AS pretty as a picture – a cliché, I know. But excusable perhaps when it portrays the presentation some years later of my own watercolour painting to the character I first captured on camera fishing in his colourful waterside cottage garden.
I could claim this came about with the help of Marie Grouette, the wicked witch of the Audomarois, the ancient wetlands around St Omer. In fact it was Benoît Dieval, from Pas de Calais Tourism, who spotted that the photo I took while gliding lazily in a bacôve , a traditional burnt oak boat, through the Wind in the Willows landscape looked remarkably similar to the riverside home of retired market gardener, 79 year old Jean-Claude Legris. His son Frédéric is a Greeter with the tourist Office.
Between them and a bevy of wildlife and boating enthusiasts I learnt how the waterways, home to 40 market gardeners growing 50 different variety of vegetables, are the legacy left by the 12th century broukaillers who, prompted by the abbeys, doggedly drained a ‘swamp full of forests’ to create a patchwork of more than 15,000 plots of land and water crossed by 800-plus canals.
Five to seven million cauliflowers alone are now cut annually, along with the large and tasty Tilques carrot, the Leblond leek, chicory and the large green artichoke of Laon. Each sports its own Fellowship or Order (see Cauliflower, left) with many waterside homes offering a tempting array of vegetable stalls. Some are only accessible by boat, even by the postman. Not only has the creation of the bacôve, basically the farmer’s lorry, and the escute, his counterpart car, helped fashion the last market garden marshland in France but the Romelaëre wetlands. Classified as a Natural Nature Reserve in 2008, this contains 300 species of plants, including a third of the country’s aquatic varieties, and 17 species of fish. Grebes, teals and widgeons are among the 230 birds that make their nests among the receded embankments.
Special signs and aids (including plaques in Braille, and studded paths) have been installed along the easy accessible trail with bench seats listening points and a bird observatory. A hiker’s café (estaminet de randonnée) serves seasonal specialities such as stew, waterzooi, Maroilles cheese tart and hardly surprising endives. Canoes, rowing boats and motorboats – some with set themes – open up even the most remote regions of this watery wonderland. To learn more about the marshes, the Maison du Marais (www.maison-du-marais) – opened in 2014 and a winner in the prestigious British Guild of Travel Writers awards. Alternatively set sail in a bacôve, or escute made by awarding winning local boat makers. You will learn a lot more about them, along with a variety of outdoor activities, including walking with a donkey, in the surrounding area.
For St Omer born, Frédéric, the marais ‘ will always be another world, which changes all the time whatever the time of year or time of day. You can go on a boat trip, have lunch in a small inn and stay in a gîte.
‘ I always look out for the festivals such as the nautical procession at the end of July… as well as the best places to buy delicious vegetables! I particular like to head off the beaten track and tell children the story of Marie Grouette, the witch of the marais, who catches those who get too close to the water with her hook!’.
Which surely is an appropriate note to end on as any – as is the aerial view below. ©