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French Short Break - wetland walking

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. 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 peat. Over 50 different vegetables are now grown there, including cauliflowers and winter endive. Produce from the marshes form the basis of the menu at Bacôve, a new restaurant gasttronomique in Saint Omer whose chef Camille Delcroix is the winner of a rough French equivalent of professional Masterchef and whose name is that of the long boats that ply the 700kms of waterways. Already designated an area of importance under the international RAMSAR convention, it was recognized as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 2013. We didn't have time for the exhibition at the impressive looking visitor centre in St Martin au Laert, which, we were told demanded a good hour. is 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. In compensation it was a gorgeous spring morning, so we drive a little further and 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 routes 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 canal side paths or along gravel tracks under vast skies of East Anglian proportions, between pastures which might have been painted by Dutch landscape artists.

Of some 230 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.

Apart from 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.

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