As you drive south from Calais to the town of Saint-Omer, you’ll pass by the low lying flat fields on the way, you can’t help noticing that the local landscape resembles the wide-open district of the Fens in eastern England.
UNESCO listed Marshes
Head to Clairmarais, which rests on the edge of the Audomarais Marshes, north of the town of Saint-Omer. This area started out as broad swampland, but was drained during 13 centuries of alterations to the route of the river Aa. As with the Fens in Britain, the work was conducted by Dutch drainage experts and they have left their cultural mark on the district just as they did in England.
The resultant Audomarois Marshes now extend over 3700 hectares of inhabitable and cultivated land linked by navigable rivers that are refreshing to visit. The area has been awarded a UNESCO label of ‘Man and Biosphere’. It is beautiful, tranquil and home to much rare wildlife and fauna.
Bobbing about in boats
At Clairmarais, you’ll find the base for a family run business ISNOR which stands for Ideas for Nord, pas de Calais. ISNOR provides local boating excursions combined with impeccable restaurant and catering services. Owner Monsieur Leleu is always there and he ensures that every visitor is made very welcome. I joined one of his cruises on a locally made, oak constructed, open boat: a ‘Bacove’. I and the other ‘sailors’ were entertained with plentiful quantities of aperitifs and rich nibbles as we cruised gently past the green pastureland along the chosen route.
Wildlife and luscious vegetables
The Bacove, fitted with very quiet and clean motors to protect the natural surrounding environment, was navigated by one of Monsieur Leleu’s sons. Our cruise lasted about 90 minutes, and there was much to see and enjoy. Virtually all of the area rests at sea level and the land is very fertile. In our flat bottomed, punt like boat we came across a number of fairly isolated yet striking family houses along the banksides. Many had well stocked vegetable gardens and provided stalls to sell their produce from the waterside. They tempted us with freshly picked beans and onions, sumptuous green vegetables, tomatoes and fruits. You can just stop your boat and buy as you wish.
We saw plenty of wildlife along the route. Birds such as Grebes, Teals and Widgeons had made their homes and nests among the tall grassy embankments by the water. Research into their habits and breeding numbers is conducted by students from the St. Omer local college.
As we progressed beyond the heartland canal area, the agricultural land spaces became larger. Regular farmland vegetables were grown on a much more industrial scale.
ISNOR also operates marshland tours in 50-seater catamarans, rowing boats and canoes. The aperitif cruise is available on the two bacoves and directed along their route by a certificated river boat master.
Visitors can dine in the excellent land-based restaurant, La Baguernette, which I highly recomment – utterly delicious!
Bob Lyons, ex pilot turned writer and a Francophile