Teacher: Chris Marsden
Lesson: Off road driving
To prepare for this lesson, we watched lots of fail videos on YouTube. Countless clips showed 4x4s sliding backwards down hills, getting stuck nose-first in 10ft ditches and even rolling sideways off cliff edges. This was potentially going to be the most extreme Teach Us lesson yet..
Chris’s version of off-roading, however, isn’t quite like this. Rather than speeding up vertical inclines and getting air off jumps in the road, Chris spends time pootling down country byways at 3mph, clearing overhanging branches that stand in his way. It’s not that he couldn’t turn things up a notch if he wanted to – he certainly has the skills – but more that he views his surroundings slightly differently.
For Chris, the byways that intersect the British countryside are not natural race tracks to skid around like a rally driver. Rather, they’re gateways that enable people like him to see rugged, almost forgotten, sections of the country we all call home. Chris clears paths of all natural obstructions to enable other drivers to move through with ease, and to ensure that he can return whenever he feels like it.
Our lesson with Chris, therefore, became both a lesson in how to control a car and how to look after local byways. In between explaining how low gear ratios work, how to steer into skids to get more grip, and how to ascertain the depth of a river before crossing, Chris showed us the best way to chop a tree branch with a chainsaw and taught us the history of the green lane we were driving on. More than anything, it was great to get to know the local area from the perspective of a man who’s made it his life’s work to explore all the hidden nooks and crannies.
What have you taught us today?
First of all the risks of driving on unsurfaced roads, and then how to control the vehicle – as slow as possible as fast as necessary. That’s the general maxim.
What is your day job?
I’m retired, and fortunate enough to have been retired for a few years. I might not look it but I am 70 now! Driving like this keeps me young though; it’s quite an energetic pastime.
How long have you been off road driving?
It has been about 22 years now. It’s something that I just gradually developed an interest in, from combination of other interests: searching ancient highways, learning the technical aspect of vehicles, birdwatching and just generally seeing the countryside, pulling everything like this together.
What considerations do you have to make as an off-road driver?
Taking care of your own, and other people’s safety is the most important thing to consider. It also involves taking care of your vehicle and the highways you’re driving on. I do most of my driving on public highways that are rarely used – it’s possible to drive on private land too, but that’s a completely different kettle of fish.
What does a typical day look like of off road driving?
I try to get out once a week if I can, and nearly always just for a whole day. Sometimes I’ll go away with a few friends for 3-4 days and try to drive 10-20 byways each day.
Can you tell me one interesting fact about off-roading?
About 40-50 years ago, the most useful roads were tarmaced, and less useful roads were more or less abandoned. The roads I drive on has been left as barely used green lanes, used for horse riding and farm access. They’ve had less and less use as the other roads got more and more, eventually leading to them being forgotten.
How did you start off road driving?
That’s going back 20 odd years now… I had heard about off road training courses in Wales, and wondered where I could practise locally. I started looking into where to legally use my vehicle and found I had to specifically hunt down byways open to all traffic and unclassified roads that hadn’t been surfaced. Once I found out that there were lots of them around my house, I was away! Most of learning how to drive off-road comes down to developing your own driving techniques. The fundamentals can be taught, of course, but a lot of it is just experience and common sense.
What do you like about it most?
The freedom. Just rambling along at walking pace, getting to see some of the countryside. I like not knowing where I’m going to end up. At the start of each day I’ll generally have some idea of the route, but if I see an interesting new lane, there’s nothing to stop me exploring it.
Have you had any hairy moments?
Turning the vehicle on its side was fairly interesting! It was a failed hill climb and the vehicle started sliding back, eventually rolling onto its side. But it all happened in slow motion, so nothing too dangerous. A friend who was with me just towed the vehicle back and, because of the lay of the land, it just righted itself, so I managed to drive away from there.
Have you taught anyone else to off road drive?
Not in the way we have done today, but a few new drives have come along with me on their first few drives.
Do you enjoy teaching?
I wouldn’t say I was a natural teacher, but I do enjoy doing it on a one to one basis. I’d find it too daunting to sit in front of a group of people and teach them all!
The most common mistake is to be overconfident. If you think it’s easy, you’ll take your concentration off the road and that’s when everything can go wrong. Things can suddenly go from feeling easy to being very difficult – if the wheel jerks to one side, for example, or you knick a tyre. You could go down a steep hill too quickly, and notice a fallen tree in the road. Everywhere you go, you have to think ‘can I reverse out of this?’
Is there are skill you’d love to learn?
I’d love to learn French, because my son and daughter-in-law live in France and I’d like to be able to go over there and talk with confidence.
What we learned
- Off road vehicles have a ‘low ratio’ gearing option, which basically means the go slower at the same engine speed, increasing the torque. This means that 1st gear essentially becomes ¼ gear.
- Slower is generally always better when travelling on uneven terrain.
- How to use a chainsaw- carefully!