Next to Saint-Omer and on the edge of the audomarois marshes is a small town that does not lack character: Arques! This city is best known for being the undisputed capital of tableware in France. You have probably already heard of famous brands such as Cristal d'Arques, Luminarc or Arcoroc, developed by Arc International.

In addition, Arques is also a city full of sites to discover, and is well worth the detour.

In addition to the Arc factory, its shop and sales tent dedicated to table decoration, you will discover a rich heritage and exceptional natural spaces. Ideal for a relaxing walk or for a sporty hike with the family.

So, ready to explore this multifaceted city?

Interior town hall of Arques
Hall of the town hall of Arques – Philippe Hudelle

Arques: the natural heritage

Lovers of nature and calm, you will be delighted to visit Arques! Located on the edge of the Audomarois marsh, this town of more than 10.000 inhabitants has the appearance of a friendly village. Arques is indeed a small town that has managed to preserve its authentic charm and tranquility, while offering many leisure activities for all tastes. Whether you are looking for a peaceful place to recharge your batteries or a destination to have fun, you will be served.

Let yourself be charmed by the many ponds that dot the city and which offer you a smooth transition between the natural space and the city. You can walk in peace and enjoy the calm of the surrounding nature.

And if you are looking for adventure, do not hesitate to discover the forest of Rihoult Clairmarais. This forest is ideal for walks with family or friends, or for a morning jogging session.

The ponds of Arques

Are you looking for a bucolic walk around Arques or a hike? The ponds of Arques reach out to you! Six in number, these bodies of water are real gems of nature. You can admire the Arc-en-ciel ponds, the pond of Batavia, Malhôve, as well as that of Beauséjour. Some of them are artificial. Former gravel pits, some bodies of water are indeed former quarries that provided the ballast necessary for the establishment of local railway lines.  

The ponds of Arques are located on the edge of the Audomarois marshes, a wetland steeped in history and recently labeled a biosphere reserve by UNESCO. The ponds of Arques thus offer the same fauna and flora characteristics as the marshes, and you will be able to meet hundreds of different species during your walk.

Moreover, these natural spaces have been developed in such a way as to preserve the environment and respect the places and their occupants. You will be able to stroll on the landscaped paths in complete serenity, while enjoying the exceptional landscapes that are available to you.

In summary, you will find meeting places for families, photographers, nature lovers, but also for sportsmen and fishermen.

Pond of Arques
Pond of Beauséjour in Arques – Philippe Hudelle

Clairmarais forest and Harchelles lake

The national forest of Rihoult-Clairmarais, located on a good part of the territory of Arques, presents 1200 hectares of wooded area. This forest is a veritable green lung for the Audomarois.

In the heart of the forest Clairmarais, you can discover the "Lac d'Harchelle", a pond which was made famous thanks to Jean Bateman's novel published in 1935. This body of water was dug around the 9th century by the monks of Saint-Bertin and of the Cistercian abbey of Clairmarais for the extraction of peat.

The "Lac d'Harchelle" is now a popular site for Audomarois and walkers in search of tranquility. This stretch of water is also known to be home to many animal and plant species.

In addition to this pond, the Clairmarais forest also has 6 other smaller bodies of water, as well as a network of small paths suitable for Sunday walks.

Etang d'Harchelle in the forest of Clairmarais
Lake Harchelles – Philippe Hudelle

The built heritage: To see and discover in Arques

Beyond its ponds and its national forest, Arques is also a real heritage gem to discover in the Audomarois.

The pavement circuit, which begins at the tourist office, is the ideal opportunity to discover all the treasures of the city. On the program: the town hall with its carillon, the thousand-year-old castle, the Saint-Martin church and the public garden. But that's not all ! A bucolic route will also allow you to walk along the old Neufossé canal, built by the famous Vauban, as well as the Grand Vannage, a majestic building that has spanned the Aa for more than two centuries.

The circuit ends with the discovery of the Fontinettes boat lift, a true witness to the ingenuity of our 19th century ancestors. This marvel of technology once allowed barges to overcome the 13,13 m drop on the historic canal in less than twenty minutes.

The town hall of Arques

The town hall of Arques, an architectural masterpiece with Flemish and Louis XIII influences, stands on the town's Grand Place. Nothing in its design leaves us indifferent. From the pronounced verticals to the stepped skylights, through the stepped sparrow-stepped gables and the belfry, this monument is not lacking in originality.

On the Grand Place d'Arques, we are regularly lulled by the sweet notes of the carillon. This one, made up of 14 bells cast in Holland, is capable of playing 25 famous tunes. With each melody, Marie Grouette, the famous swamp witch, comes out of the tower. According to legend, she haunts the bodies of water in the region and catches children who approach too close to the edge with her groët (fork with 4 or 5 teeth), to take them to her cave made of mud and reeds. … Every hour from 8 am to 20 pm, every day, the same fascinating spectacle awaits you.

Carillon of Arques
Marie Groette in the carillon of the town hall of Arques – Philippe Hudelle

Les Fontinettes, the last boat lift in France

The Fontinettes boat lift is certainly a jewel of machinery from the Belle Epoque. This unique site in France is a true witness to the innovation and ingenuity of the time.

The operating principle of this elevator inaugurated in 1888 is simple, but brilliant. The building has two bins, one above and the other below. To reverse the balance and allow two barges to cross the 13,13 meters of drop, it was enough to add 30 cm of water in the upper tank. While one of the barges went up, the other went down, an economical and fast system that allowed the operation in just about twenty minutes.

After 80 years of good and loyal service, the Lift has been replaced by a wide gauge lock, further upstream. But it remains a unique testimony to 19th century engineering and is absolutely worth a detour.

To find out more about the fontinettes lift, visit the website

Fontinettes in Arques
Fontinettes Boat Lift – Philippe Hudelle

Saint Martin's Church

In the town of Arques, the majestic Saint-Martin church stands proudly a few steps from the castle. Built in 646 (and remodeled since) by Count Walbert on the advice of Abbot Saint-Bertin, this neo-Gothic church with 3 parallel naves is a real architectural gem. The bell tower, dating from 1776, houses an old bell from 1664, recast in 1774.

Inside, you cannot miss the 12th century baptismal fountains with their rare Flemish lapidary inscriptions. You will also find in the church of Arques a superb organ case dating from 1856, including the organ, a gallery and a neo-Gothic balustrade.

Do not miss either in the cemetery the column erected in 1830 in memory of François-Joseph Bugat, captain lieutenant of the Napoleonic guard. On the monument you can read the various battles in which he participated, including Austerlitz and Wagram.

This church, renovated between 2007 and 2010, is an essential destination for all art and history lovers.

The great winnowing

The Grand Vannage has guaranteed the security of the city since the 18th century. Its role is essential to control the waters of the Aa in the region of Lower Meldyck and to avoid any flooding.

Another interesting element to note is that the historic Neuffossé canal, capable of supporting 350-tonne boats, passes majestically above the course of the Aa just in front of the Grand Vannage. The river thus flows in a siphon under the canal, offering a unique spectacle.

The tourist train of the Aa valley

The Chemin de Fer Touristique de la Vallée de l'Aa (CFTVA) is a well-known attraction in the North of France! This association manages a tourist train that travels the 15 kilometers of railway line between Arques and Lumbres, a section of the old Saint-Omer – Hesdigneul railway line.

You can discover a fine collection of SNCF railcars of the “Picasso” type and others, as well as old passenger cars towed by a diesel locomotive. Since the summer of 2013, the association has also owned a steam locomotive of Polish origin. Something to take your eyes off of and take a leap in time!

The route crosses a green part of the Regional Natural Park of Caps et Marais d'Opale, where nature is omnipresent. The train runs seasonally, from May to September, with several round trips per day. You can take the train at the various stops along the route: Arques station, Fontinettes boat lift quay, Blendecques station, Helfaut-Wizernes dome, Hallines quay, Esquerdes stop, Setques quay and Lumbres station.

During the trip, which takes about two hours round trip, a volunteer will be there to animate and comment on the route. If you have a little time, a stop at Blendecques station allows you to discover a set of railway objects, and Lumbres station, now transformed into a tourist office, is also a place not to be missed.

The association also offers themed trains throughout the year, such as for Heritage Days in September, Halloween in October and Father Christmas in December. So, what are you waiting for to live a unique experience aboard this tourist train?

Arques tourist train
The Aa Valley Tourist Railway – Philippe Hudelle

The history of the town of Arques

Arques was once an ancient city whose function was to link the region to the seaside. In 530, it became the property of the Countess Mathilde, great-granddaughter of Flandebert, chief of the Morins and Ménapiens. Walbert, great-grandson of Mathilde and Count of Arkes, erected on the advice of the abbots Audomar and Bertin a church dedicated to Saint Martin and near his castle in 646.

Arques in the Middle Ages and under the Old Regime

Arques was plundered several times by the Anglo-Flemish and French armies during the Hundred Years War.

In the 1678th century, Spain possessed the city and its surroundings, forming what historians call "reserved Artois", but the Treaty of Nijmegen brought Artois back to France in XNUMX.

Notably, the brother of Louis XIV, Monsieur, camped at Arques in 1677 on the occasion of the Battle of the Peene which put the Audomarois back in the French bosom.

The industrial boom

A Neufossé canal, wanted by Vauban, was built in 1774. It was the beginning for Arques of a great industrial era marked by the construction of the Fontinettes boat lift in the 1880s, but also by the creation of number of companies: flax and jute mills, distilleries, brick and tile factories, glassworks, breweries, etc.

Arques in the XNUMXth century

In August 1908, the skeleton of an “elephas primigenius”, a first-generation elephant, was discovered in a quarry 400 meters from the current glassworks. The reconstituted skeleton of the 1908 mammoth is exhibited in the villa of a doctor from Lumbres who participated in its discovery. This until his death in 1933. It was then reassembled at the Boulogne-sur-Mer Natural History Museum before being dismantled when the museum moved in 1991.

During the First World War, Arques accommodated up to 100 soldiers as a strategic location. During the Second World War, Arques was occupied and was only liberated from September 000 to 3, 5 by a Polish regiment.

After the war, the crystal factory gave the city worldwide fame.

You may also like...