Birds, beaches and bays: the other Somme

It is impossible to ignore the history of this region, but it has another side.


Sailing through the Hortillonnages, the serene floating gardens of Amiens

Sailing through the Hortillonnages, the serene floating gardens of Amiens

The Somme, in Picardy, is the spiritual home of First World War I tourism; a place where descendants of fallen soldiers go to find the graves of their father, uncle or grandfather, or parties of schoolchildren are taken on educational trips.

So entrenched is the Somme in its Great War provenance, that the area is an unlikely destination for holiday-makers in search of fun and frolics, but that doesn't mean it isn't a beautiful area of France to visit - even without the pull of history.

Anyone driving through the Somme - and in particular the towns of Péronne and Albert - will see that the area is true to that perception and won't fail to notice, no doubt with an awkward gulp and a sinking feeling, the abundance of roadside war graves visible around every bend, all lovingly and reverently tended by the War Graves Commission. The Somme's superb museum mile, Le Circuit du Souvenir 1914-1918, provides a sad education on different aspects of the Great War.

The Somme Museum 1916 in Albert is set in a 250m tunnel, converted from an air-raid shelter after World War Two.

In 1916 it sheltered 1,500 people and today its stories focus on trench warfare and the unbelievable loss of life at the Battle of the Somme - almost 1.3 million soldiers were killed in just five months for a paltry advance of barely more than 10 miles.

The circuit continues to Péronne, to the town's Historical Museum located on the actual site of the battle. Five rooms explain how and why the conflict happened, the consequences for the countries whose soldiers fought on the Western Front, together with eye-opening exhibits showing what they may have experienced, as well as their kit, arms and communication equipment - everything from machine guns right down to message tubes for carrier pigeons which proved vital when early telephone and cable systems were disrupted.

The most evocative monument on the circuit is the Thiepval Memorial, the largest British memorial in the world and designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Engraved on the walls of a huge arched pillar are the names of more than 73,000 Commonwealth soldiers with no known graves.

But the big battles took place inland, in the east of the Somme. Go west towards the coast and the atmosphere softens. The long coastline with its wide, sandy beaches, stretches from the Baie de L'Authie to the magnificent Baie-de-Somme, where visitors ride horses, hire sand bikes and fly colourful kites.

As the tide recedes, the landscape looks wild and unkempt and a rich seam of flora is revealed. Areas of sand and grass are uncovered and local cooks head here to pick plants to jazz up their salads. One of them, Salicorne, pickles well, and tastes like pickled cucumber.   

The nearby bayside resort of Le Crotoy is where Jules Verne was inspired to pen Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Fishermen lay out their nets for the night, and when the tide is in on the south of the Bay at Hourdel, you can spot hundreds of seals bobbing tantalisingly in the water.

The highlight of the region, though, is the bird sanctuary. Nestling on the fringes of the bay, on land reclaimed from the sea in 1973, there are the 260 hectares of marshes, sand dunes and pine forests of the Parc Ornithologique du Marquenterre.

This diverse landscape hosts 360 species of birds. Located on a north-south migratory path for thousands of birds, you can spot everything from lapwings, egrets and barnacle geese to oyster catchers and shell ducks.

The reserve is open all year round and each season attracts different
species.

In April we saw white storks, which return every year to the same nest to breed, and warblers, which flew in from South Africa to sing their hearts out in a show of territorial brinkmanship, as well as to attract mates.

There are 14 viewing points, at a distance from the birds to avoid disturbing them, so binoculars are useful. If you forget yours, you can rent a pair, though your guide will have a telescope.

From one viewing point you can spy a colony of black-tailed godwits and avocets (the emblem of the RSBP), whose spindly legs and long, curved beaks help them catch worms.

From another viewing point, you can see herons nesting among hundreds of pairs of wading birds, including egrets from Mauritania and Senegal, and the sight of these elegant winged creatures fluttering over the great black pine tree tops is awesome. Spoonbills are in the mix, too, looking funky with their spiked hair and spoon shaped beaks.

You don't have to be an avid bird watcher to enjoy the at-one-with-nature experience that the park provides, nor to feel an almost meditative calm engendered by watching wildlife move unhindered through its cycle of nesting and breeding until a new wave of migrant birds flies in.

The nearby town of Amiens is not particularly lovable but it does have a beautiful gothic cathedral and a serene area of waterways called the Hortillonnages.

This was marshland which has been progressively cultivated and, today, there are 300 hectares of gardens, supporting the businesses which sell flowers and vegetables at the quayside.

But most interesting are the animals and plants that thrive in this area. Take a ride on one of the oar-propelled boats - un barques à cornet - and enjoy an hour eyeing up the colourful and sometimes bizarrely ornate gardens.

Your guide will steer slowly, pointing out the species as you drift past small herons, blue-throats (if they look familiar it's because you are looking at a cousin of the robin), crested grebes, mute swans, mallards, coots and moorhens as they float between water lilies or try to hide amid the alders, water irises and reeds that line the banks.

With so much life and beauty to enjoy, the Somme does not seem so sombre after all.

Getting there

P&O Ferries (www.poferries.com) operate 23 sailings each way between Dover and Calais. Crossings start at £30 each way for a car and up to nine passengers. An upgrade to club class is available for £12 per person. From Calais pick up the A26 autoroute in the direction of Boulogne and come off at Rue from where Picardy is well signposted. Hotel Mercure Cathedrale, 21/23 rue Flatters, Amiens (www.accorhotels.com) has double rooms from £99 per night (room only)

Places to visit
● Le Musée Somme 1916, Rue Anicet Godin, Albert. www.somme-trench-museum.co.uk
● Historial Chateau de Peronne, www.historial.org
● Parc Ornithologique du Marquenterre, 25 bis, chemin des Garennes, 80120 Saint-Quentin-en-Tourmont, www.baiedesomme.fr
● The Hortillonnages, 54 boulevard Beauville, Amiens, 0333 22 92 04 27, www.amiens-tourisme.com

    Last updated: 2:39pm, August 13 2010