The cook, Mrs Bagley, wasn’t happy. Christmas dinner awaited guests at Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire but two illustrious members of the party were missing – King Hussein of Jordan and triple Formula One champion Sir Jackie Stewart.
The pair had ventured on to the woodland tracks near Ledbury, where Land Rover has put off-road vehicles to the test for decades. Despite strict instructions not to be late, their Defender became bogged down in mud for two hours, much to the annoyance of the chef as her sprouts turned soggy.
The deeply rutted track has been known as King Hussein’s Bomb Hole ever since. It is just one section of the latest Land Rover Experience that includes Gearbox Hill, The Steps and Articulation Alley – a testing ground for the suspension system in the old Defender model.
The Malvern Hills around Eastnor is also where six Oxbridge students trained for an 18,000-mile expedition from London to Singapore in 1955. The journey was deemed impossible at the time but their success made them and Land Rover front-page news around the world.
Fortunately, you don’t need to be Ray Mears or Bear Grylls to enjoy the new Eastnor Explorer course. Many participants arrive at “expedition” headquarters in a standard saloon, blissfully unaware of the challenges that lie ahead, kitted out in immaculately polished wellies.
I’m driving a Land Rover Discovery Sport HSE Luxury in eye-catching Phoenix orange – a £1,765 option matched only by a rear-seat entertainment system (£2,075) and a 16-speaker stereo (£2,280). Who in their right mind would risk trashing such a swish SUV on this course?
Not me. I own a 1972 Series 3 Land Rover but instead I’ve chosen the Discovery Sport for the 40-mile trek to Eastnor from the Cotswolds. It’s too early for breakfast at Lucy’s Tearoom in Stow-on-the-Wold and I’ve no time for foraging in the hedgerows en route.
From Stow, the B4077 passes through Upper Swell and by the Plough Inn at Ford. This is classic Cotswold country – high-walled estates, tree-lined roads and more Lycra-clad cyclists than you could shake a Highway Code at.
After crossing the Cotswold Way at pretty Stanway, fast-sweeping bends give way to the narrow stretch of road that spills over the edge of the Cotswold hills, plunges through woods and eventually levels out in Toddington, at the southern end of the Vale of Evesham.
Joining the A46, the route then becomes heavily laden with lorries as it approaches the M5 at Ashchurch. The temptation here is to follow satnav instructions and head one junction north along the motorway, turning off on the M50 and then on to Ledbury.
For purely sentimental reasons, I choose a passage through Tewkesbury, where I bought my first, two-bedroomed house for £29,000 in 1988. I image you wouldn’t get much change out of £230,000 now. Other reasons to visit the medieval market town include countless Tudor buildings and a 12th century abbey of perfect proportions.
The A438 out of town - a great driving road - then passes over the River Severn, sidesteps the M50 and eventually reaches Eastnor. Hidden among the trees is the eponymous castle, which looks every inch the real deal – except it was actually built in the 19th century by John Cocks, 1st Earl Somers, as a stately home.
Huge, imposing watchtowers dominate the skyline and there’s a proper moat around one section of the gardens. While other castles in the area were built to keep the troublesome Welsh on their side of the border, mock Eastnor welcomes all-comers to experience the very best of Land Rover engineering.
The landowner in residence today is James Hervey-Bathurst, who must have a whopping bill for heating the 96-room pile. It might also explain why he chooses to drive a modest Skoda, parked beside the ramparts.
My off-road instructor for the day is Simon Millest. There are roughly 60 miles of tracks on the estate and despite years of training, even Millest admits he doesn’t know them all. You can’t blame him – some of the routes cut through thick undergrowth and I imagine it’s mighty easy to get lost.
The 5,000 acres of Eastnor are also an area of Special Scientific Interest. Land Rover is the only commercial business allowed to drive within the boundaries. Keeping the routes open without damaging the countryside has been an on-going project since 1961.
There are more than 40 white Land Rovers on standby in the expedition car park but, incredibly, we only catch sight of one other vehicle on our six-hour trek through the woods. Despite Defender production ending in 2016, it’s very clear that the decision had nothing to do with capability – our vehicle is simply unstoppable.
And far from being a well-manicured exercise in public relations, the Eastnor estate will stretch even the most experienced off-roader to the mud-soaked limit. I’ve travelled across Mongolia twice in expedition vehicles but I’m still learning plenty from Millest.
Land Rover’s heritage seems to seep out of every rut. I’m shown the tracks where the company developed prototypes of the first Range Rover in 1968. Next up is the spot where Hill Descent Control was developed for the original Freelander – and finally the tree trunk split in half by accident-prone TV presenter Richard Hammond.
The drive is usually broken down into three days of hardcore mud-plugging. The ultimate goal is to reach Camel Bridge, originally built as a challenge for the Camel Trophy race in the 1970s. How tough is it? I don’t think I got higher than second gear all day.
Eastnor is one of the best ways to enjoy proper off-road driving with a team of highly qualified instructors. Modern SUVs spend most of their lives on Tarmac but if you have an inquisitive itch to understand what a 4x4 is capable of, then give your wellington boots a light buffing and head for the Malvern Hills.
Land Rover Discovery Sport HSE Luxury TD4
PRICE £43,400 (£58,185 with options)
ENGINE 2.0-litre turbodiesel
TOP SPEED 117mph
ACCELERATION 0-60mph in 8.4sec
FUEL ECONOMY 53.3mpg (EU Combined)