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Visiting the Meadows of Hem, France and their artificial lake: submerged memories and the proximity of bilingual Belgium
Silent, past agonies and an international boundary
This is a peaceful and beautiful place.
But its very tranquility and understated features mask a tense and tumultuous past. In the vicinity of Armentières, in France's Nord department, the Meadows of Hem (les Prés du Hem) consists of a Nature Park, which includes a large, artificial lake of 45 hectares.
Battle site memories
But approaching one hundred years ago, the area around Armentières and the adjacent border region of Belgium was a desolate, mud-ridden World War One battleground, where thousands of troops would perish over the temporary ownership of a few metres of mud and barbed wire. Indeed, the Armentières district was devastated on two occasions in World War One alone.
What a contrast with today! How infinitely preferable now! except that with the past receding, the memory of war devastation is becoming more and more distant, and the young people who enjoy the recreational and educational benefits of this facility are less and less conscious of the onerous weight of history which, metaphorically, lies submerged under the artificial lake and carefully planted vegetation of the park. Look at old maps of the district and, where there are now the Meadows of Hem and their Natural Park and lake, and these present features are not to be seen. Not far from here is the Commonwealth War Memorial at Ploegsteert (see below), which, among many others in northern France and Belgium, serves as a permanent and poignant reminder of past sacrifice.
Adjacent to the Belgian border
There is another aspect of the Meadows of Hem which possibly also overlooked by most of the French young people who use their recreational energies in different ways here and sail on the expansive lake. The fact is that along one side of the lake is the border with another country; indeed, with a part of Belgium which is officially bilingual.
Following one side of the lake, bordered by a channel of the historic Lys River, is a Belgian road, which the map gives as Rue de la Lys , yes; certainly. But also as Leiestraat . How many people who sail on the lake are conscious that within hailing distance of part of the lake is another country where a different language may be spoken officially? Because the adjoining village of Le Bizet, in Belgium, is part of the municipality of Comines-Warneton (Dutch: Komen-Waasten), where official bilingualism is strictly enforced as part of the arrangement whereby in 1963 the area was removed from the Belgian province of West Flanders (Dutch: West-Vlaanderen) and added to the territory of the province of Hainaut (Dutch: Henegouwen), even though the municipality is not geographically contiguous to it, while remaining sandwiched between West Flanders province and France, between the Meadows of Hem and the French town of Halluin, further north-east.
A smugglers' marsh trail and other attractions
At the Meadows of Hem there is even a trail known as Le Marais des Contrebandiers (Smugglers' marsh), designed as a tourist attraction, which underlines the frontier context of the park, and its hidden, historical memories.
A marina exists, which berths 60 small vessels. A farm specializes in showing animals to visitors.
Also worth seeing
Armentières , France (distance: 1.3 kilometres) has an interesting belfry in Neo-Flemish style at its town hall (Hôtel de ville); destroyed in World War One, it was eventually rebuilt by 1934.
Ploegsteert , Belgium (distance: 4.8 kilometres) has an imposing Commonwealth war memorial, with memories also of Sir Winston Churchill, who served here in World War One.
Comines, France (distance: 15 kilometres); the historic Lys River separates it from the Belgian part of its conurbation; its Town Hall belfry is interesting, as is a bust of Medieval chronicler Philippe de Commynes , which is to be found outside nearby St. Chrysole church.
Menen, Belgium (distance: 25 kilometres) is situated on the edge of Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, and possesses an interesting octagonal tower, which dates from the 17th century, on its Town Hall.
Tourcoing , France (distance: 30 kilometres) has many noted buildings, including a belfry, and the City Hall which dates from 1885.
Lille , France (distance: 21 kilometres); while it has cultural attractions which are too numerous to mention in full, these include the picturesque place du General de Gaulle , with its former Stock Exchange (la vieille Bourse ) and, nearby, the belfry belonging to the Chamber of Commerce; and the birthplace museum of General Charles de Gaulle.
Renescure , France (distance: 41 kilometres), has an old castle, now the Town Hall, associated with the Medieval chronicler Philippe de Commynes.
How to get there: Brussels Airlines flies from New York to Brussels Airport (Brussel Nationaal / Bruxelles-National ), from where car rental is available. Brussels is the nearest large airport to Les Prés du Hem (distance: 145 kilometres). Please note that facilities may change without notice. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.
MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada
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