A most interesting and, indeed, wonderful thing in the recent history of the Netherlands is the rapid development of the Flemish littoral from a waste of sand, with here and there a paltry fishing hamlet and two or three small towns, into a great cosmopolitan pleasure resort. Seventy-five years ago, when Belgium became an independent country, and King Leopold I. ascended the throne, Ostend and Nieuport were the only towns upon the coast which were of any size; but Ostend was then a small fortified place, with a harbour wholly unsuited for modern commerce, and Nieuport, in a state of decadence, though it possessed a harbour, was a place of no importance. To-day the whole coast is studded with busy watering-places, about twenty of them, most of which have come into existence within the last fifteen years, with a resident population of about 60,000, which is raised by visitors in summer to, it is said, nearly 125,000. The dunes, which the old Counts of Flanders fought so hard to preserve from the waves, and which were at the beginning of the present century mere wastes of sand, a sort of 'no man's land,' of little or no use except for rabbit-shooting, are now valuable properties, the price of which is rising every year.
The work of turning the sand into gold, for that is what the development of the Flemish coast comes to, has been carried out partly by the State and partly by private persons. In early times this belt of land upon the margin of the sea was held by the Counts of Flanders, who treated the ridge of sandhills above high-water mark as a natural rampart against the waves, and granted large tracts of the flat ground which lay behind to various religious houses. At the French Revolution these lands were sold as Church property at a very low figure, and were afterwards allowed, in many cases, to fall out of cultivation by the purchasers. So great a portion of the district was sold that at the present time only a small portion of the dune land is the property of the State--the narrow strip between Mariakerke and Middelkerke on the west of Ostend, and that which lies between Ostend and Blankenberghe on the east. The larger portions, which are possessed by private owners, are partly the property of the descendants of those who bought them at the Revolution, and partly of building societies, incorporated for the purpose of developing what Mr. Hall Caine once termed the 'Visiting Industry'--that is to say, the trade in tourists and seaside visitors.[*]
[Footnote *: Letter to the Manx Reform League, November, 1903.]
[Illustration: AN OLD FARMER]
Plage de Westende, Le Coq, and Duinbergen--three charming summer resorts--have been created by building societies. Nieuport-Bains and La Panne have been developed by the owners of the adjoining lands, the families of Crombez and Calmeyn. Wenduyne, on the other hand, which lies between Le Coq and Blankenberghe, has been made by the State, while the management of Blankenberghe, Heyst, and Middelkerke, as bathing stations, is in the hands of their communal councils.
On the coast of Flanders, Ostend--'La Reine des Plages'--is, it need hardly be said, the most important place, and its rise has been very remarkable. Less than fifty years ago the population was in all about 15,000. During the last fifteen years it has increased by nearly 15,000, and now amounts to about 40,000 in round numbers.
The increase in the number of summer visitors has been equally remarkable. In the year 1860 the list of strangers contained 9,700 names; three years ago it contained no less than 42,000. This floating population of foreign visitors who come to Ostend is cosmopolitan to an extent unknown at any watering-place in England. In 1902 11,000 English, 8,000 French, 5,000 Germans, and 2,000 Americans helped to swell the crowds who walked on the sea-front, frequented the luxurious and expensive hotels, or left their money on the gaming-tables at the Kursaal. On one day--August 15, 1902--7,000 persons bathed.[*]
[Footnote *: I give these figures on the authority of M. Paul Otlet, Advocate, of Brussels, to whom I am indebted for much information regarding the development of the coast of Flanders. See also an article by M. Otlet in _Le Cottage_, May 15 to June 15, 1904.]
Blankenberghe, with its 30,000 summer visitors, comes next in importance to Ostend, while both Heyst and Middelkerke are crowded during the season. But the life at these towns is not so agreeable as at the smaller watering-places. The hotels are too full, and have, as a rule, very little except their cheapness to recommend them.
There is usually a body calling itself the _comite des fetes_, the members of which devote themselves for two months every summer to devising amusements, sports, and competitions of various kinds, instead of leaving people to amuse themselves in their own way, so that hardly a day passes on which the strains of a second-rate band are not heard in the local Kursaal, or a night which is not made hideous by a barrel-organ, to which the crowd is dancing on the _digue_. At the smaller places, however, though these also have their _comite des fetes_, one escapes to a great extent from these disagreeable surroundings.
May, June, and September are the pleasantest months upon the coast of Flanders, for the visitors are not so numerous, and even in mid-winter the dunes are worth a visit. Then the hotels and villas fronting the sea are closed, and their windows boarded up. The bathing-machines are removed from the beach, and stand in rows in some sheltered spot. The _digue_, a broad extent of level brickwork, is deserted, and the wind sweeps along it, scattering foam and covering it with sand and sprays of tangled seaweed. The mossy surface of the dunes is frozen hard as iron, and often the hailstones rush in furious blasts before the wind. For league after league there is not a sign of life, except the sea-birds flying low near the shore, or the ships rising and falling in the waves far out to sea. In the winter months the coast of Flanders is bleak and stormy, but the air in these solitudes is as health-giving as in any other part of Europe.
Of late years the Government, represented by Comte de Smet de Naeyer, has bestowed much attention on the development of the littoral, and King Leopold II. has applied his great business talents to the subject. Large sums of money have been voted by the Belgian Parliament for the construction of public works and the extension of the means of communication from place to place. There is a light railway, the 'Vicinal,' which runs along the whole coast, at a short distance from the shore, from Knocke, on the east, to La Panne in the extreme west, and which is connected with the system of State railways at various points. From Ostend, through Middelkerke, to Plage de Westende, an electric railway has been constructed, close to the beach and parallel to the Vicinal (which is about a mile inland), on which trains run every ten minutes during the summer season. As an instance of the speed and energy with which these works for the convenience of the public are carried out, when once they have been decided upon, it may be mentioned that the contract for the portion of the electric line between Middelkerke and Plage de Westende, a distance of about a mile and a half, was signed on May 9, that five days later 200 workmen began to cut through the dunes, embank and lay the permanent way, and that on June 25, in spite of several interruptions owing to drifting sand and heavy rains, the first train of the regular service arrived at Plage de Westende.
[Illustration: LA PANNE. Interior of a Flemish Inn.]
A large sum, amounting to several millions of francs, is voted every year for the protection of the shores of Flanders against the encroachments of the sea, by the construction of these solid embankments of brickwork and masonry, which will, in the course of a few years, extend in an unbroken line along the whole coast from end to end. The building of these massive sea-walls is a work of great labour and expense, for what seems to be an impregnable embankment, perhaps 30 feet high and 90 feet broad, solid and strong enough to resist the most violent breakers, will be undermined and fall to pieces in a few hours, if not made in the proper way. A _digue_, no matter how thick, which rests on the sand alone will not last. A thick bed of green branches bound together must first be laid down as a foundation: this is strengthened by posts driven through it into the sand. Heavy timbers, resting on bundles of branches lashed together, are wedged into the foundations, and slope inwards and upwards to within a few feet of the height to which it is intended to carry the _digue_. On the top another solid bed of branches is laid down, and the whole is first covered with concrete, and then with bricks or tiles, while the edge of the _digue_, at the top of the seaward slope, is composed of heavy blocks of stone cemented together and bound by iron rivets.
_Digues_ made in this solid fashion, all of them higher above the shore than the Thames Embankment is above the river, and some of them broader than the Embankment, will, before very many years have passed, stretch along the whole coast of Flanders without a break, and will form not only a defence against the tides, but a huge level promenade, with the dunes on one side and the sea on the other. This is a gigantic undertaking, but it will be completed during the lifetime of the present generation.
[Illustration: LA PANNE. A Flemish Inn--Playing Skittles.]
Another grandiose idea, which is actually being carried into effect, is to connect all the seaside resorts on the coast of Flanders by a great boulevard, 40 yards wide, with a road for carriages and pedestrians, a track for motor-cars and bicycles, and an electric railway, all side by side. Large portions of this magnificent roadway, which is to be known as the 'Route Royale,' have already been completed between Blankenberghe and Ostend, and from Ostend to Plage de Westende.
From Westende it will be continued to Nieuport-Bains, crossing the Yser by movable bridges, and thence to La Panne, and so onwards, winding through the dunes, over the French borders, and perhaps as far as Paris!
A single day's journey through the district which this 'Route Royale'
is to traverse will lead the traveller through the most interesting part of the dunes, and introduce him to most of the favourite _plages_ on the coast of Flanders, and thus give him an insight into many characteristic Flemish scenes. La Panne, for instance, and Adinkerque, in the west and on the confines of France, are villages inhabited by fishermen who have built their dwellings in sheltered places amongst the dunes. The low white cottages of La Panne, with the strings of dried fish hanging on the walls, nestle in the little valley from which the place takes its name (for _panne_ in Flemish means 'a hollow'), surrounded by trees and hedges, gay with wild roses in the summer-time. Each cottage stands in its small plot of garden ground, and most of the families own fishing-boats of their own, and farm a holding which supplies them with potatoes and other vegetables.
For a long time these cottages were the only houses at La Panne, which was seldom visited, except by a few artists; but about fifteen years ago the surveyors and the architects made their appearance, paths and roads were laid out, and, as if by magic, cottages and villas and the inevitable _digue de mer_ have sprung up on the dunes near the sea, and not very far from the original village. The chief feature of the new La Panne is that the houses are, except those on the sea-front, built on the natural levels of the ground, some perched on the tops of the dunes, and others in the hollows which separate them. The effect is extremely picturesque, and the example of the builders of La Panne is being followed at other places, notably at Duinbergen, one of the very latest bathing stations, which has risen during the last three years about a mile to the east of Heyst.
Another very interesting place is the Plage de Westende, the present terminus of the electric railway from Ostend. The old village of Westende lies a mile inland on the highway between Nieuport and Ostend, close to the scene of the Battle of the Dunes. This Plage is, indeed, a model seaside resort, with a _digue_ which looks down upon a shore of the finest sand, and from which, of an evening, one sees the lights of Ostend in the east, and the revolving beacon at Dunkirk shining far away to the west. The houses which front the sea, all different from each other, are in singularly good taste; and behind them are a number of detached cottages and villas, large and small, in every variety of design. Ten years ago the site of this little town was a rabbit warren; now everything is up to date: electric light in every house, perfect drainage, a good water-supply, tennis courts, and an admirable hotel, where even the passing stranger feels at home. Though only three-quarters of an hour from noisy, crowded, bustling Ostend by the railway, it is one of the quietest and most comfortable places on the coast of Flanders, and can be reached by travellers from England in a few hours.
Some years hence the lovely, peaceful Plage de Westende may have grown too big, but when the sand has all been turned into gold, and when the contractors and builders have grown rich, those who have known Westende in its earlier days will think of it as the quiet spot about which at one time only a few people used to stroll; where perhaps the poet Verhaeren found something to inspire him; where many a long summer's evening was spent in pleasant talk on history, and painting, and music by a little society of men and women who spoke French, or German, or English, as the fancy took them, and laughed, and quoted, and exchanged ideas on every subject under the sun; where the professor of music once argued, and sprang up to prove his point by playing--but that is an allusion, or, as Mr. Kipling would say, 'another story.'
The district in which Westende lies, with Lombaerdzyde, Nieuport, Furnes, and Coxyde close together, is the most interesting on the coast of Flanders. Le Coq, on the other hand, is in that part of the dune country which has least historical interest, and is chiefly known as the place where the Royal Golf Club de Belgique has its course. It is only twenty minutes from Ostend on the Vicinal railway, which has a special station for golfers near the Club House. There is no _digue_, and the houses are dotted about in a valley behind the dunes. This place has a curious resemblance to a Swiss village.
A few years ago the owners of lands upon the Flemish littoral began to grasp the fact that there was a sport called golf, on which Englishmen were in the habit of spending money, and that it would be an addition to the attractions of Ostend if, beside the racecourse, there was a golf-course. King Leopold, who is said to contemplate using all the land between the outskirts of Ostend and Le Coq for sporting purposes, paid a large sum, very many thousands of francs, out of his own pocket, and the golf-links at Le Coq were laid out.
The Club House is handsome and commodious, but, unfortunately, the course itself, which is the main thing, is not very satisfactory, being far too artificial. The natural 'bunkers' were filled up, and replaced by ramparts and ditches like those on some inland courses in England. On the putting greens the natural undulations of the ground have been levelled, and the greens are all as flat and smooth as billiard-tables. There are clumps of ornamental wood, flower-beds, and artificial ponds with goldfish swimming in them. It is all very pretty, but it is hardly golf. What with the 'Grand Prix d'Ostende,' the 'Prix des Roses,' the 'Prix des Ombrelles, handicap libre, reserve aux Dames,' the 'Grand Prix des Dames,' and a number of other _objets d'art_, which are offered for competition on almost every day from the beginning of June to the end of September, this is a perfect paradise for the pot-hunter and his familiar friend Colonel Bogey. Real golf, the strenuous game, which demands patience and steady nerves, perhaps, more than any other outdoor game, is not yet quite understood by many Belgians; but the bag of clubs is every year becoming more common on the Dover mail-boats.
Most of these golf-bags find their way to Knocke, where many of the English colony at Bruges spend the summer, and which, as the coast of Flanders becomes better known, is visited every year by increasing numbers of travellers from the other side of the Channel.
Knocke is in itself one of the least attractive places on the Flemish littoral. The old village, a nondescript collection of houses, lies on the Vicinal railway about a mile from the sea, which is reached by a straight roadway, and where there is a _digue_, numerous hotels, pensions, and villas, all of which are filled to overflowing in the season. The air, indeed, is perfect, and there are fine views from the _digue_ and the dunes of the island of Walcheren, Flushing, and the estuary of the Scheldt; but the place was evidently begun with no definite plan: the dunes were ruthlessly levelled, and the result is a few unlovely streets, and a number of detached houses standing in disorder amidst surroundings from which everything that was picturesque has long since departed.
But the dunes to the east are wide, and enclose a large space of undulating ground; and here the Bruges Golf and Sports Club has its links, which present a very complete contrast to the Belgian course at Le Coq. The links at Knocke, if somewhat rough and ready, are certainly sporting in the highest degree. Some of the holes, those in what is known as the Green Valley, are rather featureless; but in the other parts of the course there are numerous natural hazards, bunkers, and hillocks thick with sand and rushes. It has no pretentions to be a 'first-class' course (for one thing, it is too short), but in laying out the eighteen holes the ground has been utilized to the best advantage, and the Royal and Ancient game flourishes more at Knocke than at any other place in Belgium.
The owners of the soil and the hotel-keepers, with a keen eye to business, and knowing that the golfing alone brings the English, from whom they reap a golden harvest, to Knocke, do all in their power to encourage the game, and it is quite possible that before long other links may be established along the coast. The soil of the strip behind the dunes is not so suitable for golf as the close turf of St. Andrews, North Berwick, or Prestwick, for in many places it consists of sand with a slight covering of moss; but with proper treatment it could probably be improved and hardened. It is merely a question of money, and money will certainly be forthcoming if the Government, the communes, and the private owners once see that this form of amusement will add to the popularity of the littoral.
A short mile's walk to the west of Knocke brings us to Duinbergen, one of the newest of the Flemish _plages_, founded in the year 1901 by the Societe Anonyme de Duinbergen, a company in which some members of the Royal Family are said to hold shares. At Knocke and others of the older watering-places everything was sacrificed to the purpose of making money speedily out of every available square inch of sand, and the first thing done was to destroy the dunes. But at Duinbergen the good example set by the founders of La Panne has been followed and improved upon, and nothing could be more _chic_ than this charming little place, which was planned by Herr Stubben, of Cologne, an architect often employed by the King of the Belgians, whose idea was to create a small garden city among the dunes. The dunes have been carefully preserved; the roads and pathways wind round them; most of the villas and cottages have been erected in places from which a view of the sea can be obtained; and even the _digue_ has been built in a curve in order to avoid the straight line, which is apt to give an air of monotony to the rows of villas, however picturesque they may be in themselves, which face the sea at other places. So artistic is the appearance of the houses that the term 'Style Duinbergen' is used by architects to describe it. Electric lighting, a copious supply of water rising by gravitation to the highest houses, and a complete system of drainage, add to the luxuries and comforts of this _plage_, which is one of the best illustrations of the wonders which have been wrought among the dunes by that spirit of enterprise which has done so much for modern Flanders during the last few years.
COXYDE--THE SCENERY OF THE DUNES
COXYDE--THE SCENERY OF THE DUNES
The whole of the coast-line is within the province of West Flanders, and its development in recent years is the most striking fact in the modern history of the part of Belgium with which this volume deals. The change which has taken place on the littoral during the last fifteen or twenty years is extraordinary, and the contrast between the old Flanders and the new, between the Flanders which lingers in the past and the Flanders which marches with the times, is brought vividly before us by the difference between such mediaeval towns as Bruges, Furnes, or Nieuport, and the bright new places which glitter on the sandy shores of the Flemish coast. But in almost every corner of the dunes, close to these signs of modern progress, there is something to remind us of that past history which is, after all, the great charm of Flanders.
One of the most characteristic spots in the land of the dunes is the village of Coxyde, which lies low amongst the sandhills, about five miles west from Nieuport, out of sight of the sea, but inhabited by a race of fisherfolk who, curiously enough, pursue their calling on horseback. Mounted on their little horses, and carrying baskets and nets fastened to long poles, they go into the sea to catch small fish and shrimps. It is strange to see them riding about in the water, sometimes in bands, but more frequently alone or in pairs; and this curious custom, which has been handed down from father to son for generations, is peculiar to the part of the coast which lies between La Panne and the borders of France.
Near Coxyde, and at the corner where the road from Furnes turns in the direction of La Panne, is a piece of waste ground which travellers on the Vicinal railway pass without notice. But here once stood the famous Abbey of the Dunes.
[Illustration: COXYDE. A Shrimper on Horseback.]
In the first years of the twelfth century a pious hermit named Lyger took up his abode in these solitary regions, built a dwelling for himself, and settled down to spend his life in doing good works and in the practice of religion. Soon, as others gathered round him, his dwelling grew into a monastery, and at last, in the year 1122, the Abbey of the Dunes was founded. It was nearly half a century before the great building, which is said to have been the first structure of such a size built of brick in Flanders, was completed; but when at last the work was done the Abbey was, by all accounts, one of the most magnificent religious houses in Flanders, consisting of a group of buildings with no less than 105 windows, a rich and splendid church, so famous for its ornamental woodwork that the carvings of the stalls were reproduced in the distant Abbey of Melrose in Scotland, and a library which, as time went on, became a storehouse of precious manuscripts and hundreds of those wonderfully illustrated missals on which the monks of the Middle Ages spent so many laborious hours. We can imagine them in the cells of Coxyde copying and copying for hours together, or bending over the exquisitely coloured drawings which are still preserved in the museums of Flanders.
But their most useful work was done on the lands which lay round the Abbey. There were at Coxyde in the thirteenth century no fewer than 150 monks and 248 converts engaged at one time in cultivating the soil.[*] They drained the marshes, and planted seeds where seeds would grow, until, after years of hard labour on the barren ground, the Abbey of the Dunes was surrounded by wide fields which had been reclaimed and turned into a fertile oasis in the midst of that savage and inhospitable desert.
[Footnote *: Derode, _Histoire Religieuse de la Flandre Maritime_, p.86.]
When St. Bernard was preaching the Crusade in Flanders he came to Coxyde. On his advice the monks adopted the Order of the Cistercians, and their first abbot under the new rule afterwards sat in the chair of St. Bernard himself as Abbot of Clairvaux. Thereafter the Cistercian Abbey of the Dunes grew in fame, especially under the rule of St. Idesbaldus, who had come there from Furnes, where he had been a Canon of the Church of Ste. Walburge. 'It has also a special interest for English folk. It long held lands in the isle of Sheppey, as well as the advowson of the church of Eastchurch, in the same island. These were bestowed on it by Richard the Lion-Hearted. The legend says that these gifts were made to reward its sixth abbot, Elias, for the help he gave in releasing Richard from captivity. Anyhow, Royal charters, and dues from the Archbishop of Canterbury, and a Bull of Pope Celestine III., confirmed the Abbey in its English possessions and privileges. The Abbey seems to have derived little benefit from these, and finally, by decision of a general congregation of the Cistercian Order, handed them over to the Abbot and Chapter of Bexley, to recoup the latter for the cost of entertaining monks of the Order going abroad, or returning from the Continent, on business of the Order.'[*]
[Footnote *: Robinson, _Bruges, an Historical Sketch_, p. 176.]
[Illustration: COXYDE. A Shrimper.]
The English invasion of the fifteenth century destroyed the work of the monks in their fields and gardens, but the Abbey itself was spared; and the great disaster did not come until a century later, when the image-breakers, who had begun their work amongst the Gothic arches of Antwerp, spread over West Flanders, and descended upon Coxyde. The Abbey was attacked, and the monks fled to Bruges, carrying with them many of their treasures, which are still to be seen in the collection on the Quai de la Poterie, beyond the bridge which is called the Pont des Dunes. The noble building, so long the home of so much piety and learning, and from which so many generations of apostles had gone forth to toil in the fields and minister to the poor, was abandoned, and allowed to fall into ruins, until at last it gradually sunk into complete decay, and was buried beneath the sands. Not a trace of it now remains. History has few more piteous sermons to preach on the vanity of all the works of men.
The fishermen on the coast of Flanders have, from remote times, paid their vows in the hour of danger to Notre Dame de Lombaerdzyde.
If they escape from some wild storm they go on a pilgrimage of thanksgiving. They walk in perfect silence along the road to the shrine, for not a word must be spoken till they reach it; and these hardy seafaring men may be seen kneeling at the altar of the old, weather-beaten church which stands on the south side of the highway through the village, and in which are wooden models of ships hung up as votive offerings before an image of the Virgin, which is the object of peculiar veneration. The Madonna of Lombaerdzyde did not prevail to keep the sea from invading the village at the time when the inhabitants were driven to Nieuport, but the belief in her miraculous power is as strong to-day as it was in the Dark Ages.
[Illustration: ADINKERQUE. Village and Canal.]
There is a view of Lombaerdzyde which no one strolling on the dunes near Nieuport should fail to see--a perfect picture, as typical of the scenery in these parts as any landscape chosen by Hobbema or Ruysdael. A causeway running straight between two lofty dunes of bare sand, and bordered by stunted trees, forms a long vista at the end of which Lombaerdzyde appears--a group of red-roofed houses, with narrow gables and white walls, and in the middle the pointed spire of the church, beyond which the level plain of Flanders, dotted with other villages and churches and trees in formal rows, stretches away into the distance until it merges in the horizon.
Adinkerque, a picturesque village beyond Furnes, is another place which calls to mind many a picture of the Flemish artists in the Musee of Antwerp and the Mauritshuis at The Hague; and the recesses of the dune country in which these places are hidden has a wonderful fascination about it--the irregular outlines of the dunes, some high and some low, sinking here into deep hollows of firm sand, and rising there into strange fantastic shapes, sometimes with sides like small precipices on which nothing can grow, and sometimes sloping gently downwards and covered with trembling poplars, spread in confusion on every side. Often near the shore the sandy barrier has been broken down by the wind or by the waves, and a long gulley formed, which cuts deep into the dunes, and through which the sand drifts inland till it reaches a steep bank clothed with rushes, against which it heaps itself, and so, rising higher with the storms of each winter, forms another dune. This process has been going on for ages. The sands are for ever shifting, but moss begins to grow in sheltered spots; such wild flowers as can flourish there bloom and decay; the poplars shed their leaves, and nourish by imperceptible degrees the fibres of the moss; some hardy grasses take root; and at length a scanty greensward appears. By such means slowly, in the microcosm of the dunes, have been evolved out of the changing sands places fit for men to live in, until now along the strip which guards the coast of Flanders there are green glades gay with flowers, and shady dells, and gardens sheltered from the wind, plots of pasture-land, cottages and churches which seem to grow out of the landscape, their colouring so harmonizes with the colouring which surrounds them. And ever, close at hand, the sea is rolling in and falling on the shore. 'Come unto these yellow sands,'
and when the sun is going down, casting a long bar of burnished gold across the water, against which, perhaps, the sail of some boat looms dark for a moment and then passes on, the sky glows in such a lovely, tender light that those who watch it must needs linger till the twilight is fading away before they turn their faces inland. There are few evenings for beauty like a summer evening on the shores of Flanders.