Meet Vince. He’s our quad bike instructor. He’s about 50 with close-cropped hair and the no-nonsense air of an ex-military man. The kind you might expect to describe the war as “the best years of his life”.
His safety briefing is to the point. “Go where I go,” he says, “or you’ll veer off the track and slam into a tree and you’ll die. Keep both hands on the handlebars – no drinking Fosters or puffing on Bensons – or you’ll lose control of the bike and you’ll die.”
It must be said that this ever-present threat of death is at odds with the tranquility of our surroundings.
We’re about half-an-hour south of London by train, down in Surrey, at Priory Events, which offers city-slickers a whole range of outdoor activities on their rambling property, where lush paddocks are interspersed with dense thickets. It feels like the kind of English countryside where you could easily happen upon a community of talking woodland animals.
“When you go around a corner, make sure you lean into it,” Vince says. “Or you’ll go up on two wheels and then the bike will fall on top of you and you’ll smash your pelvis. And you’ll die.”
With that, we rev up our quad bikes and roll out in single file. Cue the photo-real Mario Kart flashbacks. Like rough tattoos crisscrossing the soil, tracks from previous groups are visible throughout the property.
Initially, we stick to the narrow pathways on the outskirts of the paddocks. It’s easy to speed along the straight lines but necessary to brake sharply before the corners.
There’s been rain overnight and there are some deep puddles to be negotiated. Going through them at any kind of speed throws up a hail of foul-smelling mud, which soon coats my shirtsleeves. That’s the scent of country life, that is.
Vince is way out in front – his job is clearly his hobby.
Once he’s satisfied that we can all steer and brake with enough efficacy to avoid serious injury, he pulls up and shuts off his quad bike’s engine.
“We’re going to tackle some of these hills now,” he says. “But make sure you slow down at the top, because if you don’t, you’ll take off and you’ll die.
“Also, stay on the track, because there’s some metal on the side and if you crash into that, you’ll sever your jugular … and then you'll die.”
And we’re away again, this time weaving along a narrow path covered by a thick canopy of trees. The odd over-hanging branch will thwack into my face if I don’t duck in time and the corners are tight enough that, if I'm not switched on, it's easy come a cropper. Vince wasn’t lying about the hills, though. I foolishly accelerate up the first one and, as the bike bucks at the top, I can feel the inertia lifting me out of my seat.
Note to self: Vince knows everything.
After a series of bumpy hills and sharp bends, we’re back out in the clear, in a vast field that doubles as a perfect figure-eight racetrack. Even from about 20 metres behind Vince, I can hear the growl of his engine.
Clearly, this is where we open up the bikes and, surprisingly, their top speed is pretty bloody quick; quick enough to accelerate thrillingly into a wide corner. It’s great fun. Proper, palpable, you-know-you’re-having-it fun.
There’s a whole network of paddocks and tracks to explore but after a couple of hours, just as they’re beginning to feel familiar, it’s time to return to the sheds.
The road back, though, is scarred by a deep, ugly furrow – you’ve got to make sure the bike straddles it. While concentrating on this, I fail to notice the devilish kink in the path ahead. Before I can react, it’s upon me – I oversteer, the back wheels jam in the deep groove before kicking up uncontrollably, causing the bike to career off the path, headlong into a spikey patch of brambles.
The bike’s circuits short themselves, leaving me to try to pull it out of the bushes backwards. Vince, who has ridden back, stands on the path next to me, shaking his head. The futility of my attempt to extricate my bike is compounded by the knowledge that I have disappointed him.
Fortunately, I do better at the clay pigeon shooting. In fact, I'm a natural, as though my inner gun-nut has finally managed to claw its way out.
For the uninitiated, two clay pigeon machines – they look like they'd also be able to fire tennis balls – are set up, one about 40 yards away and one right next to the little hut we're shooting from. Once you're ready, with the butt of the rifle wedged into your shoulder and the sights all lined up, you give the signal and a clay comes firing out of the far machine.
You track it, wait for its trajectory to plateau, and then blow it away.
I’ve never fired a gun in my life but, fortified by the certainty that bravado is a seamless substitute for skill and experience, I ice the first six clay pigeons without thinking twice. Stone cold. You gotta be handy with the steel if you know what I mean, earn your keep.
“That’s obviously far too easy,” the guy working the traps remarks. I shrug. Yeah, you’re right, mate. Maybe it is too
easy. What else have you got?
We scale up quickly – when the clays come out of the closer trap, they're harder to pick up and the longer you hold fire, the further away they fly. It's tricky. Eventually, we're firing one clay from the top trap, and then another from the bottom. I’m like a lizard watching a fly. The first clay explodes, before I strafe left and shatter the second clay, just as it begins arcing away from me. I glance at the trap operator. I can do this all day. I’ll make it rain out here.
If only Vince could see me now.
WORDS: TOM STURROCK
There’s some basic clay pigeon shooting on offer, but if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, you might fancy signing up to go shooting on their grouse course.
You might need a lesson first. And, let’s face it – your countrified experience wouldn’t be complete without getting properly decked out in a fetching tweed ensemble.
Luckily, that’s also on offer.
Address: Sharvel Lane, UB5 6RA
London Kayak Tours
You can paddle down Regent’s Canal, past London Zoo towards Little Venice and Regent’s Park.
Alternatively, if you pick another tour, you could find yourself floating along the Thames, admiring the cityscape from its famous waterway.
It’s great exercise but get involved before the end of summer because it won’t be much fun in the rain.
Address: The Pirate Castle, Oval Road, NW1 7EA
Tube: Camden Town
Just you and your mates and the open road, all aboard a humming 150cc quad. Well, not quite the open road but the rolling grasslands of west London.
There’s a winding, hilly course that will keep you on your toes. Watch out for the bumps in the road and the muddy trenches just waiting to leave you splattered. A great chance to burn rubber and get messy.
Depends when you book
Address: Edward Rd, UB5 6RA
Once you’ve taken all that exercise, head down to Rules for a proper country feed – this restaurant is known for its game and the season gets under way this week.
If you've never tried it before – you're in for a treat. The grouse is the signature dish, but make sure you try the venison and even a bit of rabbit. Take note, they come up a treat on the barbecue.
Address: 35 Maiden Lane, WC2E 7LB
Tube: Charing Cross