Last Thursday and not a normal car delivery job! Leicester’s main Land Rover dealer requested four drivers to provide meet and greet/car park duties and to shuttle guests to and from a Land Rover experience event in two “gun busses”. Gun busses??! All became clear when we pulled in to a muddy parking area on the edge of the Rockingham Castle estate in Northamptonshire (more about Rockingham Castle later on in this post).
In the car park we were met by two large, green mechanical beasts. They were the military vehicle equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster, being made of bitsa this and bitsa that and about as handsome as Mary Shelley’s literary creation. The boss of the Land Rover dealership was there to meet us and explain all. “What on earth are they?” we asked. “Reynolds Boughton RB44s. They were used by the British Army but not very popular.” Good start. On the Frankenstein theme, the cab was from a Dodge van, the switchgear was pure British Leyland (gulp) and the diamond shaped recess in the middle of the steering wheel looked as if had been made to accommodate a Renault badge. I have since found out that they have a 4 litre, 109bhp Perkins diesel engine. The rest was probably from the manufacturer who supplied the army trucks to Trumpton’s Pippin Fort (younger and foreign readers please refer to Google or ask Jeeves, if he’s still alive). We assumed the trucks were used on the estate for shooting parties, hence “gun busses”. The pictures of game birds painted on the cab doors were a big clue.
We then received the briefest of instructions: “Dog leg first gear, reverse is over to the left and up, push this thing in before starting and pull it out to stop the engine.” He then handed both sets of keys to one of my colleagues who instantly passed them on like a hot potato, one set landing in my paws. For some reason, two of our number decided that car park duty was for them (which they carried out with great skill, I have to say) and they had no ambition to add the Reynolds Boughton RB44 to their driving CVs.
We had some special equipment for the day too – walkie-talkies and long, padded high visibility jackets. These accessories would help us get guests safely and efficiently from the car park down to the start point for the Land Rover event. At the start point (let’s call it “base camp” from now on), they would find various hospitality facilities and a fleet of white Land Rover experience cars to drive. Interestingly, the hi-vis jackets were all one size which was about six sizes too big for me. My jacket absolutely swamped me. Had it been any bigger I would have been charged council tax for residing in it.
Now back to the RB44s. Fortunately, we had time for a practice run down to base camp, just over a mile away along a narrow, grey muddy track. Up into the driver’s seat I climbed as simultaneously the collar of my jacket climbed up around my ears. Remembering the instructions, I made sure the in-out thingy was pushed in (it looked like a large red organ stop). Wincing in anticipation, I tentatively turned the ignition key and brought the beast to life. What a din! Agricultural and clattery is being kind. Then I engaged the dog leg first gear – to the left and down – and slowly started to raise my foot off the clutch pedal. Eventually we had movement as the vehicle slowly inched forward. First gear was very short, its purpose only really to get some rotation on the wheels. So it was quickly up into second gear: clutch and firmly thrust the gear lever forward. Then I was away, bouncing down the track and edging up to a heady 10mph. After a short straight, there was a sharp left. Lift off a bit and heave the steering wheel round. The power steering was OK and meant that you did not have to be Popeye to change direction. Since my arms are more like Olive Oyl’s, this was a good thing. However a lot of arm twirling was needed to make the 90 degree turn. Then the track meandered its way to base camp and my eyes peered out from over the top of my jacket to admire Rockingham Castle’s scenic parkland and thousands of seagulls that were a long way from home. A sweeping left hander down a hill and round a tree then up again, bearing right onto a slightly uphill straight. It was here that I thought I would try for third gear, so I accelerated – probably from about 10mph to 12mph – and as I was pinned back in my seat, wrestling the g-forces, I grabbed third. Or it may have been fifth. Anyway, there was much juddering and an even more thunderous noise than before. I reached the “crest” of this slightest of slight inclines (barely visible to the naked eye) and things settled down from absolute cacophony to just an horrendous din. So it may have been third gear after all (I did master third gear within a couple of runs). Now things had been more than a little rocky up to this point but then I discovered the really bumpy part of the whole voyage. A short but very rutted section of the track threw the vehicle and any less-than-muscular body parts into a wild up and down oscillation. Now I never thought I would say this but a sports bra suddenly seemed like a must have garment. Fortunately, that section quickly came to an end so we were just back to persistent rock and roll but now the slimy track headed down and through an impossibly narrow looking gateway. Close eyes, breath in and try to change down into second gear. After playing a little tune with reverse gear and much stirring of the long wobbly gear stick, I managed to get second. The track descended to the right over a small bridge so it was feet off everything as I let the engine and second gear do all the braking. I could feel the truck squirm a little unsteadily beneath me, but kept faith with the beast’s 4×4 abilities. Finally, a bit of welly was needed to get up a steeply sloping right hand bend before levelling out in the middle of base camp. I came to a stop with a classic French Citroen H van (in a fetching emerald green) on my left and a large teepee on my right. In a fleetingly surreal moment, I half expected to come face to face with Big Chief Sitting Boeuf. But I had made it. All I had to do now was turn round and go back again. The track was no wider in base camp but a guy from Land Rover came to the rescue: “Carry on down the track, through the trees, past the white cottage and you’ll see a pile of roadstone on your left. You can turn round there.” This was very helpful and I executed a three point turn with no trouble at all (even getting into reverse gear at the first attempt).
After that little exercise, I was ready to take real live passengers. For the rest of the day, I happily traipsed to and fro between the car park and base camp in “my” truck (I was growing attached to it). My constant, beaming smile lit up the inside of my jacket. I would try to relax nervous looking guests with witty banter as I helped them up the ladder into the back of the truck: “There will be no in-flight service today but you can expect a good deal of turbulence” or “If you have any fillings, you may be seeing your dentist sooner than you expected”. These hilarious quips solicited a few nervous laughs but most guests just looked astounded at being addressed by a headless, walking, talking hi-vis coat. We would then set off, rolling along in an army truck, a humpity, bumpity army truck (Trumpton again) with me making the necessary calculations before choosing my moment to make the jump to light speed in the middle section of the trip. Well, the jump to third gear and something approaching 15 mph.
Throughout the day, the beast only misbehaved twice. On the first occasion, I had a full load of bodies in the back and a gentleman riding shotgun with me in the cab. We were going up that last slope before base camp, in second gear, when the truck lost momentum, no longer responding to the throttle. Curious. Handbrake on, then into first to attempt a hill start. Foot off clutch, revs, nothing (except disconcerting backwards movement). Tried the same thing (optimistically) in second. No drive again. I glanced helplessly around the cab until my eyes fell on the hitherto untouched high-low ratio shift. Hmm, sure it wasn’t in that position earlier. Somehow it had jumped out of high ratio and into neutral. I simply pushed it down into position, problem solved. The second bit of mischief occurred when it started to rain. I flipped up the wiper stalk and the wipers staggered about a quarter of the way round their assigned arc and stopped. I moved the stalk down to the off position then back on. Another quarter arc. Off, on, off, on. Made it. I repeated the procedure to get the wipers back to their starting position and then carried on in a similar vein for a couple more traverses. I began to think that this was the first vehicle I had ever driven with wipers operated by hand pump. Eventually however, the wipers took the hint and moved entirely of their own accord. Poetry in motion. Then it stopped raining.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my day driving the noisiest, bounciest, most uncomfortable vehicle I have ever driven. It is the slowest too (with the possible exception of a Citroen C1 automatic but that’s another story). From the comments I heard upon their return to the car park, all the guests seemed to enjoy the whole event too. This job was also a reminder that I should really make another visit to Rockingham Castle itself (the previous visit having been over twenty years ago). It is a dinky little castle on the hill above Rockingham village but with no connection to Ed Sheeran as far as I know. The original wooden fortification was built in William the Conqueror’s time and the stone castle started in his son’s (William II’s) reign. The same family has occupied the castle since Henry VIII first leased it to the Watsons in 1544. The top of the hill (and castle) is reached via a climb up the wonderfully picturesque Main Street with its dark honey stone cottages and ivy covered pub. As a picture of chocolate box England, it matches anything the Cotswolds has to offer. Unfortunately, Main Street is also an A road so it doesn’t quite have the cosy feeling it should have but it is definitely worth a look.
Rockingham is also home to a motor racing circuit. They probably race RB44s there.