I wander lonely as a Land-Rover. Ahead and above me, jagged waves of rocks lurch forward along a trail the width of my four-wheel drive. In my left ear is a calm and insistent voice that speaks in single words. “First,” it says. And I’m in first. “Gas,” it says. And I press the accelerator. Injunctions to go left, right and straight are issued one after the other as we master a terrain fit for crampons.
A piece of yellow tape reminds me where straight is and I make my arms limp as instructed, keeping “strong hands” on the steering wheel. I try to focus on the middle distance as the cab pitches and rolls over apparently vertical boulders. I feel like someone attempting to meditate on a rodeo bull.
A wheelspin breaks the spell, but I’m over the worst of it and rolling to a halt in the soft brown earth. The fag end of summer is sweet, the sun shines on the length of Coniston Water, and I am, for a moment at least, pleased with myself.
Then there is the voice. It belongs to Nick Fieldhouse and he’s trying to be kind. We’ve cleared the most technical section of the ascent at the first time of asking and without stalling. But victory has been soured, slightly, by the wheelspin and Nick is a perfectionist. A kind perfectionist. But it becomes apparent that there is a right way to do this and a wrong way.
A livid orange Land-Rover Defender G4 and some of the highest, wildest peaks in Britain seem like an obvious invitation for a burst of speed, testosterone and aggression. But, against all expectations, that’s not what’s required at all. It’s like I’m a schoolboy again, arriving at my first judo class and expecting to throw people, only to lectured on the art of patience and the philosophy of self-defence.
When and if we get it right, Nick explains, it will be as though someone has thrown a thick blanket over these savage rocks to soften our way. Real 4x4 driving, I’m told, involves keeping all four wheels in contact with the terrain at all times. The engine is tuned to a perfect pitch and will work, in calm hands, against any urge to stall. The accelerator needs soft and only occasional attention. And the tyres will do the rest for you. We are riding high on a set of Cooper tyres’ rugged Discoverer STTs. These are indestructible enough to run relatively soft and deliver enough traction to go rock-climbing. These monsters can be fitted to almost any 4x4, thereby opening up sections like the one we’ve just spun up to a huge number of new off-roaders.
Looking back at our ascent, it sounds unlikely – but then, what do I know? My driving typically takes place in hire cars on motorways, so it’s fair to say that there’s an experience gap.
Nick, who runs the Kankku off-road driving school from his base near Lake Windermere, learnt to drive when he was five years old. He’s been handling 4x4s around his native Cumbria for more than two decades.
Fittingly for a driving school, Kankku owes its existence to a speed limit. The decision to restrict boats on Windermere to 10mph (yes, they do have those red signposts with the number 10 standing in the lake itself) after years of wrangling between local authorities, conservationists and businesses, brought a premature end to Nick’s water-ski school.
His first passion was the Lancia Integrale, which enjoyed its rallying heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It seemed to him an obvious gap in the market that no one was providing the vehicles and know-how for newcomers to drive the spectacular trails that criss-cross the rugged Lake District.
The same culture wars that drove the speedier watersports off the lake have followed Nick into his new enterprise though, as ramblers, runners, mountain bikers |||and scrambling enthusiasts fight for rights of way on the Cumbrian trails. It seems that I’m not the only one with a misconception of what off-road driving should be like, and many of the other outdoor pursuiters would be happy to have the Land-Rovers and their ilk driven off the trails permanently.
Etiquette is not left to chance inside the Lake District National Park. There are strict regulations covering which trails can be used for which pastimes, and most of the wooden gates you encounter carry an officious-looking code of conduct outlining who has what right of way.
Ramblers, it seems, regard their visits as environmental pilgrimages and look on the presence of a powerful 4x4 on their sacred trails in the same way a sailboat might regard a commercial whaler. Nick says that when he started out he would be apologetic towards the pilgrims in walking boots, but trying to make yourself small and unimposing in a Land-Rover was always going to be a self-defeating effort. Some would sneer, others would argue and complain, he remembers.
Now, though, like my preconceptions and those vertical boulders, the ramblers have been outmanoeuvred. The way to defuse tensions is to roll down the window and perform an unsmiling nod and in your deepest Cumbrian accent, give it a quick: “How do.”
Simple, but it works. The ramblers stop looking on you as a madman bent on tearing up their pilgrims’ passage and instead look on you with the reverence reserved for the The Farmer – a near-mythical figure of entitlement. If it looks like a really tough crowd, a curt “now then” will usually do the job.
Neither my girlfriend nor I (we’re taking it in turns at the wheel) make remotely convincing farmers. Our unease earns an unfriendly glare from a group of hikers, despite the fact that they are sitting on the other side of a picture window in a holiday cottage a stone’s throw from the track. It’s tricky stuff, this conflict resolution.
After five hours of oddly serene driving that would hardly have troubled the speed limit on the lake, it’s reassuring that the wilderness is an illusion and that more pedestrian pleasures await nearby. I'm happy to swap the four wheels of my drive for the four stars and traditional comforts of Windermere’s Lakeside Hotel. It only feels like the gentlest of betrayals after a day on Cooper tyres when someone tells me that the restaurant has a Michelin star.