Content Audio guide

1 – Departure on the Cappelwaert river and crossing the suburb of Lyzel

Hello everyone and welcome to our swamp!

We are above all craftsmen, but also boatmen, bartenders, restaurateurs... It is difficult for us to add bilingual or even polyglot to our CV! However, we have organized ourselves so that your visit can take place as pleasantly as possible and we hope that you will enjoy this audio guide.

Here we cast off. You are on board a bacôve, a Flemish boat approximately 10 meters long and 2 meters wide, which was once used to transport vegetables. We have been working here to perpetuate the tradition of shipbuilding in the marsh since 2009. You will have the opportunity to discover the shipyard after the visit. Where maybe you’ve already visited?

Here we are on our way through the suburb of Lyzel. A name whose etymology takes us back to the islands, to island territories, because this district was once completely surrounded by water. Typical with its waterside homes, it is sometimes nicknamed "the little Venice of the North" echoing the nickname given to the Belgian city of Bruges. This district is part of the Audomarois marsh. A vast basin of 3700 hectares, established on the territories of 2 departments and 15 municipalities. This canal along the road is among the 170 kilometers of navigable waterway supplemented by 530 kilometers of drainage canals. A vast maze where it's easy to get lost!

On your left, you will discover old market garden houses dating from the 19thrd century. The white house is a “Longère”. A single-storey dwelling extending in length.

A little further on, another house attracts our attention. This is a typical market gardening location. It includes an opulent dwelling with a hipped roof, a barn, a small ironwork bridge, a dock for parking boats and drawing water to clean the vegetables. Behind the house, we once found the stable, the greenhouse, the vegetable warehouse and the glass frames for growing the plants.

2 – the epic tale of the market gardeners

Let's briefly return to the life of market gardeners. Market gardening was already a thriving activity in the sector in the Middle Ages. It was particularly developed at the end of the 1751th century and during the XNUMXth century. The reasons are multiple: we have gained land from the water by designing polders, we have abundant water, the land is very fertile... Above all, new vegetables from other continents are starting to become popular and the demand is high! This is why we began growing summer cauliflower in XNUMX. This product quickly became the specialty of Saint-Omer. Other vegetables then came to expand our production, such as celeriac, artichoke, leek, endive and even carrots in the sandier lands of the marsh.

When the first station was established on our territory in 1848, the opportunities became much greater. It became possible, thanks to the steam train, to transport our vegetables to Paris, can you imagine? Many abandoned their activities to work the land and there were up to 400 market gardening families during the first part of the XNUMXth century! While on the other side of the Atlantic the gold rush was taking place, we were experiencing a real cauliflower rush!

These land workers needed to move through the canals in order to transport tools, horses, vegetables... This is where the bâcove and the escute come into play. Two boats inspired by the medieval boats that took up residence in our marshes since the 3,5th century. The bacôve is the largest of the boats. It had a carrying capacity of 6 tonnes. The smaller escute is available in 7 different sizes. It was suitable for transporting small tools, family travel and fishing. Faced with demand, the marsh had XNUMX shipyards in the XNUMXth century.

After the Second World War, the economic and technological world is no longer the same as before. Competition is tough, the mechanization of agriculture allows for higher productivity. It’s difficult for our market gardeners to keep up! Indeed, how can we compete with the owners of enormous fields when here we had to spend no less than 2 hours of navigation per day to move between the plots scattered across the marsh? Note that we did not say “no” to progress. We were equipped with tillers, even tractors, but the latter were transported using twin bins!

This is why the number of market gardeners has continued to decrease, going from 400 families in 1950 to 35 today. In the meantime, we built bridges and paths across the marsh during the 70s and 80s to facilitate tractor traffic. A necessary step to save market gardening, but it led to the end of bacôves and escutes as well as the closure of shipyards.

The last carpenter retired in 1997. 12 years later, we committed ourselves to safeguarding this heritage.

3 – La Petite Meer – At the origins of the marsh

Observe these small houses by the water. A little air of paradise nevertheless sensitive to flooding. You will discover on your right a typical green and white market garden house.

I am taking advantage of this ancient river, more than a thousand years old, to tell you about the beginnings of the marsh.

Let's go back to the end of Antiquity. The marsh did not resemble this island of life. There were no canals, no houses... It was an inhospitable marshy basin irrigated by the Aa River. At that time, the sea mixed with the waters of the river to form a gulf which spread across all of Maritime Flanders. Only the Morins people came to fish in the swamp. A Celtic tribe from Gaul-Belgium practicing a polytheistic cult.

Then the Catholics came to power. King Dagobert 1er commissioned monks in the 7th century to convert our pagan people. The first monastery was thus built on Mount Sithiu, which would become the rich abbey of Saint-Bertin, as well as a small chapel dedicated to Notre-Dame, which would become a cathedral in the 16th century. Bishop Audomarus was in charge of supervising the operations. We will also call him audomar, Omar, or Omer. You have understood: Mount Sithiu is the location of Saint-Omer as well as the nerve center of what we today call the Audomarois marsh.

During the Middle Ages, our city experienced tremendous growth. The tiny village bordered by the marsh became a market place in the 40000th century, then a port city in the 15th century, after the Aa delta had been drained and the river channeled. In the 000th century, Saint-Omer even had up to XNUMX inhabitants! Eh yes ! It's hard to believe today that this small town of XNUMX inhabitants was among the most important European cities!

Over the centuries, to house and feed everyone, it was necessary to drain the marsh in order to create building spaces, agricultural land and pastures for livestock.

We therefore worked to dig canals to facilitate flow and lower the water level. Land emerged and was raised with the mud. Yes, perfectly: the Audomarois marsh is a wonderful artificial natural space that has been maintained for centuries!

4 – The market garden polder

We pass under a water gate leading to a Dutch-style market garden polder. In the 2th century, we encountered XNUMX problems: the waters of the Aa quite frequently flooded the marsh despite the network of canals. At the same time, we needed more agricultural land. We therefore used Dutch technology to create hydraulic lockers.

To put it simply, a muddy pond lay here more than 250 years ago. We dug canals inside in order to dry out and bring out the land. These canals are shallower than average: 1 meters compared to 20 meters as a general rule. The land is therefore not elevated and is easily flooded. To protect them, a dike was built around it with a single entrance controlled by a gate.

In winter, crops were scarce. The door was open during the rain. The polders thus absorbed the floods and the fields, completely submerged, filled up with alluvium to fertilize themselves. In the spring, if the general level of the marsh remained high, we closed the gate and drained the excess water in order to dry the land for planting. The operation was carried out with windmills equipped with endless screws, also called “Archimedes screws”.

Today, it is the opposite. The fields are occupied in winter and the polders now have buildings here and there. The doors are therefore open in spring and closed in winter. Modern pumps have also taken the place of mills since the end of the 1940s.

In this polder you will find diverse cultures surrounded by a grid of canals.

5- The town of Saint-Omer

This panorama offers a beautiful view of the town of Saint-Omer and its monuments.

We see on the far left a large castle with three roofs. This is the Saint-Omer station inaugurated in 1904. As rail traffic was no longer what it used to be, the town bought this building to save it. Today it still houses the ticket office and the station hall, but also a coworking space, meeting rooms and a digital design laboratory.

Behind the station, we can see the remains of the Saint-Bertin abbey. One of the richest abbeys in Northern Europe which was destroyed during the revolution. It was the last place of life of Childeric III, the last Merovingian king.

Further to the right, a dome rises into the horizon. This is the recently restored Italian theater of Saint-Omer. Before 2007, the building also housed the city hall services. Due to its shape, this building inaugurated in 1840 is locally nicknamed the “Coffee Mill”.

See this large square tower overlooking the city. This is the cathedral of Saint-Omer. It took 3 centuries, between the 12thrd and the 16rd, to complete its construction. Do not hesitate to visit it. It houses treasures of sacred art, a magnificent organ case and a unique astrolabe clock. A real museum for lovers of Gothic art and medieval history!

Among the monuments visible from the marsh, a bell tower attracts our attention. This is the Saint-Sepulcher church built at the end of the 1118th century. A name that evokes the crusades and many legends. For good reason: this building reminds us that Godfrey de Saint-Omer was in XNUMX the co-founder of the Order of the Temple with Hugues de Payns, a Champagne native.

As we move away, we finally see two brick and stone towers. This is the Jesuit chapel. Now deconsecrated, it was the chapel of the Walloon and English Jesuit colleges established in the 1740th century in Saint-Omer to counter the Protestant reform during the war of religions. Note that during the 2010s, the English college welcomed the Caroll brothers and their cousin for their studies. The three friends will later appear among the founding fathers of the United States. For literature lovers, the walls of one of the colleges now house an old library where one of Shakespeare's First Folio was found in XNUMX.

6 – The great sea – Fauna and flora

Welcome to the “Grande Meer” or big “lake” in Dutch. A name which reminds us that once, 900 years ago, an enormous lake of several hundred hectares spread out here.

The quay on your left is particularly dedicated to pleasure boating. Some small boats are used by their owners to travel between France and Belgium using the canal network.

Behind, the houses are built on the embankment of the polder that we previously visited. This district, historically sensitive to flooding, suffered enormously during the last major floods of 2023 and 2024. During these events, the water level was higher than the dike. Some houses received more than a meter of water on the ground floor. A real drama that we had never experienced before.

It should be remembered that our marsh is located on the large Aa polder. It is the largest inhabited polder in France, home to 450 inhabitants! This area is subject to both fresh water currents coming from upstream but also downstream tides preventing proper evacuation. This gigantic polder crossed by thousands of canals is maintained by the Wateringues. An old local association formed by the tales of Flanders at 000rd century.

A pond stands on our right. The marsh has around fifty. Many of them are old peat quarries. Peat was actually extracted from the marsh to heat houses before the arrival of coal.

7- A rich fauna and flora

The next river is bordered by a multitude of reeds. A dream place for birds nesting and fish spawning.

We have nearly 240 species of birds here. We of course encounter many common birds, such as the mallard duck, the coot with its black body and white beak, moorhens with red and yellow beaks, the great great crested grebe, the gray heron, the swan, the great cormorant… We also find the kingfisher, the little bittern, the bittern and other rarer species forming a good indicator of the quality of the environment.

The marsh is also home to 27 species of fish, such as pike, perch and pike perch for predators, or tench, bream and carp for bottom fish. The marsh is also full of forage fish like roach. From time to time, it is possible to come across an eel, but this species is endangered due to overfishing of fry in river estuaries. Speaking of fishing, the marsh has around 3000 fishermen. This activity, once carried out in the wild with techniques that left the fish no chance, is today very regulated.

We can also meet here many amphibians, around fifteen species of dragonflies and bats, grass snakes, freshwater mussels... Of course, there are hundreds of insects. But contrary to what one might think, water is not stagnant. So the mosquito doesn't cause too much of a problem.

The Audomarois marsh also counts among its occupants imported invasive species, such as the muskrat and the American crayfish.

Botany enthusiasts appreciate the very rich flora here including rushes, reeds, different species of water lilies, small carnivorous flowers and water irises.

In terms of trees, willows that are cut into ball shapes and ash trees flourish here. Willows love water and their roots are used to maintain the banks.

Some inhabitants of the marsh have preserved the tradition of having a walnut tree at the water's edge. This tree acts as a parasol. The market gardener once placed his boat under its branches to protect it from the sun's rays. Wooden boats are indeed afraid of the heat!

7 – An environment to protect

Here is a brief overview of the riches that the Audomarois marsh has. A natural place shaped by human activity over the centuries. A swamp transformed into a place full of life. Here, nature depends on us and we depend on this nature. For example, if we do not drain every ten years and if we do not maintain the banks, the marsh returns to its original state in barely 50 years!

This is why the Audomarois marsh is recognized as a biosphere reserve by UNESCO. Here, everything is permitted, but there are rules to preserve the fragile balances. We can no longer build new homes there, but it is possible to hunt, fish, sail, walk or farm, but under certain constraints to preserve this environment.

To do this, we will still have many challenges to overcome. The coming years and decades will inevitably be marked by the fight against flooding throughout the Aa polder, and more specifically in this marsh as well as along the course of our increasingly capricious river.

This is how the visit to a small part of our marsh ends. This is their childhood playground for most of the team members,

We hope you enjoyed this little getaway!

Do not hesitate to extend the visit to the workshop side, to discover the small exhibition dedicated to the history of our company, or to stop by our estaminet to taste some local specialties.

See you soon !