When Roger Crathorne retired after more than 50 years with Land Rover he announced: ‘I’ll be taking the ignition key of my old Land Rover off the hook and re-educating myself with choke pulls and double-de-clutching.’ True to his word, he has been using his 1951 Series I 80-inch almost every day ever since.
It’s a special vehicle, and not just because it belongs to the man who became known throughout the company as ‘Mr Land Rover’. It was previously owned by Nick Wilks, son of one-time Rover managing director Spencer Wilks. Spencer and his brother Maurice were the geniuses responsible for conceiving the idea of producing the Land Rover.
As documented in our January 2014 issue, Roger got the Series I back on the road with help from Phil Bashall at Dunsfold DLR. But he’s left the paintwork in mostly original – heavily patinated – condition. It looks a treat and today he’s kindly chauffeuring me on a drive through the New Forest.
We’re following a route in one of my collection of period Letts motor tour guides. First published in 1970, my Hampshire and Wiltshire issue includes a 70-mile New Forest route that conveniently passes through Lymington, where Roger bought a house after finishing full-time work at Land Rover. ‘My wife and I used to come here cycling at weekends and loved the place, so we decided to move here after I’d retired.’
Roger had been using his Series I with the top permanently down for several months until the day LRO came to visit. The moment he started reversing out of his garage, the heavens opened. We hastily put the hood on, but we’re leaving the door tops off.
Lymington to Lyndhurst
Highlight: Ancient Fordingbridge
My Letts guide author, Wilfrid E Rolfe, was also a fan of this tour’s starting point. ‘Lymington is a fascinating place to wander in,’ he wrote in 1970. ‘Both the car ferry across the Solent to Yarmouth (Isle of Wight) and the busy yacht basin, give the whole town a varnished, nautical air. The hilly main street, lined with good shops, hotels and restaurants, leads down to the harbour, but it is hard to believe that Lymington was once bigger and more important than Portsmouth.’
We drive down to the harbour, the exhaust note echoing crisply off the buildings, which look as though they are mostly unchanged since Mr Rolfe was here 45 years ago. The Series I is running a treat, feeling smooth and well set-up at the hands of an experienced engineer.
I don’t really think Roger had to re-educate himself with double-de-clutching; he’s always been a master at perfecting silent gearchanges.
Lymington harbour is packed with craft of all shapes and sizes, and a fishing boat is unloading cuttlefish traps on the dockside. These are similar to lobster pots, but the fisherman tells me he places a previously caught live female cuttlefish in the trap during the breeding season, thereby attracting a number of randy males inside. Most cuttlefish caught here are apparently exported to Europe.
We’re not sticking exactly to the Letts route on this occasion. Although the Series I runs well and is in its element on twisty New Forest roads, taking it through heavy modern traffic in Southampton and Bournemouth is not so much fun. So we’re giving them a miss.
We point the Series I’s nose north to Brockenhurst, which Letts describes as ‘a modern town on an ancient site. Today it is mainly hotels, riding stables and golf courses – a fine centre for a relaxing holiday in the midst of splendid country.’
We ‘relax’ a while at the railway crossing barriers waiting for a couple of trains before driving towards the town’s two fords. Sadly, they’re dry today, so the Series I doesn’t get a dip.
Brockenhurst has a connection with World War Two; the British and American generals Montgomery and Eisenhower used what is now the Balmer Lawn Country House Hotel to plan D-Day.
Verderers and Agisters
We continue north to Lyndhurst which is, according to Letts, ‘the capital’ of the New Forest. The guide adds: ‘Here, next to the King’s House where the Forest Warden lives, is the Verderers’ Hall. From here the laws of the forest are enforced, but without the brutality of earlier times.
‘The so-called Rufus Stirrup hanging in the hall was not, in fact, a stirrup at all, but a gauge for dogs. Those who could pass through it were allowed the freedom of the forest; those who couldn’t were cruelly maimed to prevent them from attacking the King’s deer.’
The Verderers originally formed a court that dealt with offences within the forest in the 13th century, but they’re still operating today, with 10 members acting as guardians of the forest.
Following tradition, the Verderers still employ five Agisters, stockmen who look after the day-to-day running of animals that graze in the forest.
Next we join the B3056 and head towards Beaulieu.
Lyndhurst to St Leonards
Highlight: Massive medieval barn
The New Forest became ‘new’ in the 11th century when William the Conqueror developed it as a hunting playground. It became a National Park in 2005, and although there are still large areas of forest, there’s also a lot of grazing land – with herds of cattle and 3000-plus ponies. The ponies have been here for 2000 years and wander freely.
We encounter a herd near Hatchet Pond, west of Beaulieu. Originally created to provide water for a local ironworks, it’s the largest body of water in the forest and is now used for coarse fishing, wildlife and picnicking.
Letts says that ‘Beaulieu is probably better known for its modern attractions than for its historic abbey, built by King John in 1204 as a Cistercian monastery, and destroyed by Henry VIII in 1538. Modern attractions centre on Lord Montagu’s Motor Museum, which contains a unique collection of motor cars and motor cycles dating from 1895 to the present day. Beaulieu Abbey is mostly ruined, but the refectory has been rebuilt for use as a parish church. The Palace House, originally the abbey gatehouse, was built in the early 14th century. It was rebuilt in 1872 and is now the home of Lord and Lady Montagu, but parts are open to the public.’
Now it’s called the National Motor Museum, and it’s well worth a visit. It’s not big on Land Rovers, as there’s only one regular exhibit – the number four pre-pro model that was restored by enthusiast Tony Hutchings – but it houses Donald Campbell’s mighty Bluebird.
We’re also distracted by a fine selection of classic cars for sale at nearby Beaulieu Garage.
No faster than 40mph
Unlike other parts of the country, most of the roads in my Letts New Forest route are much the same as they were when Mr Rolfe toured around here. Was he in a Land Rover, I wonder? Somehow I think not, and I have a vision of him trundling around the lanes in a Morris Minor or Ford Anglia.
We exit Beaulieu on the B3054, then turn left towards Buckler’s Hard: ‘Buckler’s Hard, on the banks of the Beaulieu estuary, has a rich history of shipping. Here were built, from the great oaks of the New Forest, men-of-war, including ships that fought at Trafalgar.’
Next we pass through St Leonards. Says Letts: ‘The road passes the ruins of an enormous medieval barn beside St Leonard’s Grange (built about 1700 and now a farm).’
The barn was indeed enormous (the largest in Europe, apparently) at 300ft by 50ft.
Many New Forest roads are narrow, ideal for the slim Series I. And the 40mph limit on unfenced roads means we don’t slow others.
St Leonards to Breamore
Highlight: Ancient Fordingbridge
Letts next takes us down to Tanner’s Lane, on the edge of the Solent. We should be able to see Yarmouth and The Needles but visibility is too murky, which is a shame.
As I mentioned, the plan is to cut out the loop to Bournemouth, so we cross through the middle of the New Forest, picking up the A31 near Ringwood. The guide tells me: ‘Ringwood is a busy, but attractive, market town just west of the official forest boundary but generally considered to be one of the New Forest towns.’
We continue to follow the route, leaving Ringwood on the A31, but turning left through Mockbeggar, South Gorley, North Gorley and Stuckton. We’re running parallel to the A338 and join it at Fordingbridge. This town doesn’t get much of a mention in my guide book, other than praising the local church’s hammer-beam roof. But it does have a seven-arched bridge over the river Avon, from which it gets its name.
Land Rover arch enthusiasts
There’s been a bridge here since the 13th century, and was widened in 1851. Just over the bridge is the 18th-century George Inn. Roger eases the Series I through its ancient archway to the car park, and we stop for lunch. It’s a bit chilly, but we’re dressed for the great outdoors and enjoy a sandwich by the banks of the Avon.
Next, we divert from the guide book’s route to visit two Land Rover arch enthusiasts, father and son Stuart and Adrian Hibberd. Responsible for various Land Rover restorations, they also worked with LRO’s Mark Saville and Roger Crathorne on the Land Rover ploughing story with a Defender 90 TDCi that we included in the June 2010 issue.
After a good chinwag, we continue north to Breamore – which locals pronounce as Bremmer. Letts says this village ‘has an exceptionally important Saxon cruciform church with a rare Anglo-Saxon inscription over the archway leading to the south transept. Translated it reads “Here the Covenant becomes manifest to thee”.’
Also in the village is Breamore House, an Elizabethan manor that’s open to the public at certain times of the year. Letts tells me it has a fine collection of paintings, tapestries and furniture, and the house’s website suggests it’s still very much the same today.
The Letts route heads east towards Southampton, but as we’re giving that a miss we call it a day here. I say goodbye to Roger and climb back on board LRO’s Discovery 1 for the long drive back to our HQ at Peterborough.
It’s been a lovely, gentle day out in a beautiful part of the country. Roger’s 1951 Series I behaved impeccably, as you’d expect. It’s a shame the weather prevented us from driving with the top down, but leaving the door tops off meant we were still close enough to nature to enjoy something of the outdoor experience.
The full story can be found in the Spring 2015 issue of LRO. Download a digital issue, or order a back issue by calling 01858 438884.