By tractor to France – and back!

Tinkers Park tractors make history

By David Vaughan

“So there’s this French tractor  club in Normandy that holds a rally in their town centre in April. The town is twinned with one near us so how about taking a few of our tractors over to  join them?”

Like so many ideas this began during a discussion over a pint in The New Inn between one of Tinkers Park’s  trustees and the Chairman of the Chailey Classic and Vintage Tractor Club known colloquially as “The Chigleys” The town in Normandy is Gournay-en-Bray and it is twinned with Hailsham.

There followed a series of discussions over a period of several months between Tinkers Park Trust, the Chailey tractor club, both twinning associations and the French tractor club known as the “Passion Tracteurs et Collection.”  From the start it was decided that the trctors should go all the way to Normandy by road under their own power. Except of course the bit that crosses the English Channel! That would be in the hands of the DFDS Ferry people who  would convey them to Dieppe from the port of Newhaven.

This would be, as far as is known, the first time ever that tractors from England have visited a country on the other side of the Channel travelling under their own power rather than on a trailer or low-loader. To say that the decision posed a logistical challenge was definitely an understatement and a lot of pre-planning and a recce across the water was undertaken in to ensure that, as far as possible, the run would be trouble free.

The Chailey club and Tinkers Park had already worked together on a  road run for a local charity and the twinning associations of Hailsham and  Gournay-en-Bray were used to arranging exchange visits with residents of  both towns. The idea was to forge closer links between the twinning organisations, Tinkers Park and the  Chailey tractor club   and the French tractor club. The tractors taking part had been to local rallies on the road before but had never ventured far from their home bases where, in the event of a breakdown, a rescue crew could be sent out in short order.

It was decided to include a 1967 built Unimog from the Tinkers Park collection on the run as this had both front and rear tow hitches and a handy, if rather small,  drop-side box body for spares  and other useful gear. The Unimog, a product of Mercedes, was designed as a multi-purpose  farm vehicle  which could  be used both on and off road,  Unlike a Land-Rover  however the early  Unimogs had a top speed of only about 20mph and the 4×4 drive and low ratio gearbox meant that driving on the open road needed a mastery of the gear lever and clutch!

The other  tractors chosen for the trip were a Massey Ferguson 35 of 1960   driven by Adrian Vaughan, a Nuffield 10/60  of1965 owned and driven by Peter Olbrich  and a Perkins powered Ferguson TE20  of 1953 whose proud owner, Morna Cox, was the only lady driver on the run. The Unimog  was driven by Drew Larkin, who is a volunteer at Tinkers Park. The Unimog itself is a very useful site vehicle and is constantly in use at the park, towing  other vehicles or helping in the preparation of the fields for the events held there.

The team liaised with DFDS ferries, who were  to  transport them, and their support car, from Newhaven to Dieppe. Far from having a “You  can’t take those old things on our ship” attitude they  turned out to be very helpful in every respect  and were keen to take advantage of the  potential publicity aspect of the job.

So it was that on the afternoon of Thursday 11th of April the tractors and their hardy drivers set out from Tinkers Park en route for Hailsham livestock Market where the auctioneer Mr Roger Waters was to give them a good send off by ringing his auctioneer’s  bell! Members of Hailsham twinning association were  also present  to wish the team “Bon Voyage!” The tractors were soon on their way to Newhaven a distance of some 20 miles, and  a break for an evening meal was taken before embarkation at 10pm. The tractors  must have presented an unusual sight to the customs staff at the port but they had been briefed by DFDS and so were  swiftly passed through. Then it was “All aboard” for the four hour crossing and a short but much needed sleep.

Dieppe was reached by 4am and, after a short break at the terminal the tractors  set off, in the dawn light, and with a hard frost on the ground, for Neufchatel for breakfast and a comfort stop. At around 9am they were on their way again to  cover  the last 24 miles to Gournay-en-Bray.  They took a  secondary road route which was fairly straight and the crews, whilst braving the cold, enjoyed superb  views as the sun rose in a cloudless French sky. There was very little traffic on the road and, unlike the UK roads, potholes were not in evidence, so the team had a smooth run arriving at their destination at around 12.30 to be greeted  at the ‘Halle des Volailles’ (Chicken Hall) by  members of the Hailsham twinning Association and their French counterparts. Members of the ‘Passion de Tracteurs Collection’ were already setting up nearby ready for the weekend’s celebrations, and the English team was given a warm welcome and the use of  covered overnight accommodation for  the tractors.

The tractor event is run in conjunction with a typical French street food market with live music provided by local bands. Saturday morning was spent lining up around  50 tractors,, and pride of place was given to the British contingent in the ‘Place de Liberation’ near the war memorial. The team was treated to lunch  by the French club and hospitality was reciprocated by providing, in return, some English cheeses, Sussex Cider and a barrel of ale from Harvey’s  the  Lewes based brewers.  The evening saw the drivers hosted to  a fine  dinner provided by the joint twinning Associations.

On Sunday the tractors were joined by around 40 horses  ranging from ponies to Percheron cart horses, and some very interesting displays of  agricultural machinery.  In the afternoon a parade of tractors around the town was organised. This was lead off by the President of the French club and the English tractors  fell into place behind him to loud cheers from the crowd.  Howard Venters,the Chairman of the Chailey Club gave a speech of thanks and presented  the President of the Passion de Tracteurs Collection M. Arnoult  with an engraved tankard on behalf of Tinkers Park and the Chailey classic and Vintage  tractor club and a toast was  drank to both clubs at the end of a very successful event.

Monday morning  saw the tractors and their drivers setting off for the return journey to Dieppe. They were given a rousing send-off by the French tractor club members and families from both the twinning organisations. Arrangements have already been made for members of the French tractor club to visit Tinkers Park this summer, and undoubtedly the continental tractor road run will be repeated next year, probably with more British tractors and their hardy crews!