Surrey Off-Road Specialists Limited

Like many 4x4 owners I’m sure, mine spends most of its life on the tarmac, whether it’s the daily commute to the station or obligatory trip to the local DIY store at the weekend. Not since the off-road Safari at Cannock Chase (read about it here) have I had occasion to engage four wheel drive. Recently however, I had the chance to drive one of the best off-road courses this side of the Trophee Cevenol! Actually that’s a bit of an exaggeration, all right a lot, partly because I’ve never had the chance to do the Trophee Cevenol and mainly because the off-road course in question was only 4 miles long and didn’t take 3 days to complete!

What am I on about? The Abingdon 4x4 Festival. It’s been a few years now since I’ve attended a 4x4 show, largely because there aren’t as many as there were a few years ago - Weston Park and Jeep Fest to mention just two, have gone and those that do carry on are often Land Rover orientated. Not there is anything wrong with that, except when you drive a Toyota… The Abingdon 4x4 Festival, now in its 8th year, is open to all makes of 4x4 and seeing as it was just up the road it was definitely worth a look. I’d like to tell you where I first saw it advertised but, I can’t remember, and I scoured the few 4x4 magazines I had the week before and couldn’t find any mention. It deserves to be better advertised because it turned out to be really good day.

The Festival is held at Dalton Barracks (Army Camp and former RAF Abingdon Airfield) and all proceeds are donated to local charities including the Thames Valley and Chiltern Air Ambulance Trust. We chose the Saturday of the weekend long event to visit and arrived just after 11 am. We? Myself, my wife, my two nieces and their Mum and Dad. A good mix of ages and interests and hopefully a good test of a family day out. From the moment we arrived I was struck by the friendly atmosphere of the place, from the marshals on the gate to the stallholders and to the marshals on the off-road course. Once in, we parked up and went off to check out the place. First stop was the coffee stand with doughnuts for the girls and bacon rolls for the guys. It was then that the girls (I should clarify and say the younger two!) noticed the bouncy castle – yep, that was going to have to be their first stop - just as soon as the crew had finished blowing it up! When coffee was done it was quickly decided that the ‘boys’ would be off-roading and the ‘girls’ would be on the bouncy castle. So, Me and Andy Mate headed back to the truck and then drove round to the scrutineering point. Scrutineering?! Yep, and probably the first time I’ve every seen it done at a non-competitive event. Actually this was best described as a ‘safety check’. The guy’s checked under the bonnet and for any loose heavy items floating about in the passenger compartment and fair enough too. The guys were having a laugh wondering if my snorkel would fit their Defender, “come on guy’s, you could at least wait until I totalled it before dividing it up!”

Once on the course there were plenty of marshals on hand and they were all actively making sure that everyone knew what to expect and managing the ‘traffic’ to make sure each stage was cleared before the next 4x4 continued. The bit that was competition style were the canes and tape marking the route. The course was roughly divided into two with ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ options offered or, as one marshal put it; “Land Rovers and everything else”. I elected not to follow the Land Rovers and took the ‘hard’ option! Seriously though, the marshals were very helpful and the course was very well laid out to give standard 4x4’s a safe and non-damaging drive and the modified ones something to ‘play’ with. The route was also well laid out to make good use of the ground with the track twisting and climbing and looping back on itself at every turn. We followed the ‘hard’ route at all but a couple points. One, because I’d just crested the top of a hill and the hard route disappeared to the left just as the track became visible over the bonnet again and I missed it – not to worry we joined it again moments later. Secondly, I avoided the ‘mud run’ – spoil sport! Yep, I saw the group of overheated 4x4’s lined up on the side of the track; radiators clogged with mud, bonnets up and decided I didn’t need to go there even if it did look like a lot of fun. I consoled myself with the ‘mud splash’ instead. Oh, yes and there was another bit I missed, a rather tight winding course following what looked a bit like a riverbed through a selection of boulders. Just a bit tight for the long wheelbase Toyota and I wasn’t in too much of a hurry to add any more curves to the body panels!

OK, so earlier I likened the off-roading to the Trophee Cevenol. Was it really that good? Obviously I was exaggerating but it doesn’t have to be a three-day event, on some of the toughest off-road trails in France to be enjoyable. I’ve heard tales of the Cevenol being one of the best French off-road events on the calendar and the driving really captures all those that enter. The course laid out for us on that Saturday morning was not that extreme but it challenged without being too serious and was a lot of fun. Sure on the hard course there had been damage and breakages, most of them it would appear the result of a little too much enthusiasm. One hill had caused some panel damage when the driver gave it ‘the berries’ and another loose climb with some holes in it had seen the end of a couple of half-shafts. I went for the just enough momentum approach and sparing use of the rear locker. This only let me down once or twice but at least I could back up and try again… As we rounded the last bend to leave the course I suddenly realised I was quite tired and we’d actually been driving for the best part of an hour! “That was great! I’d do that again!”

What had the ‘girls’ been up to in the meantime? My wife had been taking advantage of the hill that runs down the side of the off-road course to get a good view and take some photos. The little two and their mum were well entertained standing by the mud splash and as soon as we were finished headed off to that bouncy castle. Once we all met up again we took in the trade and club stands. This also gave us the chance to visit the photo stand and pick out our picture from the off-road course. Compared to events like Weston Park the number of stands was limited but it did have a good variety and catered for all the family. I stopped by the GLASS (Green Lane Association) tent had a chat with their representatives. ‘Green-Laning’ has been a hot topic of late and I was keen to find out news of the latest position. It was good to hear from people that were keen to promote responsible enjoyment of the countryside and with that in mind I decided to get involved and signed up. You can get more information from their website but fair to say, this is a group that are actively promoting the enjoyment of our countryside whilst working with the many agencies and land owners to see it maintained for future generations.

In the arena there were several displays of various makes and models of 4x4’s from the clubs that were in attendance around the showground. This also included a selection of highly modified Land Rover 90’s that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Outback Challenge Morocco – maybe that’s where they were headed. Later in the day there was to be a ‘twist-off’ competition and I was sorry to have missed it. Especially as the best viewing point was probably the beer tent – maybe that was by design! Anyway, all too soon we had to go and I went off to get the truck jet-washed so as not to leave ‘my’ piece of the off-road course on the road home. To be honest for £5 I drove home with a cleaner truck than I’d arrived in so you can’t beat that!

My lasting impression was of a really fun day out. Sure there weren’t as many trade stands in evidence as those bigger shows of years gone by and some of those that did attend were not there in the same force either. No, it wasn’t about that, this show was a friendly club meet, a great off-road course and more than enough events going on to entertain the ‘family’. As we were driving out, a little voice from the back piped up, “Can we go off-roading now?” “Erm, you said you wanted to go on the bouncy castle, instead?!” “Yes but we want to go off-roading now!”… Oh, well I guess they’ll be up for another ‘fun day out’ sometime soon then!