The bluster of Berck sur Mer in the winter

During a recent winter, I was spending a day right on the Opal Coast in northern France. It was a very wet, blustery and stormy morning. I thought it the perfect day to take a visit to Berck sur Mer. I like so much being by the sea in such weather to marvel at the energy of nature.

Seashore - Berck sur MerThe very wide and flat beaches were being battered by the elements and they were deserted. There were a few hardy couples dragging their dogs along the promenade. The walkers seemed to love it all but I didn’t think the dogs seemed quite so keen.

The sand along the beaches was billowing in the gales as though World War Three had started. The sight of it all excited my imagination. I staggered across the sand to the edge of the sea and sensed the power of the oceans. It made me feel very much alive and in touch. The sound of the weather was blasting in my ears. I delighted in the vigour of it all.

Berck sur Mer and windy weather are almost synonymous. The culture of the town has evolved alongside the air currents. Louis Bleriot, the famous French aviator from the previous century, invented the ‘aeroplage’. This was the first sand yacht that was developed at Berck. It exploited the natural propulsive force of the wind along a ground surface. Bleriot spent his life making friends with the atmosphere.

The aeroplage has grown into a whole modern day industry for the town. Nowadays, the beaches of Berck are covered with the most light and streamlined and carbon fibre strengthened craft of the present day. During the whole year the foreshore is usually awash with these land yachts speeding across the sand delighting the people who have hired them. Not on the day I was there though. The strength of the wind had defeated even them on this occasion. The modern craft were all stored, cowering from the storm, behind the defences of all the coastal sand dunes.

Seashore - Berck sur MerBerck sur Mer today is known everywhere too, for its kite flying festival. This occurs during the month of April each year. The supportive power of the atmosphere is exploited once more to provide lift for the most obscure and colourful range of craft imaginable. The sky above the beaches is awash with the most innovative selection of brightly decorated, unmanned and line secured craft anywhere in the world. This annual event has evolved out of an original period of unmanned kite experiments from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Berck sur Mer, with the air and the sea and the sky, have all grown up together.

Berck has always had an aerodrome as well. It lies just inland from the coast and has been there since the earliest days of pioneering aviation in 1917. This is yet another connection with the sky, the wind and the elements. The aeroplanes flying from the aerodrome are all light aircraft. They tempt their pilots to pit their wits against the natural forces of nature as well.

Berck sur Mer connects easily with its ancient sea culture. It knows all about the mariners and seafarers from long gone centuries. It has been home to a maritime hospital since 1869. Seafaring people can become ill due to their confinement at sea. They found solace and cure for their marine induced health difficulties as they came ashore at Berck. Some still do.

Sand yachts - Berck sur MerThe sea air created by nature is a natural cure for tuberculosis. Many patients recognise this and travel specifically to Berck sur Mer to find relief from the disease. The old maritime hospital nowadays concentrates on this speciality and harnesses nature to find relief for its patients. Sea bathing has always been regarded as a natural cure for breathing difficulties.

Many of the great artists from the nineteenth century came to Berck sur Mer just to paint nature at work. They produced great art works depicting elemental forces sculpting the shoreline. The paintings describe clearly the essential culture of the sea, the sky and the atmosphere all working together. The famous ‘Berck School of Painters’ included Edouard Manet and Eugene Boudin. An exhibition of some of their greatest works is presented in the Municipal Museum that was opened in 1979. This is sited in the old gendarmerie in Berck’s town centre.

Seashore - Berck sur MerThe day I visited Berck sur Mer allowed me to enjoy the freshness and freedom of the resting seaside resort in the winter months. I felt a closeness, a connection with nature which I found was inspirational. The town was just being itself in its rawest form awaiting the new intake of visitors before the year got properly going. The shops and cafes along the sea shore were resting and sleeping. They all looked a bit tired of life from the previous summer. They were just waiting for the world to wake up again.

Berck sur Mer rests very close to the glamour and affluence of Le Touquet. The two towns have completely different orbits. One is a sort of fake, virtual pretention but Berck sur Mer is of life, vigour and real nature itself. Berck is a wonderful place to view nature at work. It is a wonderful place to view the very edge of France and to view the edge of Europe too.

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Bob Lyons

Retired airline pilot and European explorer

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