Liz Gill tours on an eco-friendly boat around the area, which has a rich history, a sombre past and a strong literary connection
Anyone saddened by not being able to visit Notre Dame de Paris for the foreseeable future might find its 13th century Amiens namesake a more than adequate alternative. In fact at 145m long and 70m wide it is France’s largest Gothic building and could hold two of the capital’s famous landmark.
It is also breath-takingly beautiful with its light-filled nave soaring on 126 pillars to nearly 40m, its immense rose window, the giant organ of 3,500 pipes and its great West facade covered with hundreds of statues. Our modern sensibilities are attuned to pale, monochrome figures but in mediaeval times they were brightly painted, something only properly appreciated during a recent restoration project. Now during summer evening replica colours are projected on to the statues in a dazzling display.
The cathedral also has memorial tablets to the dead of WWI, mostly from the Battle of the Somme, but for me a more poignant reminder was a little stone cherub behind the altar. Known as L’Ange Pleurer or The Weeping Angel he has one hand on an hour glass and an elbow resting on a skull to symbolise the brevity of life. A photograph of him became one of the most popular postcards of the war, sent to loved ones by young soldiers who knew all too well how short life could be.
The word Somme, of course, is synonymous with devastation on a terrible scale and there are still many opportunities to visit the battlefields, cemeteries, museums like the Historial de Peronne or monuments like the Lutyens-designed one at Thiepval which bears the names of 72,000 British and South African servicemen who have no known grave.
The area though has much joy to offer too, natural as well as man-made.
We try out the pleasures of gently gliding along the river aboard Natalia, a boat powered by a hybrid engine. This allows it to go six hours on electric propulsion, meaning there is no sound, vibration or fumes. Travelling silently and slowly, around five kilometres an hour is wonderfully relaxing and although there is not a huge amount of outside space the windows are large and the interior spacious: it can accommodate 55 people but its operator Backwaters keeps number down to 40 so that everyone can stretch out.
It is ideal for watching the scenery slip by, for reading, chatting, even snoozing. So easeful is it that a group of us decide we had better get in a bit of exercise and walk along the towpath to meet up again with the boat at the Lamotte-Brebière lock.
Launched last year, Natalia and Backwaters, are the brain-child of Lynn Woods, a former RAF squadron leader and software developer turned tour operator, who believes the 10,000 kilometres of navigable waterways in France and Belgium have enormous untapped potential for a new kind of river cruising.
Instead of being big ‘floating hotels’, smaller craft like Natalia (and another currently being built) can access lesser rivers and canals allowing for the discovery of hidden gem villages and small towns and all kinds of themed holidays. Other tours this summer around Northern Burgundy, lasting five to eight days, will feature ornithology, antiques (in the company of Bargain Hunt’s Michael Hogben), wine, fine dining, history and music, both classical and jazz. Rather than staying on a boat guests will return to their hotel every evening.
Restored and refreshed we return to Amiens and a visit to The House With The Tower which was Jules Verne’s home from 1882 to 1900 and where he wrote many of the books which made him famous. With over 700 items and historical documents the house covers both his life and his imaginative world including flying machine models and early book-related merchandise.
Though lionised in France and widely translated – there have been 4,700 translations -the author is probably better known in Britain as the man whose stories Around The World In 80 Days and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea were turned into hit movies.
Verne’s wife came from Amiens, a place he described as ‘a level-headed, polite, even-tempered town. The society is cordial and enlightened. It is close enough to Paris to benefit from its reflection without the insufferable noise and sterile agitation.’
The city’s other attractions include botanical gardens, a zoo, a fine museum with paintings ranging from El Greco to Picasso, the brutally dramatic Tour Perret built in 1954 as Europe’s ‘first skyscraper’ and a divider of opinion ever since (it is not open to the public but illuminated at night) and the lively old Quartier St-Leu, with its colourful houses, cobbled streets and waterside cafes and restaurants. It was there that we sample two local dishes: ficelle picarde, crepes filled with ham, cheese and mushrooms and baked in the oven, and an equally hearty giant apple dumpling for pudding.
Supper followed another boat trip, this time on a small craft, around the Hortillonnages – 300 hectares of small islands criss-crossed by canals giving them the appearance of floating gardens. Originally created by the excavation of peat and later used for growing fruit and vegetables to sell in the market – at its peak there were a thousand producers – their use now is primarily for leisure: many have sheds or cabins, often quirkily decorated.
Amiens is only a 160 kilometres from Calais which makes it easily suitable for a short break. We did not have enough time to see Samara which presents the life of prehistoric people in their natural habitat or the ‘underground city’ of Naours with its centuries old network of chambers and tunnels in which locals sheltered in times of war. But we did swing round to take a trip on the Chemin de Fer de Baie de Somme.
Restored and run by volunteers, the steam locomotives pull Belle Epoque carriages for 17 kilometres from Le Crotoy via Noyelles-sur-Mer to Saint-Valery. The bay itself with its vast seascape, enormous skies, wild dunes and marshes and endless sands is said to be one of the most beautiful in the world. It is certainly a paradise for birds: the Marqueterre sanctuary is home to over 300 species both local and migratory.
In Saint-Valery before we eat a delicious lunch of mussels we note a monument to its significance long before it became a resort for the fashion for sea bathing. This is where William the Conqueror set sail for England. Now though there is an additional notice placed there on the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings ‘to affirm the enduring friendship between our two people, descendants of the Normans, Franks and Saxons of 1066.’