he proclaimed. The ancestral home of off-road testing that has honed Land Rovers ever since had been established.
At first only Land Rover insiders were allowed there, but the fame of Eastnor began to spread in 1994 when Land Rover Experience moved its operational base there from Solihull. This enabled fans of the brand to book an adventure around the tracks of the 500-acre estate, tutored by expert off-road instructors.
Fast forward to the modern day, and the rapturous reception the latest Range Rover Evoque has received is at least in part attributable to the ordeals it was put through under development at Eastnor. Land Rover’s global brand director John Edwards sums up the company’s ongoing high opinion of the estate’s testing terrain: “Eastnor is the stuff of Land Rover legends. From the original Land Rover Series models right the way through the Range Rover Evoque – this piece of British countryside has been central to the development of them all.”
Land Rover’s ongoing involvement with Eastnor was originally agreed with the estate’s enthusiastic owner, the charismatic Major Ben Hervey-Bathurst, who had lived at the castle since 1949. He was president of the Rover Midlands’ Owners Club and a keen off-road driver himself. He died a few years ago, but the tradition is maintained by his sons, James and George, who inherited and now run the estate.