Places to visit

Belfries - the bell towers of North France

Not a church tower!
Many towns in Nord/Pas-de-Calais have a belfry - an imposing bell-tower, often very old, and usually the highest building - some people think they are church towers!

Medieval watch-towers
These were in fact built as fortified watchtowers in the Middle Ages - many during the
Hundred Years' War, which ravaged much of northern France,. From a platform at the top, a lookout could spot enemies approaching the medieval town; raise the alarm if fires broke out amongst the buildings crowded within the town walls.

The bells rang out to mark the time of the day, to sound the curfew when everyone had to be indoors for the night, and - like an air-raid siren - to warn the inhabitants in case of emergencies. Today several towns have big sets of bells which regularly play tunes - unlike English bell-ringing.

Calais Town Hall, bell tower and Rodin's statue
Famous statue in front of Calais Town Hall and belfry
 Douai Town Hall with belfry
The famous belfry of Douai, whose bells still ring regularly.

Mechanical clocks
Did the original towers have clocks? Public clocks that mechanically sounded the hour WERE being built in the 14th century. The first was in Milan (Italy) in 1335; there was one in Rouen in 1389 (which still exists). The oldest surviving clock in England is in Salisbury Cathedral (1386).

Medieval clock mechanism
14th century clocks were made by craftsmen of hand-forged iron. Medieval clock makers installed them in towers, where they were worked by falling weights. This clock is in Salisbury Cathedral; restored to its original 14th century mechanism.

All these early clocks were placed in towers because they worked by falling weights attached to a cord around a drum.

No clock face, just bells
They were made of hand-forged iron; a simple escapement mechanism regulated the speed. Clock faces and a single hand that pointed to the hour came later; most of these early clocks just rang bells, and were only accurate to within about 30 minutes a day (but no-one was checking!).

It would have been a status symbol for a town to have its own clock.

Early clock escapement
The escapement mechanism makes the "tick-tock" sound

Town Halls - symbols of medieval civic pride
The tower is often part of the Town Hall - built in pride of place in or near the main square as a symbol of the town's wealth and independence. The cloth towns of Flanders valued the independence given by a charter: this permitted town leaders to organise their own trade and defence, and pay less taxes to the lord in the local castle. On top, the tower carried proud symbols of the town, such as a special weathervane.

Many of today's belfries had to be rebuilt after damage or destruction in 20th century wars.

Belfries of the Pas-de-Calais
There are 6 belfries in the Pas-de-Calais, two in
Calais, and one each in Aire-sur-la-Lys, Boulogne, Béthune, Hesdin, and Arras.

Calais watchtower
Calais belfry and Watch Tower

Calais' older belfry is the 75 metres-high Watch Tower, built in the square of the original walled town at the end of the 13th century. It was one of the few historic buildings in the port to survive amid the ruins of Second World War bombing.
Bethune belfry
Built in 1346, the Belfry stands in solitary splendour in the Grand Place, bravely resisting the ravages of war and time, before becoming public property in the 21st century.
Hesdin belfry & Town Hall

Hesdin's belfry was built when Spanish King Charles-Quint had the whole town moved to a new site in 1554. In 1639, it was badly damaged by French cannons, and then demolished in 1774 because it was so dilapidated - before it was eventually restored in 1875!
Boulogne's 12th century belfry
Boulogne's 47 metre high tower was built in 12th century by the Count of Boulogne as a castle keep. When the 13th century castle was built, this refuge was handed over to the town, which made it into their belfry.
Arras town hall and belfry
The 75 metre-high Gothic "Endless Belfry" of Arras soars above the Town Hall. Built between 1463 and 1551, it was destroyed in the First World War and afterwards carefully re-built.


Places to visit in Nord:
Bailleul -
Douai - hear the famous bells play tunes
Lille - great view from the top

Places to visit in Pas-de-Calais:
Arras - Town Hall, Place des Heros
Calais - Town Hall, and also Old Watchtower, Place des Armes

Interesting clocks and bells:
Saint Omer Cathedral - has a 16th century astrological clock.
Douai Town Hall - hear the famous bells play tunes

Related background information
Medieval walled towns
Hundred Years' War




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