When I was a Journalist at Land Rover Monthly, I did a series of interviews of interesting Land Rover people and companies. I travelled all over the UK, but this was one I did nearer home here in Kent in 2003 with Clem Lee.
CLEM LEE INTERVIEW. The guy behind Trackfinders the green lane guidebooks.
When I met up with Clem, he interrupted a day out researching the lanes around Canterbury, and the Chairman of the Invicta Land Rover Club Ken Harmes, who took over from Clem when he moved to France, brought Clem along with him to meet me in his nice little V8 Series 1.
I would like to ask you first Clem how you started your Land Rovering.
Well Charlie I started in a rather funny way. You know what I do for a living I am a musician, and together with my wife Shann we perform under her name Shann Lee-Parker. Well we were going to a really important gig one night when our car broke down. I rushed to a phone box and called the gig and told them “sorry but we can’t make it” and I got “oh no you must be joking there are hundreds of people here waiting to see you and you just can’t let us down, no way. Stay where you are, and we will send someone to fetch you”. An hour and a bit later an old 109 came along all covered in mud with hay in the back in a right state. Anyway, we piled all of our kit on board and as we went along with me sitting in the back with all the gear being shaken about as you do, my wife turned around and said to me “what is it”? I said, “what do you mean what is it, it’s a Land Rover.” “Ooh” she said, “I like this”. So, in actual fact it was my wife that got me thinking about Land Rovering and that was about 15 years ago now. I am 55 now and I remember when I was a little kid that people around where I lived then were still using the old Jeeps. I never had a clue what they were or what they did but I remember that I always liked that timeless 4X4 shape. I didn’t really care then what they did all I know is that I always liked the shape. I even had an E type Jaguar once, and I didn’t get it because I wanted to go fast it was just that fabulous shape, and that is what has always drawn me to cars first. It was the same with the Land Rover. When my wife suggested we might get one all those years ago I thought “Yeah great, this is it. They got 4-wheel drive they’ll go anywhere, through mud, up mountains and down hills and they even climb trees. Yes, that’s for me terrific”.
I think that most people in the off-road scene as it were, will probably know you from the Invicta Club, which I believe you started.
Well I used to belong to another local off-road club when I got my first Land Rover, a Series 3 short wheel base, because I was a bit green and I wanted to make sure that I did things right. I had heard about these so-called green lanes and I thought that sounds good to me. I was also looking forward to the camaraderie that I expected from the club but frankly I didn’t get it, and I thought that like some of other types of clubs I had been involved with in the past it was very cliquey. I went along to all their events and meets for about 2 months and nobody bothered to speak to me. I admit that I am not slow in coming forward to be honest with you, and I like to be friendly with everyone and have a chat. So, I thought this is no good. I had seen quite a few Series 3s and few different Land Rovers around the Deal and Dover area where I was living then, so I thought well I will start my own club, and it was really as simple and as basic as that. First, I found out all I could about green lanes, and got the club started. The idea from the outset has been friendship among the members, with a strong accent being on green laning. As you know we are blessed in Kent that this area is littered with decent green lanes. When I first started there were a few lanes around that were really heavy going what you might call mud-plugging lanes, and in those days, there was not really a need to keep a low profile as nobody seemed to object to us. In those early days when we went on to these lanes that were heavy going, I admit for a while we really didn’t realise what damage we were doing, but as you learn more about the countryside we became a lot more responsible, and really started to thoroughly enjoy this green laning.
I have never been one for sites although we used to have a small site for members on Lord Northbourne’s estate near Canterbury. We used to use it to hone our skills and take new members there to sort of get them started before we took them out with us. None of us were- or are- experts, and we are always learning, but it was an opportunity to get new members going, because a person new to off-roading with no basic knowledge can be a liability and a danger to themselves as well as others. I really like laning best though as I like to feel as if I am going somewhere from A to B on a previously planned and worked out route. I get little joy from driving around in a circle at a site on the same route all day long. After a time as I expect you know yourself with your own experience on the lanes, it becomes a lot more than just driving along in the mud. It’s the research that I love and the history of the lanes and the fact that some of them go back hundreds of years that thoroughly interests me. The Invicta Club have over the years through our research been able to open up a few lanes that hitherto have been forgotten, some of them for a good few years. We also do repairs and get involved in lane clearance and as I suppose you know Charlie with your own efforts, we get very little thanks for it.
You touched on it just there Clem, and I was talking about this on the phone yesterday to Diana Andrews from Off-Road Motorsport and she said she feels the same as me, and it’s this sense of history one can feel whilst out on the lanes. I sometimes think I might sound daft when I say this, but when I am on an old drove road I imagine I can hear the old voices of the drovers, old Ned and Harry and Jacob talking to one another and having the crack along the way with their young apprentice boy Billy the butt of their jokes.
No absolutely I agree. I am an incurable romantic and I also hear the old cartwheels creaking, and the horses blowing through their lips the way they do, and I think sometimes about the hundreds and maybe even thousands of sheep and cattle that must have passed this way before me being driven on their way to market. What I really love is when I reach a nice spot right out in the countryside miles from anywhere. I get my old Coleman stove out and brew myself a nice pot of tea, and I just sit and look, and my mind goes back and like you Charlie I just love it. Well I’m glad it’s not just me, and you don’t think I’m going nuts then? No absolutely not Man, not at all, I absolutely understand and agree with you. And it’s the things you can learn as well over the years. I look at a map and I say, “look there is a by-way there on the OS map and it is in the middle of nowhere”. Supposedly it goes nowhere and starts from nowhere but it’s there, and I found out through research that there is in some counties an ancient law that states that wherever a funeral cortege has walked, from that day on it was considered to be a public highway. It really is a fabulous hobby when you get into it, and little interesting bits and pieces like that one can learn, it really is to me and I know it is to you to a lot more than just driving a Land Rover.
So, tell me how did Trackfinders start?
Well I was always leading small groups out and sometimes I couldn’t go. So, I would work out a route for them. I remember hearing you say earlier that when you lead these groups out or put something on yourself you began to feel like an unpaid Butlin Redcoat Charlie. Well it was the same for me. You see in the beginning when we went out, we would do a lane and then look at the map and say, “Oh look there’s one there let’s do that” and so on all day. But I soon got fed up with that and the day before we would set out, I would work out a whole day’s route for us, a complete circular tour. I eventually thought that I might do a little booklet or pamphlet for club members, and I would be able to say, “right here you are off you go, you don’t need me today” and really Trackfinders started from there. Never, as a commercial proposition- not at all. It has never entered my head at any time.
Well let’s face it unless it is another Harry Potter nobody gets rich from publishing a book.
No that’s right and that went on for years, me just doing the photocopies for the Invicta members, and then eventually a few of them suggested to me that they thought they were good and that I really should do something with them and that’s really how it all started.
Have you had any feedback from shall we say the green road diehards?
At first, I thought that I would get a lot of brickbats and that some of the leading lights shall we say in the movement might think that Trackfinders is wrong, but there are reasons why I did it. Going back many years ago the only off-road magazine enthusiasts could buy then, used to print these articles of where all their staff writers used to go off for a weekend. They would write what a fabulous time they all had frightening the locals, waking up all the people in the villages and sending all the kids and animals running for cover. Along with snaps of motors hopelessly stuck and sending up showers of mud from their wheels, they would finish up by suggesting that “we are the professionals, and it’s all right for us to do this. But it’s not for the likes of you and we are not going to tell you where we went either. We will let you read about us having a wonderful time, but we are different because we are journalists” and it used to annoy the hell out of me and get me really wound up, and I would write and complain like mad to them, but I was never published and never got a reply.
Another thing was that a while back when all the Yuppies were selling their souped up Escort’s and Polo’s and buying 4X4s and all hammering up and down the Ridgeway up and down over and over again, month in and month out. If they had only taken the time to maybe go down to their local council and take a look at the definitive maps or buy a good Ordnance Survey map, they might have found a new lane even possibly at the back of their own house. That was the whole idea be it right or wrong behind Trackfinders, it was a way of saying “look there are a lot more lanes open to you and you don’t have to keep hammering the more popular ones all the time. There you are. There are a lot more by-ways and legal rights of way and here we are, why not go and try those”.
I note that in the books you suggest that the purchaser should also go along with a relevant map as a backup, and they would certainly need one if they came across a Traffic Restriction Order on a lane to get them to the next one in the book. Maybe in some cases this would get people more interested enough to read their maps properly.
Your right Charlie and that was another reason as well to get people a bit more interested in the hobby. I would like to think that the navigator who was reading one of my road books would also follow the route on a map as well, and it would definitely get them used to reading a map. There was a time in the Invicta club when we had a good number of members and when I asked there were about 4 members that had maps between 200 odd people.
I noticed that the last time I sent off for some of your books that they were posted to me from France.
That’s right because I now live in France at Rouffigny in Normandy. Since I have been there, I have now produced some Trackfinders France books, and I have taken part in some of the Randonnees. I’ve met another English Land Rover guy living in the farm just up the road from mine, and we are going to be offering off-road holidays in France soon. We have both been doing a lot of checking out of the legal side of things and we will be offering B&B, and gitte accommodation as well as camping and places for caravans to stay with us. We are both very excited about Trackfinders France, and we will be able to offer the simple picture opportunity off-roading day out for those that want it, with lovely views and valleys and rivers and streams and rolling hills etc. The area if you know it is gorgeous and very scenic. On the other hand, there are routes we will be able to offer where they do the Raids and the Randonnees, and these are open to us to use and it’s all legal and it will be very enjoyable to drive. On some of the routes, we have driven all day and not seen anyone; it’s going to be fantastic.
So, what about the future for Trackfinders?
Well I am slowly building up the library and I have just come back from Wales as you know, and thanks by the way for recommending me to Nick Bointon at Llanerchindda Farm at Cynghordy, what a great guy, and a wonderful place. There could even be as many as a dozen more books available later this year, and there has been talk of a video but that would be just an advice thing on how to read maps and get started off-roading generally, and all the kit available, and it would not show any green lanes as such. When we have the legal side of things sorted out Trackfinders France, which will be the off-roading holidays and guided tours, will be where I must spend most of my time this year, and I think that’s what I do best. I don’t want to teach off-roading, but I will lead small convoys, and say to them things like “this is how I suggest you tackle this section, and be careful here or watch yourself there” etc. And if someone should get stuck, I would say, “Well this is how I would deal with this situation” and be perfectly willing to help them if they wish. I am very wary of anyone who passes themselves off as an expert off-roader, but I do have a lot of experience now and I would be willing to pass on what I have picked up over the years if I am asked.
THE LAST 5 QUESTIONS. NB I always ended all of these interviews with the same 5 questions.
Can you remember the first time you saw or were aware of any Land Rover?
I can as it happens. It was in 1952 when I was about 5 or 6 and I saw one on the Queen’s Coronation on TV and I thought “Wow great that’s an Army car that’s fantastic”.
What has been your worst experience with Land Rovers?
Besides the leaking, the noise, and the slow speed we all put up with no not really. Take Ken who is with me today he has 3 of these and you know it gets in our blood Man doesn’t it. There have been times when I have kicked them and cursed them because maybe I haven’t been able to do a spot of welding or something wouldn’t work, but I suppose like a lot of your interviews I have read with others I suppose really the bottom line is no. There haven’t really been any.
What is your favourite memory concerning Land Rovers?
I hope the best experience- God willing is yet to come. But up to now – this is so difficult Charlie and I am sure others must have said this to you, I would have to say when I was in Australia working for 3 1/2 months and I hired an ex Aussie Army Land Rover and went off in that into the outback. It was just fantastic. But I must say that you asked me to try to bring along some snaps today, and I found some of that Aussie trip and some where I have been out researching for the road books, and I get a lump in my throat I really do. I get quite emotional as I think, “what a wonderful time that was and what a fabulous day I had”. I found one where I had spent a night out on the lanes, and it was morning and I was making myself some eggs and bacon with my Coleman stove. Brilliant Charlie, all these memories of days out are just brilliant aren’t they mate?
Yes, I know the feeling.
What Land Rovers do you have at the moment?
I have a Series 3 SWB just now prepared for laning, and somewhere lying in Brittany I have another LWB Land Rover. Having re-located in France I had to leave some behind but, in the past, I have always had 2 or 3 around me, and I probably have so many bits I could always make one.
Do you think the day will ever come when you will not have a Land Rover?
No never. I can’t see that ever happening.
After this interview was published in Land Rover Monthly Clem and I became friends and he called me regularly from France. He said that work on his farm was progressing well and he asked me if I would go over and do an article about his new business to help give it a push and get it off the ground. I passed it by the then editor and he said he would come with me with the publisher his wife and we would do a big splash in the magazine for Clem and possibly try to do a tie up with him for our readers to go to do his Trackfinders France tours. He kept in touch and he was full of optimism and he told me everything was going well. Then one evening I had a phone call from Ken Harmes. It was the saddest thing, to tell me that Clem had suffered a massive heart attack and had died.