27 August 2022
A shared love of Land Rovers, the Camel Trophy and off-road driving could be the secret to a happy marriage…
Helen and Chris Hewett have known each other since they were four years old and, while it might not have been love at first sight back then, it very soon was. They became childhood sweethearts and marriage was an inevitable conclusion when the time came. Today, Chris is a specialist Hazardous Area Response Team paramedic and in his spare time is chairman of the Camel Trophy Club, while Helen is an animal chiropractor specialising in horses and dogs.
The Hewett Freelander and 110 make an interesting Camel comparison
They also share other passions – for Camel Trophy, Land Rovers generally, and off-roading. Between them they own a much-cherished and original Camel 110 that was part of the advance party in the Argentina-Paraguay-Chile ’94 event, and a stunning Freelander I that was used during the international team selections in Sweden for Tierra del Fuego ’98.
We’re meeting at their house in the glorious Mendip Hills in Somerset, just around the corner from Cheddar Gorge, because their Freelander recently achieved a degree of fame when it won the Most Original Freelander class at the Land Rover Legends National Awards. Unfortunately, both Helen and Chris were working over the weekend in June when the event was being held so they were unable to bring the Freelander to the show. Luckily for them, this year the restrictions imposed by the pandemic meant that all the vehicles shortlisted for the Awards had to be assessed remotely by the panel of judges, so being unable to attend the event did not mean they had to be excluded from the finalists.
The Freelander impressed the judges sufficiently to be a clear winner, but it was a shame that no one got to see this very interesting vehicle at the event and a pity that Helen and Chris had to receive their winner’s certificate and ‘pot’ through the post! But it is an interesting vehicle that deserves a wider audience.
Freelander was 2021 Land Rover Legends National Awards Winner
Helen was driving a Freelander Td4 as her company car back in 2005, when the Camel Freelander came up for sale. She and Chris bought it and it was their first Camel vehicle, although Chris’ passion for Camel Trophy goes all the way back to his teenage years. “I was a keen Scout,” he says, and our Scout leader, Tim Cann, had a 1994 Camel 110 that was only a couple of years old, and I absolutely loved it. Camel Trophy was still being held every year at that time and I started buying magazines and anything else I could find on the Camel Trophy. I always knew that one day I would own a Camel vehicle. We joined the Camel Trophy Club immediately after we bought the Freelander and started attending club events straightaway.”
Helen’s interest peaked around that time. “I became more interested in Camel and in off-road driving generally when I started going to club events with Chris,” she says. “I discovered that I really enjoyed off-roading and learning new skills, and I loved the competitive aspects as well.” Chris interrupts with a laugh and points out that Helen “also happens to be very good at it!” Helen says that a Land Rover off-road is a lot safer than riding a 500 kilogram horse around a cross-country course!
Freelander is in pretty good shape but Helen says some TLC is required
“I bought Chris a 90 for his 30th birthday in 2007 specifically so that we could both enjoy off-roading,” she says. “I loved the Freelander that I used day-to-day in my business but the more events we went to with the Camel Freelander, the more obvious it was that the Freelander was more limited in what it could do and where it could go compared with the Defenders. Once we started using the 90 it all became even more interesting and a lot more fun!”
I suggest that even today, off-roading seems to attract relatively few women participants and Helen readily agrees. “There certainly aren’t enough women interested in driving,” she says, “and many women who come to events seem perfectly happy to be passengers, but that’s not for me. I think it is a shame that more women don’t join in the driving or compete. I suppose it is seen as a bit of a macho pastime, and it can be intimidating at times, although in my experience a woman driver can be just as successful as a man. In fact, I’ve found on more than one occasion that I have been able to clear obstacles that male drivers have failed to clear because they just keep trying to do the same thing that didn’t work the first time around. I have been on the receiving end of a lot of ‘mansplaining’ as well, but I don’t let any of it get to me. Maintaining a sense of humour at all times is key. It is supposed to be fun, after all!”
L434 VAC 110 was in the advance party for Argentina-Paraguay-Chile ’94
I ask them when their Camel 110 appeared on the scene, and how they came to buy it. “We had been keeping an eye out for one for a while and also put the word out in the Club so that anyone thinking of selling would know of our interest, but this one was spotted by a club member in Spain who saw it on eBay and called us. It was located in London and was a known vehicle, but it had disappeared after it was sold by Land Rover so it was a nice one to rediscover. It is also amazingly original. We went to see it straightaway and it was love at first sight! We bought it even though we didn’t have anywhere to keep it at the time, but you don’t pass on the opportunity to acquire a genuine Camel vehicle simply because you don’t have anywhere to put it!
“We are passionate about the vehicles because we enjoy them so much, and we are Freelander fans as well as Defender enthusiasts. We are very active in the club because it is such an important and central part of keeping the spirit of Camel Trophy alive. Even though the last Camel Trophy was held over 20 years ago, everyone who was involved with it, whether as organisers, support staff or competitors, has a huge fondness for it and a sense of being part of something very special. People often talk about how Camel Trophy changed their lives, and it is wonderful to be part of that.
“I would have loved to have taken part as a competitor, and in fact I think the event I would have most liked to have been part of was the final one in 2000,” says Chris rather wistfully. “Not long after I joined the club I became webmaster and then events co-ordinator, and then chairman in 2019. In 2011 we dropped the word ‘owners’ from the title of the club, because I thought it was important that we welcome the increasing number of enthusiasts who are building Camel replica, homage or tribute vehicles. Values of genuine Camel Trophy vehicles have sky-rocketed over the past ten years, in common with many other classic Land Rover models, and the club mustn’t become frozen in time and be seen as the place for wealthy collectors! We want to maintain the spirit and recreate the camaraderie of the Camel Trophy, and that’s why it’s important that we welcome the people who create and own the replicas. We even have a word for these vehicles – Shamels – although that sounds rather derogatory it isn’t meant to! We want to promote and encourage the building of tribute vehicles that reflect the spirit of the originals as well as accurate replicas that are as authentic and as true to the original as possible.
Autographs collected over the years
“Every few years the Club aims to host an accessible event for people who have participated in Camel Trophy and it is amazing to see how many will travel a long way to join these reunions. One of the things we started doing as soon as we acquired the 110 and took it along to these gatherings was to ask people who were involved with the event to sign the headlining. We are close to running out of space!
“We love to travel and the club is also an important part of that. It’s much more fun making a long journey with like-minded individuals, and when things go wrong, the breakdowns and other incidents end up giving you the most cherished memories! On our expeditions with the club we have got to see places and meet people that we would never have done if we were just travelling on our own.
“Two of the most notable expeditions we have participated in are the 2015 run to the Land Rover Experience centre at Les Comes near Barcelona, which I went on in the 110,” says Chris. “Helen wasn’t able to get away so she missed seeing me take part in the parade of around 20 Camel vehicles around the centre’s off-road circuit. I had spare seats and the golden rule is that if you have an empty seat you offer it to someone who might want to share the experience, so I invited some spectators to join me. Unfortunately, I was distracted at a crucial moment and put a wheel off the edge of the see-saw! If that wasn’t embarrassing enough, it turned out that one of my guest passengers was the LRE instructor who’d built the see-saw, while another was Land Rover’s global events manager. It certainly gave us all something to talk about and nothing was damaged other than my pride!
“The other was a trip we were both able to go on,” says Helen. “In 2019, Camel Trophy Club members in Russia supported by the LRE centre in St Petersburg invited members to join the Trans Europe Trek, and we were one of around 16 Camel vehicles that came from the UK and across Europe to meet in Belgium, before driving to St Petersburg. Most of the participants were couples and once again I found that I was the only woman who really wanted to drive. All the others were content to be passengers, whereas Chris and I shared the driving on the way out, and on the return journey through Latvia.
More messages, this time on the interior of the 110
“One of the most memorable moments on the trip was crossing the border into Russia,” recalls Chris, “although it wasn’t very funny at the time! We had assumed that with all the planning that had gone into the event, and with all the local contacts, getting across the border would be a formality. It wasn’t, and it took eight hours with all the vehicles in the convoy being unloaded, stripped, and searched.
“It would have been nice to have done that trip in the Freelander,” says Helen, “but the reality is that it just isn’t reliable enough at the moment. It needs quite a lot of work and there are mechanical problems as well as corrosion to deal with. We are planning a soft-touch renovation at some point, when we know we can afford to see the job through to a successful conclusion.
“I’ve always thought that the Freelander is a bit of a Cinderella model in the Land Rover range,” she says, “perhaps all the more so now the company has quietly dropped the name and replaced it with the Discovery Sport. I think many people still see Freelander as the vehicle that somehow diluted the brand, but I think these old prejudices are gradually being eroded. That’s really why I nominated our Camel Freelander for the National Awards. It’s a Land Rover that is actually great fun to drive and I think it deserves more recognition. After all, it did get used in a full-blown Camel Trophy! It was wonderful to discover that there others out there who agree, and we were absolutely delighted to discover that we’d won the National Award!”
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