My very first driving lesson was in a field, driving a Lightweight. I loved it. I think I was much younger than 17 and the Land Rover felt enormous – the steering wheel was giant-sized and the gearchange was fiddly. It felt like I needed both feet to operate the clutch.
There was something about that old Land Rover that made me fall in love with them. Every trip we embarked on was an epic adventure, and thus a lot more exciting than going to school in our other car, which happened to be a pretty uninteresting Morris 1100.
Those trips in the Lightweight were always at least partly off-road through the fields and lanes on the border between Devon and Somerset, where we lived at the time – 28 years ago.
I think that early introduction to Land Rovers in childhood probably has a bearing on why I really rate them now. They’re such an iconic vehicle and they’ve been associated with adventure and exploration for so many years.
I remember as a kid reading about Sir Ranulph Fiennes driving around Oman in a completely open-topped Land Rover and then, much later, his Bering Straits adventure. Perhaps that’s why adventure became part of my life?
I never really thought it would turn into a career, though. I blame my eventual career choice mainly on a guy by the name of John Ridgway. He and Chaye Blyth were the first men to row across the Atlantic in 1966. John’s retired now, but he used to run an adventure school in the north-west Highlands and islands of Scotland, that he set up in the 1970s. I worked there for about a year as an instructor in my late teens, and I think that’s when a ‘screw came loose’. We were in a very remote place, about three miles from the road. He had a Discovery 1 and a 110 that I spent a lot of time driving properly off-road. I loved it.
I drive a Discovery 4 today and it gets used pretty hard, which is what they’re really designed for. I tend to just chuck all my stuff in the back – climbing gear, bikes, my dog, muddy boots, the lot. The Discovery stands up to the abuse very well but I really worry if the bodywork gets even the smallest scratch. Stuff like that doesn’t seem to matter to a Defender. It’s the sort of car that farmers can use to straighten up fence posts and carry straw bales around in without damaging the body. It’s a car that looks better the more lived-in it looks.
The Defender is such an iconic design. I liked the vents under the windscreen in the Lightweight and the old 110, and that big, long shelf below them. I used to love the middle seat in the front, too. I remember as a kid sitting in the middle, that was great fun. Looking to the future of the vehicle, I don’t envy the designers at Land Rover who’ve got to create the new Defender; it’s a really tough job to please everyone.
In the meantime, I’ve more pressing matters to contend with – my Antarctic trip. There are two of us doing it, the other chap’s Tarka L’Herpiniere. He sounds a lot more French than he is. His dad’s French, but he was born in Devon and, for some reason, named after an otter. I’ve known him for about 13 years and he’s a very experienced expedition leader.
The plan is to retrace Captain Scott’s last expedition, which, of course, was never finished. Amazingly, no one has ever walked further than they did, in Antarctica. That fact alone intrigues me. Why hasn’t the job been finished yet?
If we complete the trip, we’ll cover 1800 miles, from Scott’s hut on Ross Island to the South Pole and back again. It will be the longest unsupported polar journey in history. It’s also a journey that’s a very British story. We’ve done some equipment testing for it in Land Rover’s cold climate chamber at Solihull. As camping trips go, it’s quite a big one!