Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

The small town of Saint-Omer in northern France was once the centre of a boat-building tradition which has all but disappeared. Rudolf Abraham reports on one of the last craftsmen still producing wooden vessels for navigating the local waterways.

article summary —

Rémy Colin stands in his roomy workshop, behind the rough timber frame of a large wooden boat. In his hands he holds a model of a finished vessel. Light streams in through the open wooden doors into the half-lit interior of the workshop, where a variety of saws and other tools are slung about the walls above stacks of wood. The floor is coated with sawdust.

Rémy is a traditional boatbuilder in Saint-Omer, a small town in northern France, just a short train journey inland from Calais. Saint- Omer is built on a slight rise above the River Aa, which winds its way from the Artois Hills to empty into La Manche at Gravelines. Rémy has been making traditional wooden boats here for over ten years, and his workshop, a large barn-like building standing beside a narrow channel near the road out to Clairmarais, is the last of its kind.

Saint-Omer and the Marais Audomarois

The town of Saint-Omer is named after the 7th century monk, Audomar of Thérouanne, who founded a Benedictine abbey here on the banks of the River Aa — the Abbaye Saint-Bertin. During the Middle Ages, it grew to be one of the most powerful and important monasteries in northern Europe. Its skeletal ruins still stand in the lower part of town. Despite being closed down during the French Revolution, the abbey was still standing and largely intact in the first half of the 19th century, when it was dismantled and its stone reused in other buildings, including Saint-Omer’s distinctive neoclassical Hôtel de Ville (town hall).

Sprawling to the north and east from the foot of the town, is the Marais Audomarois — a vast swathe of wetlands covering an area of more than 3,700 hectares, which is criss-crossed by over 700 km of watercourses, canals, channels and dykes.

Appropriately enough given their lowland character, many of these waterways have partly Flemish names — Le Petit Meer, Le Grand Meer, Le Stackelwaert, Le Hongarwaert. A few kilometres away to the north, Eurostar trains dash by, cutting through the flatlands, sweeping over the River Aa on the long Haute-Colme Viaduct. But travellers bound for Saint-Omer must take the slow train.

Arriving by train from Calais into Saint- Omer’s surprisingly grand railway station (beautifully renovated in 2019), the view from the eastfacing windows offers something of a preview of the landscape’s character — a patchwork of wet meadows, market gardens, cauliflower crops and marshland, neatly divided by water channels, and studded here and there with lakes. The only way to truly appreciate the special character of this landscape, however, is by boat.

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Rudolf Abraham is an award-winning travel writer and photographer specialising in Central and Eastern Europe – in particular Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and Montenegro. He is the author of a dozen books including Peaks of the Balkans, The Mountains of Montenegro, Walking in the Salzkammergut, Walks and Treks in Croatia, Torres del Paine and The Islands of Croatia, all published by Cicerone, National Geographic Traveller Croatia, and The Alpe Adria Trail, published by Bradt. He is co-author of Istria - The Bradt Travel Guide and has contributed to many more books including DK Eyewitness Slovenia and Unforgettable Journeys. His work is published widely in magazines.

Rudolf lives in London, and is a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. Find out more about his work at Rudolf Abraham Photography, or visit Rudolf Abraham | Travel Writer. You can also find him on Instagram at rudolfphoto.

This article was published in hidden europe 61.