Places to visit | Background information

Early river trade
& working canals

Medieval river trade
In the Middle Ages, merchants used rivers as the best way of trading goods with inland towns. Roads were just muddy tracks - it was slow and expensive to carry goods by land. Boats sailed up the river Aa from Gravelines to Saint-Omer. Other river links went via what is now Belgium and Holland, since most of the region was then ruled as part of the Netherlands rather than France.

17th century Spanish canals
In the 16th century, the Spanish rulers of the Low Countries improved navigation on the main rivers and their tributaries, for example Philip II built a navigation from
Hazebrouck to the main River Lys. In 1638 one of the earliest artificial canals in the world was built from the port of Dinkerque to Bergues.

18th century French canals
By the 18th century, Louis XIV had brought Nord-Pas de Calais firmly within the frontiers of France [see '
history of Flanders']. This dramatically severed the region from its natural waterway routes through what is now Belgium.

To create a new water route within the French frontier, the River Aa was canalised up to St-Omer, with a big tide lock near the sea at Gravelines. Behind the lock, the Canal de Bourbourg was cut through the marshes, linking the Aa to Dunkerque. Barges could trade along the coast without having to brave the North Sea

In 1760, the Neufosse canal was built to link the river Lys to the Aa, and give Lille and other inland towns a French route to the sea.

1. Medieval trade routes followed natural rivers towards the sea, mostly via present-day Belgium.

2. 19th century coal mine with its canal, and a new railway line in the background. The slag heaps are piling up on the other side of the canal.

MAP: the North's canal and waterway network - see 'Waterways' for more information about boat trips, hire boats and leisure boating facilities.

Coal & grain by barge
Coalmining started in the North in the 18th century, and made it much more profitable to build canals. The North was and is also a major food-growing area. Before the Revolution, Louis XV started work on a project to link the North's rivers to Paris via the Oise and the Seine. Napoleon completed the St. Quentin canal to Cambrai in 1810 - he said it was one of his proudest achievements.

3. Paris quayside below Notre-Dame bridge. Barges unloading food and firewood for Paris in mid-18th century - before the St-Quentin Canal (1810) there was no direct waterway l ink between Paris and the productive farms of the North.
4. A century later, canals were a well established to transport grain barges on the river Scarpe at Arras in 1875. Painting of "The Old Bank in Arras" [artist unknown]

Nineteenth century canals
It was possible for inland barges to travel between the Flanders coast, Paris, and the rest of France via canal links between the major rivers. The Belgians built canals across the French frontier, to sell their coal to Paris and the North. Even when
railways were built in the middle of the 19th century, canals in the North continued to carry huge amounts of bulk goods like coal and grain. In other parts of France there was not a coherent network of waterways and ports to compete with the railways.

5. 'Les Fontinettes' barge lift at Arques- opened in 1888 to relieve traffic jams at a flight of locks on the busy canal from Lille and the coal-mines to the coast.
6. Coal barges in the 1950s. 7. Canal de Bourbourg: a broad deep canal, enlarged in the 'sixties, but water-borne freight traffic did not develop as much as was hoped.

Canal du Nord
The North's canals were improved and enlarged right up to recent decades: the Canal du Nord was a European-funded project in the 1960's to widen the canals to a broader guage from Dunkerque to Paris, so bigger, more economic powered barges could carry freight to compete with lorries. As part of this project, the
'Fontinettes' barge lift at Arques was replaced by one giant lock in 1967.

Coal closures and river tourism
The last coalmine in the North closed in 1990, and the canals lost three quaters of their freight traffic. Newly peaceful, they are finding a new role in river tourism - see '


Places to visit:
L'Ascenseur des Fontinettes - hydraulic lift for canal boats, Arques nr. Saint-Omer
Riverside trips in Lille - explore the city's industrial heritage by boat or tram
St.Quentin Canal - linked the North by canal with Paris

Related background information
Sports & outdoor leisure facilities
Leisure boating on rivers and canals today




A-Z © Copyright 1999-2000 Invicta Media Last updated 3rd May 2000