Indulge in a quiet cruise across the Audomarois Marshes in northern France

Take a motor run from the port of Calais in northern France and head south eastwards towards the town of Saint Omer. As you pass by the low lying flat fields on the way, you might notice that the local landscape resembles the bare and wide open district of the Fens in eastern England. For me, it always seems a little like home. Clairmarais, a town just north of St. Omer, is the base for a family run business belonging to a Mr Herve Leleu. He calls his company ISNOR; Ideas for Nord, pas de Calais. You can visit him and his family and you will love the services that they offer.

Clairmarais rests on the edge of the Audomarais Marshes. This area started out as just broad swampland but has been drained during 13 centuries of alterations to the route of the river Aa. As with the Fens in Britain, the work was conducted by Dutch drainage experts and they have left their cultural mark on the district just as they did in England.

The resultant Audomarois Marshes now extend over 3700 hectares of inhabitable and cultivated land linked by navigable rivers that are refreshing to visit. The area currently is a holder of the UNESCO label of ‘Man and Biosphere’. It is beautiful, tranquil and home to many rare features of wildlife and fauna.

BacoveISNOR provides local boating excursions combined with impeccable restaurant and catering services. Herve Leleu is always there and he ensures that every visitor is made very welcome. I had arranged to join one of his waterway cruises on a locally made, oak constructed, open boat; a ‘Bacove’. I and the other ‘sailors’ would be entertained with plentiful quantities of aperitifs and rich nibbles as we cruised gently past the green pastureland along the chosen route.

We were all issued with a robust lifejacket, a glass to drink from and offered the exciting ‘goodies’ once we all got going. The Bacove was navigated by one of Lelue’s sons and he pulled the outboard engine into life. The Bacoves are currently fitted with very quiet and clean motors to protect the natural surrounding environment.

House market garden stallDuring our cruise lasting about 90 minutes, there was much to see and enjoy. Virtually all of the area rests at sea level and the land is very fertile. In our flat bottomed, punt like boat we came across a number of fairly isolated yet striking family houses along the banksides. All of the family residents maintained well stocked vegetable gardens and many provided stalls to sell their produce from the watersides. They tempted us all with their fresh produce of French beans and onions, sumptuous green vegetables, tomatoes and fruits. At some of the gardens, Bacove passengers could stop and buy any goods that they liked.

We waived at families and children in the houses behind the curtains and they all waived back at us. Our Bacove kept up its steady pottering pace along the navigable water ways.

CruisingI, with my friends, saw much wildlife along the route. There were wild creatures and birds such as Grebes, Teals and Widgeons. They had made their homes and nests among the tall grassy embankments by the water. Research into their habits and breeding numbers is conducted by students from the St. Omer local college. There was also much fauna to observe that also was of scientific interest.

As we progressed beyond the heartland canal area, the agricultural land spaces became larger. Regular farmland vegetables were grown on a much more industrial scale. After harvesting, they would be sold in the much larger market associated with modern farming life around St. Omer.

At Clairmarais, ISNOR operates other marshland tours in 50 seater catamarans, rowing boats and canoes. The aperitif cruise is always available on the two bacoves. They would always be directed along their route by a certificated river boat master.

RestaurantVisitors can eat in the excellent land based restaurant, La Baguernette, if they wish. This is a separate high quality dining experience that can be enjoyed before or after any of the cruises. It would heighten the sailing adventure and turn the experience into a complete day event.

The river trips can be a wonderful event to mark many occasions. Children’s birthday celebrations, wedding anniversaries and educational visits for younger people.

The experience will always be tranquil, peaceful, stress free and perhaps even romantic. Boating cruises with ISNOR will always contribute to an outstanding French adventure for all groups of family members and friends.

Prices are very reasonable and available on application to Mr. Leleu. Societe ISNOR, 3 rue du Marais, 62500 Clairmarais. Visit

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Bob Lyons

Retired airline pilot and European explorer

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