leisure boating & river trips

Click on RED squares and towns for information about boat trips
Map of canals & rivers

Saint-Omer & Arques

Boat trips from Saint-Omer along the River Aa

You can hire small boats to wander independently through the low-lying marshes, or take a tour on a larger vessel - often with a commentary from your guide.

Lost in another world
Floating down a slow-moving stream in your hired boat, cycling a mountain bike along a forest path, riding on horseback through the fields, or striding out along a sign-posted track through woods and by a quiet reed-lined lake - you feel like you've been transported to another peaceful world.Monastery sites in Nord Pas de Calais

Founded by monks
Saint-Omer stands
on hillside on the edge of the river Aa marshes. In the 7th century Benedictine monks came to convert the local people to christianity. Bishop Omer could not speak Flemish so he brought two monks with him, Bertin and Mommolin. They founded a monastery by the river, called "St. Bertin's Abbey". Omer later built a college and chapel. The Abbey was rebuilt in the 13th century, whilst Omer's chapel was rebuilt on a grand scale as one of the most beautiful Gothic churches in northern France. It was made a cathedral in 1561. The Abbey fell into ruins in the French Revolution. You can see the remains at the lower end of the town, near the railway station.

German research to develop secret weapons 1930-42

German rocket scientists had two unofficial research projects "on the drawing board" as early as 1930: a "pilotless plane" (or "robot bomb"), and a long range rocket. The Nazis were sufficiently impressed to give their leader Werner von Braun a rocket base and test-firing range at Peenemunde on the Baltic coast. By 1937 both projects were being developed by the Nazi German government.Lack of urgency
In 1940 it seemed that Germany had almost won the war - there was little urgency for new weapons. Britain stood alone - but refused to be defeated. Nazis tried to crush RAF fighter plane resistance in the Battle of Britain; they tried to sap Britain's will to fight by bombing cities in the 'Blitz'. Both caused terrible damage, but failed. Operation Sealion, the German plan to invade Britain, was cancelled.

Only then did Hitler give top priority to the long range rocket project. Thousands of people were sent to work at Peenemunde - most of them slave labourers. Test-firing the new fourth version rocket began in March 1942, and its fourth launch in Oct.1942 was successful. When Hitler heard the news he gave the immediate go-ahead to mass-produce the rockets, and to build concrete launching bunkers in the Pas-de-Calais.

V1  V1 factory 

1940: Dunkirk evacuation,
Operation Sealion & the Battle of Britain

Nazi Germany invades France May 1940
War was declared between Nazi Germany and the allies Britain and France in September 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland. As in 1914, Britain sent an army to help defend France against the expected Geramn invasion. But there were months of "phony war" before the German war machine suddenly launched a carefully planned knockout blow.

Evacuation - "miracle" of Dunkirk
The German armies inexplicably waited around the perimeter of Dunkerque. Maybe the Panzer tanks and armoured divisions were short of fuel and supplies after their successful but frantic dash into France.

Whatever the reason, this gave a window of opportunity to save as many as possible of the Allied troops to fight on another day - though all their equipment and weapons had to be left behind.

Navy ships were hastily gathered and sent to the port of Dunkerque. Troops waited their turn to be evacuated on the surrounding sandy beaches.

As the port, ships and beaches came under increasing aerial attack, civian small boats were requisitioned and sent across to help take men directly off the beaches.


190 evacuated troops landing in Dover  1940 dunkirk beaches - dugouts in sand dunes 1940 soldier changes into dry clothing in Dover

Atlantic Wall Museum
of the 1939-45 War

Why Eisenhower landed in Normandy
More than half a century ago, this ugly concrete gun turret housed 21 German soldiers. It was part of Hitler's formidable line of defences round the north French coast - the "Atlantic Wall".

The defences were built by slave labour - Jews as well as French political prisoners - organised by the Todt Organisation. They were so strong that in 1944 the Allies preferred to by-pass them, and land on the more lightly defended beaches further west in Normandy.

Erecting tank obstacles on beach  Tank obstacles WW2

Giant Krupps WW2 gun  Coastal gun battery 

A German photo of the giant gun that fired shells across the Channel.


Avenois Regional Nature Park:
& Val Joly - outdoor leisure area

The biggest lake in northern France

Paths through the wooded hillsides round the lake make an ideal mountain-biking centre

Little Switzerland
You are sailing a small dinghy down the long lake, enjoying the beautiful scenery of the forested hills along its shores. The lake is a popular watersports centre with boats and equipment for hire: rowing- and sailing-boats, pedal-boats.

There are boat cruises around the lake and facilities for fishing.

Val Joly's Maison du Parc
At the lakeside Maison du Parc, there's a restaurant, bar and picnic area - also an open-air swimming pool, a playground, pony rides, and a place for archery. You can camp on a site by the lake, and there is new accommodation for school parties.

Explore the trails
Around the forests, signposted paths and trails help you explore on mountain-bikes, on horse-back, or by foot.

ITINERAIRES CYCLOTOURISTIQUES".) and just follow the signs! (see example below)

Nord - Pas-de-Calais is ideal for cycling, and has a large and expanding network of safe cycle routes. These include signed recommended longer distance A-to-B routes, away from busy roads, that are recommended for cycle touring, and also circular routes for the leisure cyclist, which start and finish at a point where you can park your car or (in some cases) arrive by train. Maps and leaflets include suggestions for places to stop and eat or drink, picnic sites, and interesting places to visit - contact tourist offices for maps and suggested routes.

Bike rides & Leisure cycling

Cycling is the fastest-growing leisure activity in Europe.

The gentle lowland hills of Nord - Pas-de-Calais make it ideal for cycling. The region has a large and expanding network of safe cycle routes.

Crossing the Channel, you will now find new safe cycle routes into the ports and right through the docks to the ferry at Dover and Calais. Cyclists travel at very cheap foot passenger rates, bikes go free on the ferries. Bikes and their riders are also carried on a special daily shuttles through the tunnel - contact Eurotunnel for times.

For those who want to ride their mountain bikes off-road, Nord - Pas de Calais' four nature parks offer attractive signposted trails [see links below].

Nature parks: [with off-road bike trails]
Adomarois - near Saint-Omer
Boulonnais - near Boulogne & 'Entre Deux Caps' area
Parc Val Joly - Avenois Nature Park, near Avesnes
Saint-Amand - Nature Park


The Flemish monks of Leffe Abbey next to the River Meuse (in what is now Belgium) had a brewery from the 13th century until Napoleonic times. Today a modern commercial brewery uses the abbey's name for a popular beer.

Saint-Omer Brewery

Brasserie de Saint-Omer

Founded in 1866, the brewery is still sited in the streets of old Saint Omer. It was bought by Andre Pecquer in 1985, who cut the range of products and invested in up-to-date production facilities.

Now they specialise in the light French lager-style beer that appeals to modern tastes. They produce 600 million 25cl green bottles a year.

Over 40% of their output is exported - the beer is very popular with the "booze cruise" market from England

Groups of 20-50 persons (and school parties if aged over 12) can book to tour the brewery, which also produces soda. There is no charge if a meal is ordered in the "Bowling de Saint-Omer". Tour lasts 1 1/2 hours.

Beck Farm, Bailleul - farm & brewery

Hop harvest at Beck Farm
hop-picking  beer fest  effigy burns
Hops are ready to pick in early September - an occasion Beck Farm marks with a beer festival, at the end of which an effigy of the farmer is burnt on a bonfire.

Monsieur Beck grows all the ingredients for his delicious hoppy beer on his own farm: not only the hops, whose fruits add the distinctive bitter flavour, but also the barley grain (which is sent away to a nearby malthouse for roasted and soaked ready for brewing) and the fresh pure water drawn from a well on the farm.

Small-scale brewery
ingredients  brewers
Monsieur BECK and his son brewing the beer.The brewery is in the farmyard.
All their beer is sold to visitors on the site. They brew their "Hommelpap" beer every few weeks - whenever new supplies are needed!

Brasserie au Baron
near Bavay

A "micro-brewery" on the banks of the river Hogneau

The smallest brewery in France?
You face a difficult choice at this country brwery near the Belgian border. Alain Bailleux and his family produce three remarkable beers: blonde, ambrée and brune.

Each bière de garde is made from traditional ingredients, unpasteurised and without chemicals. It's fermented in the bottle, so you need to be careful with the sediment when pouring.

They have a café-restaurant next to the brewery, where you may see the owner serve grilled meat and fish to accompany the beers.


Bread was for centuries been the staple diet of the region's peasants. Nord Pas-de-Calais has some of the most fertile farmland in Europe, with the highest yields for cereal-growing. Using local varieties of wheat, its millers made flour that has different qualities to that made just across the Channel.

Soft freshly-baked baguettes are tasty when fresh, but go stale in hours. French people are used to buying their bread twice a day - "English" sliced bread is a curiosity. But Baguettes only became popular in the 1950's - there is much more to bread-baking in France than this one product.

Revival of traditional French country breads
In recent years, crafts bakers have revived the traditional varieties of bread, often baked in wood-fired ovens for an authentic texture and flavour.

The best of them - like the "PAUL" chain of bakery-patisserie-cafes - use flour milled from locally-sourced organic grain, and make dough without chemical additives.

This page will give details of different sort of bread traditionally made in Nord Pas-de-Calais, and where you can see craft bakers at work - taste and buy their products.

One baker regularly takes a mobile wood oven to bake bread at local markets

Display of traditional breads - you can see them being prepared and baked in a wood-fired oven in the back of the shop ... the joys of hand-crafted patisserie, made with the best of fresh ingredients


Eating fish and seafood

Waterzoi - a fresh fish stew, made with vegetables, cream and any coarse fish - carp, perch, pike...
The same name is sometimes also used for chicken (or other white meat) stewed with leeks.

sh and seafood dishes to look out for: 

Anguilles au vert - eels cooked with spinach and sorrel leaves in white wine; garnished with herbs and served hot or cold on fried bread.

Carpe à la bière - carp fished from local rivers, cooked in butter with onions, shallots, celery, bay and thyme; then baked with strong local beer and spiced bread.

Harengs Calaisienne - fresh herrings stuffed with roes mixed with mushrooms and herbs, and baked in a paper case.

Freshly-boiled mussels and chips are a popular snack-meal in bistro-bars with visitors and locals alike - like British fish-and-chips.


KID stationsKID Stations

A KID STATION is holiday resort that provides particularly good facilities for children, and has taken care to ensure their safety.

It is a national scheme, with "KID certified" resorts all over France. In Nord/Pas-de-Calais they include: Bray-Dunes, Dunkerque, Gravelines, Wissant, Wimereux, Boulogne and its suburb Le Portel, Hardelot and Berck.

Hardelot's "Poney Club" - beach club at Dunkerque

At Wimereux, children can learn to handle sailboards in the shallow sea near the gently-shelving beach, with qualified instructors constantly at hand...

...searching for cockles and mussels - part of a workshop on the environment. After carefully washing at the station provided, the fruits of the search of rocks and pools on Wimereux beach can be cooked for tea!

Each centre has to offer: 

    • menus for children in restaurants, also high-chairs
    • information at the local Office de Tourisme about children's facilities
    • free playing areas: beach clubs, sports facilities e.g. watersports, tennis, horse-riding, etc.
    • shows and entertainment for children: competitions, games e.g. treasure-hunts, etc.
    • beach library
    • safety: first aid booth on beach
    • clean environment: rubbish bins cleaned daily, seawater tested A or B quality, conservation awareness activities, suitable public toilets.



Tourist Trains of the Aa Valley

Travel a rural branch line
You enjoy the changing scene out of the windows as the restored 1950's diesel railcar chugs through the countryside of the Audomarois Nature Park outside Saint-Omer. The guide's commentary tells you how first canals, then railways drove the economic expansion of the area in the 19th century.

Since 1992, railway enthusiasts have been collecting old rolling stock in preparation for re-opening the 17 km Arques-Lumbres section of the old railway from St.Omer to Boulogne which closed in 1959.

Now they run tourist trains every summer, at weekends (Sat and Sun) and holidays at Easter and May - September [but check as opening may vary]. The line is worked using old French and Polish diesel railcars - some steam locomotives are being restored, and volunteers hope these will soon see service.

CFTVA - Chemin de Fer Touristique de la Vallée de l'Aa

Map of the old Boulogne - Saint-Omer railway line (Tourist Trains in blue, Rando-Rail cycle-trains in red). Service is seasonal


Fontinettes Canal Boat Lift
at Arques

This giant lift was built in 1888 copying a similar one in England. It lifted canal boats up from the River Aa to the higher level Neuffossée canal. This crosses the watersheds between the river Aa, the Lys, and the Escaut - providing a through route by water from Dunkerque or Calais via Saint Omer to the Nord coalfields and the industrial cities of Lille, Roubaix and Tourcoing.


Location: ARQUES
L'Ascenseur à Bateaux des Fontinettes


Regional Nature Park:
Opale Coast coastal park WEBSITE

Quiet hills and miles of beaches
Riding on a cart drawn by famous Boulonnais horses, you see the countryside of the Boulonnais nature park at a peaceful pace.

The park contains beautiful downland hills and valleys, and a spectacular natural coastline with miles of cliffs, wide sandy beaches, sand-dunes and marshes. There are a variety of reserves preserving valuable habitats and their wildlife.

Exploring the nature park
The new park is developing exciting new ways to explore the charms of this little-known area: walks, cycle paths, horse-riding trails and interpretation centres, with information about what to see.

Cap Gris-Nez, a bird-watchers paradise
The cliffs on the French Channel coast, less than 30 km from England, lie opposite Dungeness. Here you have an ideal vantage point to watch seabirds, particularly in autumn when the flocks from Northern Europe and Siberia migrate towards the Atlantic over the Channel and the North Sea.

Gannets, sterns, skuas, puffins as well as wading birds large and small, sea ducks and penguins fly past the Cap from mid-August to mid-November. Later, at the first signs of approaching cold in the North, you can spot the loons, geese and ducks as they flee to the warm south.

For over a century, flavoursome strawberries have been cultivated on the warmer sandy soils around Samer, where you buy them fresh May-August, or take away delicious fruit-packed jams.



La Gosse Lemonade Factory,
near Guînes


Started in the 'thirties
In the mid-1930s the owners of the brewery in Hardinghen started making natural lemonade and orange and lemon sodas, which they named after their newly-born daughter.

Now the factory is one of the few remaining to supply fizzy drinks made and bottled in the traditional way.

Natural ingredients
In recent years they have developed new natural flavours, like violet, pistachio, manadarin and apple - using just sugar, water and subtle natural extracts.

Location: Le Point du Jour, BP13, 62132 HARDINGHEN
3km south of Guînes