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Put your foot down this summer

WHAT’S the best way to experience the great British countryside? Some might say it’s in a country pub, with a flagon of frothing ale and a ploughman’s lunch before you. Others might say that it’s in a national park, enjoying a sandwich while perched on top of a mountain and surveying the spectacular scenery spread beneath you. Others might say that it’s in a blur.

If your preferred way of enjoying our green and pleasant land is when it is rocketing past you at great speeds, then the Caterham experience might well suit you down to the ground. Cars just don’t get more classic than the Caterham. It is based on the Lotus 7 sportscar, which was designed in 1957 by Formula One driver, RAF pilot and all round British motorsports legend Colin Chapman – think oily hands, flowing scarves and steely eyes. It was originally meant for track racing but it soon went into production.

When Lotus stopped making the car, in 1972, the rights to this growly little beastie were bought by Caterham, who have been manufacturing the thing – with many a tweak – ever since. These days there are lots of different versions, from the the 1.4 Classic, up to the top-of-the-range CSR, with a 250bhp Cosworth Duratec engine (yours for £42,900).

It is fair to say that petrolheads get weak knees and sweaty palms just thinking about Caterhams. These days, though, you don’t have to have the skills of Nigel Mansell to drive one. There are several firms around the country who allow you to hire one for a touring holiday. Two – Caterham Cars and More On – are exhibiting at the British Leisure Show.

With Caterham Cars, you can hire a car to zoom around for a day – the cheapest package is £150, which buys you 85 miles – or you can throw it round a track. Alternatively Mark On, which is based in Swindon, allows you to hire a Caterham and a luxury motorhome as a base for touring, so you can spend the day hurtling around windy roads and the night curled up on a campsite in luxury.

Mark On will drop off the sportscar and camper van wherever you choose. One client even flew from Singapore to spend a week thrashing a Caterham over the French Alps. Others give a day in a Caterham as a birthday present. Mark On have been known to turn up at a house in the morning, hand over a steering wheel with a ribbon tied round it, a set of keys and leave the lucky recipient to roar about to their heart’s content.

One satisfied customer is Dave Forristal, owner of IT consultant ICT Partnerships, based in Wimbledon. He got his first taste last year, courtesy of Caterham Cars, and then went back for more twice before the summer was over.

“It’s very, very English,” he says. “My girlfriend got her scarf on and we went for a drive round Surrey and found a beautiful pub. It’s an awful lot of fun to drive around B-roads. It’s brilliant.”

Even as a dedicated lover of fast cars – he has owned a Porsche 944 and “hordes of hot hatches” – the Caterham was a different experience altogether.

“You are six inches off the ground and you can hear every bit of engine noise. You can feel the road and it is a really visceral experience, it’s unlike the drive in anything else. You feel totally connected to the car – it’s a light, taut little thing that you can really throw around at high speeds.”

Do you need any special training to get behind the wheel? Not really, says Dave. “The driving position is different, and it’s got no roof, but as soon as you get used to that it just becomes fun.” If it rains, you just have to put the hood up – in true Sixties British fashion, this is far from high-tech, a piece of plastic with a load of poppers to connect it to the car – but, hey, that’s far more fun than some whirry Japanese mechanism that does everything for you, isn’t it? And anyway, rainy weather was why God made country pubs. The car that Dave hired was a Caterham CDX – in fact, the very one that Tiff Needell threw around the track on Fifth Gear.

“I’ve never known anything like it. He says that it’s exactly the opposite to owning a Porsche, when everybody hates you. Children wave at you, and women wink at you.” Now that’s what I call a day in the country.

The British Leisure Show is at Windsor Royal Racecourse on 19-21 March, see: www.britishleisureshow.com

Caterham Cars UK: Stand No: CB128; www.caterham.co.uk

Mark On Europe, Stand No: CB128; www.aclassluxury.co.uk

OUT AND ABOUT | FOUR OPTIONS

If a sportscar is not your thing, there are other ways of seeing the British countryside. Geton – the motorcycle people (Stand No: HH300, www.geton.co.uk) is ideal for those who have always wanted to try out a motorcycle: they will give you a one-hour ride on a bike or a scooter to give you a taste of the two-wheel experience.

Those who want to recreate their teenage festival experience might be tempted to go chugging about the country in an old VW Camper van instead, courtesy of Camp in a VDub. Thankfully, these are not rickety old antiques, but swanky modern 2009 ones from Brazil with DVD players and iPod docks, and can sleep five passengers. Prices start at £350 for a weekend, and you can pick up the van from Bagshot, Surrey. (Stand No: CC320, www.campinavdub.co.uk)

If you prefer to see the world at a slower pace, then Henley Sales and Charter will hire you a boat to explore the Thames – imagine chugging through Oxford and Henley before mooring for dinner at Marlowe’s Compleat Angler. (Stand No: BW550; www.hscboats.co.uk).