The French Connection

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270bhp under your right foot makes traction optional : credit: © Roy Duffy
The team at Empire Tuning heads to Parc du Marquenterre for an exhilarating, alternative Land Rover adventure

The east of England is a beautiful place, but it’s fair to say all the bucket list lanes in the UK seem to be a six-hour drive away from there. And yet, if you’re willing to drive that far, why not look in the other direction too? This is exactly what the guys at Essex-based Empire Tuning thought when they decided to head away from the usual suspects in the Peaks, Lakes and Wales in search of a new adventure.

With a four-hour drive, a trip on the cross-Channel ferry and continental accommodation to make it feel like a proper trip away, escaping to France and to Parc du Marquenterre was the perfect plan. With a group of colleagues, customers and friends, Empire boss, Gareth Ell, set the wheels in motion for a proper weekend of putting Land Rovers to the test.

Gareth Ell’s tuned 90 makes light work of the French dunes

Parc Du Marquenterre is the ideal test bed too. The unique terrain is a mixture of sand tracks and climbs through the outstanding nature reserve, nestled behind the dunes on the French coast. The UK may have the Lakes, Peaks and the challenges of mid Wales, but the freedom to play among deep soft sand so readily is certainly not as easily found. Northern France genuinely is a fantastic option for off-road adventure.

We meet at Empire Tuning’s workshop, ready for a leisurely drive from north Essex to Dover for our early afternoon ferry. Leading the convoy is Gareth in the works’ 90, Empire’s rough and ready Td5 development test bed. Currently running a prototype water-cooled VNT turbo, it has recently evolved from its last race-track iteration by lifting it back to standard height. It also has brand new heavy-duty pegged automatic torque-biasing differentials, after the new turbocharger’s torque finished off the last ones. As it turns out, those ATBs will pay dividends in the sand.

Plenty of wheel-waving opportunities at Marquenterre

Following on are Scot and Carrie Grant in their 2.4 TDCi Defender. Self-confessed petrolheads, this is not the first modified vehicle they’ve owned, but this 90 is their first foray into Defenders, and their first trip off-road. Their 90 has seen extensive improvements too, with a host of performance upgrades as well as a new clutch, RedBooster master cylinder and a custom-trimmed interior to make the daily drive more comfortable.

Mark Bone’s Discovery 2, and Scott Antonio and Bex Woolnough-Hook in their 110 double cab complete the initial convoy. Both are powered by the venerable Td5 engine, and each has been through the Empire workshops to have their control modules remapped to suit the owners’ individual driving styles. Both vehicles also sport a few additional mild modifications including cruise control, which makes the long, steady drive down to Dover ferry terminal all the more refined.

Scot and Carrie Grant get the sand flying in their Defender TDCi

Arriving at Dover at 11.30am, we progress through the port very smoothly, and after a quick security check we queue up to board the ferry. We’re pleasantly surprised when the friendly member of staff booking us in sees that we’re in a group, and books us on the earlier 12.30pm ferry. This is fantastic, as it means we’ll be in France two hours earlier than expected, and have more time to relax in little towns on the way down, and enjoy the campsite pool as the sun sets. A smooth and comfortable crossing with a trip through duty-free and some lunch, sees us arrive on the continent.

Once in Calais we find car number five of our group. Josh Hutchin-Jones and Matt Marston, who are agents for Empire and offer remote remapping services around the south of the UK, had taken the earlier ferry in Josh’s Td5 Disco 2. Running another water-cooled VNT turbo, uprated head studs, a braced intercooler and pushing around 270bhp, it’s more than happy to spin its 35-inch mud terrains in any gear.

Sometimes you just can't get enough ground clearance

We’re only on French roads for an hour and a quarter, thanks to the speedy A16 toll road, which costs just cost 10 euros but speeds the drive up considerably. After greeting everyone, we split in two for the night. Half of the group opts for a hotel in nearby Montreuil-sur-Mer, while Josh and Matt join us at our campsite, Camping Les Trois Sablières, which is just outside Rue, and 11 minutes from the staging point for Marquenterre.

At camp we meet up with Lee Fabrizio Stifani and Tom Hobson, who decided to make more of a full trip of things, and are spending longer in France for a summer holiday. Both are driving 2.4 TDCi Defender 110s, a double cab and station wagon respectively. The camp is fantastic and we waste no time getting the tents and awnings set up, before heading off for a refreshing swim in the pool by the campsite’s bar and restaurant.

The smiles say it all – the Parc is proof overseas trips can still be close to home

On the morning of day two we rise early for our 9:30am start. We roll into the entrance to the Parc Manquenterre, and form two neat rows behind our guide, Tayo, and his quad bike. We’re shown to the refreshments area where hot coffee, croissants and fruit are set out for us, for our pre-briefing breakfast. Joining the group this morning are a few more well set-up Land Rovers. Jim Carr and Rob Barker in their G4 Range Rover Sport, as well as Paul Hull in his Discovery 3. With their lusty 4.4-litre petrol V8 engines and Terrain Response coupled with a host of off-road accessories, handily including winches (which prove useful later), they too are ready to go.

Making our group up to ten, Helen and Chris Tait Wright also join us in their liveried Discovery 2. Handily, Helen speaks fluent French, which proves to be a bonus at various points throughout the day.

The Parc’s 1000 hectares boast beautiful plant and animal life

We have a quick briefing, including etiquette – with the convoy driving and ‘three-attempt’ rule on the challenging sand climbs explained. It is also made clear that at each challenge or climb, there are bypasses we can either choose to drive without attempting the obstacle, or can use to drive around the section after trying up to three times. Lastly, tyre pressures are dropped to increase tyre footprint on the sand, with most opting for around 20psi. We’re ready.

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The terrain that Marquenterre offers is superb, and so different to anything in the UK. Our first test is a long straight climb, with soft sand filling axle-twisting holes that look innocent enough at first glance, but have vehicles bucking a wheel in the air for most of the ascent. Only cars with locking or limited-slip differentials or long-travel suspension can keep enough momentum up. Gareth, Josh and Scott make it to the top, ready to meet the rest of the group who take the less demanding, but stunningly beautiful detour around. The group is loving it, though none as much as the off-road newbies, Scot and Carrie, whose 90 is certainly proving itself.

Jim Carr and Rob Barker give their G4 Sport a workout

The second hill of the day steps things up further. First car to attempt it is the red Discovery 3 V8. While the V8 has fantastic power, the hefty Disco gets bogged down in the soft sand on the second stage of the climb. It’s winched the rest of the way to the top, the underbody scooping sand up with it. Helen swiftly gets around them to act as a winch anchor from the top of the hill to get them back on level ground. Lee, Scott and Gareth scramble up to loud roars of applause from the rest of the guys as they crest the top. Next up is the G4 Range Rover. With a far flatter underbelly and following in others’ deeper ruts, this was going to be a huge challenge. After two full-spirited attempts send them off the track, the Range Rover is winched backwards and redirected to take the bypass.

Untying the Range Rover from his bumper, it is finally Josh’s go. By now the track is hugely chopped up and the route looks nearly impassable. With a heavy right foot and a lot of flying sand, the Discovery nudges towards the top before a loud clang rings through the trees – the unmistakable sound of a snapped rear driveshaft. After gingerly retrying, it’s clear that there’s no way the Discovery will make the climb any more. The decision is quickly made for Josh and Matt to passenger in the other vehicles for the rest of the day and for the Disco to be reclaimed later. Our reduced convoy continues winding its way along the beautiful sandy tracks that carve their way through the forest.

Sometimes all you need is a bit of encouragement

Arriving at our next set of challenges – a flat clearing with five ascents of varying difficulty – greets us. It isn’t long before everyone is carefully picking their line. This is a fantastic opportunity to spectate and chat with the rest of the crew, to compare experiences and share driving advice. The best bit about this area is you can set your own level of challenge depending on skill level, confidence and vehicle. Huge smiles and rounds of applause echo around the forest as the different Land Rovers and their respective drivers try, fail and overcome the hills. Scott in his 110 is kept busy on recoveries as the winch lines are out for Chris in the D2, while opting for a kinetic rope for the G4 Sport to assist it over the crest of another soft section. Helen and Bex, however, keep on going with maximum gusto, having taken control of the Empire 90.

There’s always time for a quick brew in the stunning countryside

Lunchtime nears and Tayo, our enthusiastic guide, leads us to a clearing in the woods with shade to park the cars in the cool and picnic benches to enjoy our packed lunches. A cup of tea is in order so out come the Jetboil and biscuits – it wouldn’t be a proper outing without showing off some shiny camping kit after all. We enjoy a peaceful hour in the beautiful serenity of Parc du Marquenterre, with the tranquillity clearly proving too much for some, as after a delightful quiche, Mark has fallen asleep in his Discovery.

The sun is high in the sky with still a lot of ground to cover, so we pack up and set off once more, meandering along soft tracks peppered with short, dusty climbs. Occasional obstacles cause us to either use our three attempts or bypass, and we stop briefly to swap over a bent rim. One particular section catches out almost everyone, with winches and traction boards being deployed to keep the convoy moving. Only the Empire Works 90 makes it through everything, its huge power and a full complement of torque biasing differentials helping it immensely in the soft terrain. The woodland is beautiful along the way, and with all the action it’s easy to forget this is still primarily a nature reserve. Wildlife is in abundance, too – we spot deer, goats and wild boar grazing, plus plenty of different sea birds. The trail brings us out to the coast and the remains of a destroyed gun placement from the Second World War, looking poignantly out over the Channel.

The sand bowl lets you chuck sand to your heart’s content

Dropping back into the park, we find our way to the sand bowl. This is a big open area of sand where we can all play to our heart’s content. We park up while everyone takes turns behind the wheel of each other’s cars, sending the sand flying as we all drift sideways around the central island of our new playground.

After a hugely enjoyable day with some genuinely kind, funny and joyful people, it’s 6.00pm and time to depart the Parc, but not before reinflating our tyres to road pressure. We’re in high spirits as we head out to enjoy the night, whether in the restaurants and bars of Montreuil, or catching up around the campfire.

Dawn arrives on Sunday and we pack up camp. But the adventure isn’t over. With most of the day left to explore more of France, we all meet up again, choosing a museum and lunch stop en-route at the Todt Battery, a coastal artillery battery aimed at Britain during the Second World War. Drawing the afternoon to a close, we return to Calais and our waiting ferry. A fantastic trip complete, we pass the time on the return journey by laughing and chatting about a great few days, and booking the next group trip back to France.

Marquenterre’s technical off-road driving makes it a must-visit location

Where we stayed
Hotel:
Best Western Hotel Hermitage, Montreuil-sur-Mer
Campsite: Camping Les Trois Sablières, Le Crotoy
Ferry: P&O Ferries (poferries.com). Return ferry cost for a Land Rover was £202.

About the Parc
Parc Du Marquenterre is a 1000 hectare nature reserve by the sea. It includes 40km of beautiful soft sandy tracks that wind and meander through one of the most beautiful off-road centres in France. Unlike a pay-and-play site, you are guided through the park in groups, with each obstacle bypass-able if you do not wish to attempt it, and three attempts are allowed at each.

The Parc is home to an abundance of wildlife, and hosts tours on horseback as well as 4x4s. It also houses some huge hulking relics of the Second World War, and the coastal defences erected to keep Allied Forces out remain. As well as a driving experience you simply can’t find in the UK, Parc du Marquenterre is an extraordinary place to explore and enjoy.
Contact: Parc du Marquenterre, 25 bis chemin des Garennes, 80120 Saint-Quentin-en-Tourmont, France. Tel: 03 22 25 03 06, [email protected], domainedumarquenterre.com

4x4 Parc access was £200 at time of booking.

 

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