As Land Rover Owner rapidly approaches its 30th birthday, we take a look back at out most memorable adventures since 1987.
Mission: drive as far north as you can without falling into the sea, then drive up a mountain. Oh, and tackle the Discovery 3 launch off-road course. In a Series III Stage 1 V8. Then Deputy Editor Rob McCabe took it on.
Some of the placenames on the far north coast of Scotland have a curious ring to them. Bettyhill – your gran’s best pal from bingo. Farr – you’re not joking. Smoo – wouldn’t want to get my Land Rover covered in that. Tongue – something that becomes inoperable when you’re left speechless.
And just how apt is that last one? Your first glimpse of the Kyle of Tongue and its surroundings, a stand-out jewel even among the hundreds of scenic treasures that grace the Scottish Highlands, is guaranteed to make the jaw drop and the heart sing. It is just stunning.
Everybody who goes there gives pretty much the same verdict. A recent visitor described the view from one of the commanding peaks on the outskirts of Tongue as ‘beyond human comprehension. It was way beyond epic. It was just dazzling’.
The writer was one Jeremy Clarkson Esq, who was explaining to the readers of his Times column that he’d ‘climbed’ Ben Tongue. Well, he had, I suppose – only he left out the bit that said he’d climbed it while sitting behind the wheel of a Land Rover Discovery 3 on an assignment for the BBC’s Top Gear programme.
Jezza’s typically colourful description certainly stirred the imagination – what must that view be like? And how about driving a Land Rover up to the summit of the very mountain that affords the legendary view? What must that have been like?
There was, of course, only one way to find out. As a bonus, the brilliant off-road drive created for the press launch of the Discovery 3 last year is just a few miles along the coast – and we’d been invited to take on the challenge.
I’ll make it immediately clear – we sought and gained permission from the landowner to drive up to the top of Ben Tongue. It’s not a public right of way. But get this – drum up enough interest among your Land Rover-owning mates and you can make a group booking to tackle the Discovery 3 off-road drive.
The one thing that nagged at us was the prospect of undertaking this expedition in something like the new Discovery, one of the most civilised, mile-eating vehicles ever made. It’s a long old way to Sutherland from East Anglia, but the Disco 3 would do it without breaking sweat. And its formidable, electronically controlled engineering gives it the wherewithal to swallow most off-road challenges without chewing.
On the other hand, my Series III Stage 1 V8 pick-up is most certainly not one of the most civilised, mile-eating vehicles ever made. And its formidable, electronically controlled engineering is notable only by its complete absence. Just the job, then.
This wasn’t an assignment for any Land Rover to undertake single-handed, mind: if you’re venturing off the beaten track, it’s foolhardy to do it without another vehicle on hand to help you out if you get stuck. That job went to the laden-with-recovery-kit Td5 90 of editor-in- chief, John Pearson.
Ever since its service a few weeks ago, the Stage 1 has been running like a Swiss watch. The wash-and-brush-up in the workshop gave the big V8 that extra bit of bounce and it is just great fun to drive. ‘You go in front and set the pace,’ said JP before the off, trying hard not to sound too bored at the prospect of spending endless hours staring at the tailgate of an old Series III chuffing up the A1 at an honourable 48mph.
As it turned out, I soon settled on 60-65mph as the best cruising speed. At this rate, the motor is deep into its comfort zone and it offers the optimum blend of decent progress, bearable cabin noise and only mildly catastrophic fuel consumption.
A dual carriageway is never the happiest hunting ground for an old Land Rover, but the non-motorway bits of the A1 have their fair share of roundabouts to break up the monotony; and the best fun here is to keep it in top as you negotiate your way around and then floor it as you accelerate back on to the straight.
The alacrity with which it shoves its way up to 70mph and beyond in the space of a few seconds always gives a buzz – not to mention a big stretch of empty road in the rear-view mirror. For a little while, anyway.
None the less, it was good to climb up on to the moors as we headed across country into Cumbria on the more scenic A66. Plenty of utility Land Rovers in this part of the world – more often than not with a livestock trailer bringing up station behind.
There’s not much left of the M6 as you join the northbound carriageway at Penrith (small mercies, etc). Before long, we were in Scotland and, just to mark the occasion, we encountered one of those raven-black skies that always gather over motorways and always in the middle of the afternoon.
When it emptied its load it was a belter, the thick, thumping rain bouncing high off the road and thundering deafeningly on the cab roof. My twee little wipers did the business, though and – much to my surprise – hardly any of the deluge found its way into the cab.
Our overnight stop was at the comfortable Blackford Hotel in the eponymous village near Auchterarder, just off the A9 in Perthshire. In truth, the pace-setting Series III had covered ground quicker than we’d expected and we probably could have headed a bit further north than the 379 miles we’d done.
We’re glad we didn’t, though, because JP, photographer John Noble and I were all unanimous in declaring the Sheray Punjab in Auchterarder one of the finest Indian restaurants we’d ever encountered: worth a stopover in its own right. And bearing in mind you’re talking about three blokes who’ve had more curries than they have hot dinners... well, you know what I mean.
Next day, we motored purposefully northwards, dual carriageways giving way to single carriageways, in turn giving way to single track roads with passing places. As the roads got smaller, the scenery got bigger and bigger.
Amid the natural splendour of it all, we found ourselves at the centre of a high-tech spectacle on the road from Lairg to Tongue. We’d caught the odd glimpse of a pair of the RAF’s finest chasing each other at 600mph between the mountains. A few miles further on, one of them locked on to our path, hurtling straight at us from a height of no more than a hundred feet.
For a brief second, I imagined the pilot had been driven to distraction by some inconsiderate Series III-owning neighbour blocking the entrance to his drive and that, laughing manically behind his mirror-finish visor, he was about to exact revenge in a lethal volley of Rapier missiles and cluster bombs.
Instead, he wiggled his wings furiously from side to
side in the way that gung-ho Spitfire pilots do in all the movies and surged past overhead. He was probably somewhere over Edinburgh before the noise hit us; a noise so opposite the silence that usually pervades this part of the Highlands, it’s impossible to describe.
I re-fastened my seatbelt, closed the door again and regained my hearing somewhere after Altnaharra.
We were so engrossed in the fantastic off-road drive on the Eriboll Estate , the time ran away with us somewhat and we’d left it too late for dinner at the Benloyal Hotel in Tongue, our base for the night. The village has many things going for it, but a strip of late- night eateries isn’t one of them.
The receptionist hinted that a hotel five miles around the headland might still be serving food. He called the owner. ‘You’ve got 15 minutes,’ came the message. ‘They’re expecting you.’
When we got to the Craggan Hotel 14 minutes later, the welcome was warm, the view gorgeous and the food fabulous. In our predicament, we’d have been grateful for microwaved macaroni cheese, never mind the top-quality fare that was served up.
Chatting to the owner in the bar afterwards, JP and John complimented him on the langoustines they’d consumed with such unreserved glee not long before. The boss smiled and nodded towards a chap enjoying a dram: ‘Well, they came from his boat, they were cooked by him (other chap, enjoying a lager) and they were served to you by his mother.’
A very special place, and quite a find.
Speaking of special places, we had a fine view of Ben Tongue on the drive back to the village. We’d be getting a fine view from it the next day. Hopefully.
Mercifully, the sun was out as we made our way on to the track at the foot of BT. To be honest, the fact there is a track makes the ascent a fairly straightforward challenge for a Land Rover, although it’s steep and sinuous in places, and loose stones sometimes put traction at a premium.
It was a case of slowly does it, plotting a route avoiding the bigger boulders: what can be more calming than sticking a Land Rover in low box and sitting back to enjoy the view while it does all the work?
Things could have been a lot different. ‘After it’s been raining, that track turns into a river,’ said the crofter we’d chatted to on the way up.
Best to let the pictures do the talking regarding the view from the summit. I wouldn’t argue with Jeremy Clarkson’s opinion one little bit. I was up there for about an hour and felt deeply privileged the whole time. Pick a direction, and just bask in the visual outcome.
Several miles away across the Kyle, JP and John (long- range picture in the bag, below) could clearly see the tiny speck of the red 109 as I eased it off the summit on my way back down to earth – literally and metaphorically.