FolkestoneJack's Tracks

A late spring break

Posted in Arques, France by folkestonejack on August 27, 2011

A plan to go away with the family for a long weekend in April 2010 went somewhat awry due to family illness, so much so that we only managed to re-schedule it at the third attempt beginning with a channel crossing today. In that sense, this trip is a very very late spring break…

The plan for the trip was simple enough – to start at Calais and then take a circular route via Ypres, Amiens, the Baie de Somme and Boulogne before returning to Calais for the crossing back to England. We briefly thought it might all go wrong at the last minute with talk of industrial action at Eurotunnel but luckily everything seemed to be operating normally for our early morning crossing. Soon enough we were heading off the Autoroute des Anglais on our way to La Coupole, a facility intended to store and launch V2 rockets. Our previous travels to France have often taken us past signs for this place, but we have never contemplated a visit until now.

La Coupole

My initial reaction to the complex at La Coupole was one of astonishment at the immense scale of the unfinished complex, it impresses (if that is the right word) in a rather brutal way, from the long cold corridors to the massive concrete dome. At the same time you can’t help but be acutely conscious of the price paid by many to build the place. Today the site houses a museum about the German rocket programme and the occupation of Northern France in 1940-1944. It makes for quite an intense visit of two and a half hours, by which time you are likely to be reeling with information overload. As is often the way with such visits I learnt much that I didn’t know before, particularly aspects of the occupation such as the honouring of the graves of allied airmen as an act of defiance.

L'ascenseur à bateaux des Fontinettes

Our next stop, a short drive away, was the town of Arques where we visited L’Ascenseur des Fontinettes, a remarkable boat lift built in 1888 to transfer boats from the river Aa to the Neuffossée canal. It is a very peaceful place today so it is hard to imagine the busy waterway that necessitated this development (the M25 of its day by all accounts with barges queuing up to a week to traverse the staircase of five locks that existed previously). The boat lift was closed in 1967 and replaced by a new lock. Today the boat lift remains as a static museum. It doesn’t take long to wander round but it is rather delightful. You can also take a short walk to the new lock.

The giant 'new' lock at Fontinettes

The Chemin de Fer Touristique de la Vallée de l’Aa terminates at a station just above the lock, operating the strangely styled Picasso X3853 diesel railcars. We didn’t have the time to take a ride but marvelled at the design of the railcar, which curiously places the driver in a bubble atop the railcar. I’ve never seen anything quite like it!

Picasso railcar at Arques

Picasso railcar at Arques (les Fontinettes)

The drive from Arques to Ypres was interesting, with the local gendarmerie turning us round at one point due to a local half-marathon that had prompted the closure of the road through Cassel. Nevertheless, we made it to our destination without too much difficulty.