Visiting Oost-Cappel (approaching from France) or Oostkappel (approaching from Belgium): scene of historic conflicts
So much history, so many administrative divisions, so small a village
In French this place is known as Oost-Cappel, In Dutch, it is Oostkappel. (The Dutch diminutive form 't Kappelletje — yes, really — also has currency.)
Officially, the western part of the village is French-speaking and the eastern part is Dutch-speaking — again — officially. The Franco-Belgian border differs considerably, in fact, in its linguistic character, depending on its location. But over the border from Oost-Cappel, the official language is Dutch, with no official facilities for French. Further south along the Franco-Belgian border, however, the territory immediately adjacent to France is variously Dutch-speaking in its entirety, or officially bilingual French-Dutch, or completely French-speaking.
While the main part of the village is situated in France, in the department of Nord, the border between France and Belgium passes through the village, which is thus partly in the Dutch-speaking West Flanders (Dutch: West-Vlaanderen ) province. While the French part of the village forms an independent municipality in itself, the Belgian part is within the municipality of Roesbrugge-Haringe.
Thus, by way of a change from my usual practice in these travel articles, I am supplying images of the flags of both France and Belgium, and a map of the French arrondissement of Dunkirk and of the Belgian province of West Flanders.
It is somewhat uncanny to be walking in this quiet village and to approach the border, which dissects the small agglomeration of buildings, and the other side of which life goes on very similarly. But while a seemingly quiet village, this place has been the scene of tumultuous conflict. Given the proximity of World War One and World War Two battlegrounds, it goes without saying that Oost-Cappel (the spelling I will mainly keep to in this article) suffered damage and violence in both these conflicts. However, an English army wrought destruction in 1793; severely damaging the parish church of St Nicholas (French: Eglise Saint-Nicolas ). In the 16th century, Calvinists did a lot of damage to the church, at the time, in Romanesque style, when a wave of iconoclasm swept this area of Flanders (1). Later the church was rebuilt in Gothic style.
The church itself gave the name to the village in the Middle Ages: a chapel dedicated to St Nicholas; there is also a West-Cappel in French Flanders. It is known that a hamlet existed here in 1139.
The church, with a small steeple, may be seen in the middle of the picture supplied, against the horizon.
Evidence of the most recent conflict includes the World War Two graves, in the cemetery near the church, of soldiers from various English and Scottish regiments
However, there were other sorts of disturbance which have also occurred in the village. One of these proved to be an intervention from a vertical, rather than horizontal, perspective. In 1938, the church was again damaged, this time by an earthquake!
As late as 1972, fighting took place between visitors from other parts of France and Belgium, who met at this border location. The nature of this conflict was cock- (or rooster-) fighting! Then it was banned by the authorities. This emphasizes just how curious events can sometimes be in a village situated astride the France-Belgian border.
(1) Interestingly, from an historical perspective, this wave of iconoclasm which characterized Flanders in the 1560s is comparable to a similar wave of damage to church buildings which the men of Cromwell's army carried out in many English parish churches during the Commonwealth period. For theological reasons, it was thought by the iconoclasts that many of the furnishings of Medieval churches were religiously inappropriate.
Also worth seeing
Bergues, France (distance: 14 kilometres); this fortified town has a number of remarkable old structures, including a noted belfry.
Ieper, Belgium (French: Ypres; distance : 26 kilometres) has many commemorations of the devastating effects of World War One in its area of Flanders, including the Menen Gate and a museum in the Cloth Hall.
How to get there: Brussels Airlines flies from New York to Brussels Airport (Brussel Nationaal / Bruxelles-National ), from where car rental is available. Brussels (distance: 163 kilometres) is the nearest large airport to Oost-Cappel/Oostkappel . The Belgian railroad company NMBS/SNCB maintains a service between Brussels and Poperinge. Please note that some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. You are advised to 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
Other of my hubpages may also be of interest
- Visiting Bray-Dunes, France: the north blowing in the wind
- Visiting Dunkirk, France: city of magnificent Flemish belfries
- Visiting Bergues, France, with its Belfry: memories of a prosperous Flemish town in the Middle Ages
- Visiting Abeele, France: neo-Gothic architecture and administrative nuances
- Visiting the Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium: poignant remembrance of World War One sacrifice in Flanders