The Marais Audomarois, said a friend who explored it with us, was a landscape he didn’t know existed. Tourists tend to drive straight past it en route for more dramatic French scenery. It’s their loss. This flat wetland near St Omer, a hop and a skip from Calais, is a fascinating place to take a boat trip – or go walking.
A flat expanse of fields, canals and lagoons, its was drained and made habitable as log ago as the 10th century, mainly by monks. Its early inhabitants, known as Brouckaillers, dug pea. Over 50 different vegetables are now grown there, including cauliflowers and winter endive. Already designated an area of importance under the international RAMSAR convention, it was recognized as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 2013.
The impressive looking visitor centre in St Martin au Laert, whose recent opening I have already reported, turned out to be a disappointment. It's a good starting point for guided boat trips but staff couldn’t provide details of hiking routes. There was an exhibition, but you had to pay to get in and they told us it would take an hour. How many visitors would react as we did, I wondered It was a gorgeous morning and we wanted to take a quick look before getting out into the spring air again.
|Windmill by the visitor centre|
We parked at La Grange Nature, near the village of Clairmarais. There’s a café where you can get something to eat – and a beer at the end of the walk. But if you’re looking to buy a picnic, best stop at a boulangerie on the road from St Omer, a few kilometres away. There’s also a small shop.
Walking tracks are well marked but we took IGN map 2302 O for reassurance, starting on the Sentier de la Cuvette, a 16 kilometre route in the Romelare natural reserve, but eventually playing it by ear. Mostly we walked on paths by canals or along gravel tracks under skies of East Anglian proportions and between pastures which might have been painted by Dutch landscape artists.
Of some 200 species of birds we spotted only a few – grey heron, lapwings, moorhens with chicks, a stonechat and a chiff chaff on telephone wires. Skylarks and reed warblers were heard but not seen. Hawthorn was in spectacular blossom. Verges were splashed with buttercups, thick with comfrey. The water was blotted with lily pads, their flowers yet to emerge, noisy with frogs.
This was easy walking, punctuated by a lunch of thick cut ham and a baguette in the shade of an oak tree. The countryside was so flat that even the slightest rise was a topic of conversation. The only minor difficulty was managing a small ferry boat – secured to both banks by a chain – across a small canal.
Save for a few fishermen, a lonely tractor driver harrowing and a group of schoolchildren sketching, we saw hardly anyone. A few minutes away, at the end of the afternoon, we were plunged into the crawling traffic of the St Omer rush hour. It seemed an abrupt change of worlds.