Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Had Bishop Amand not breathed his last in the Scarpe Valley in Flanders, this little French town would probably never have developed as an important ecclesiastical centre. Little remains of the original abbey in Saint-Amand-les-Eaux, bar for one spectacular tower. Patricia Stoughton tells the story of La Tour de Saint-Amand-les-Eaux.

article summary —

The man on the local train from Lille was very positive about Saint-Amand. “You’ll not miss La Tour,” he said. And I didn’t. It’s a strong feature in the landscape around the Scarpe Valley south-east of Lille. Built of Avesnes stone, the white, baroque tower of Saint-Amandles- Eaux is the town’s most potent symbol. That it survives at all is a tribute to local campaigners. Until the late nineties, lashed by the combined forces of wind, rain, ice and industrial pollution, it was slowly crumbling into a grey shadow of its former glory. It was potentially dangerous.

The tower and the échevinage (the old entrance and aldermen’s rooms), are all that remain of a vast Benedictine abbey that was one of the jewels of seventeenth-century French Flanders. It was a flamboyant beacon of the Counter-Reformation.

Paul Pellisson, official historian to Louis XIV, accompanied the king on his travels through the Flanders territories that had come into his possession after the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1668. Monsieur Pellisson was clearly astonished by what he saw: “This abbey and particularly its church, are the most beautiful, the most surprising that I have ever seen.” Insisting that it is worthy of comparison with the best of antiquity, he added that “never in my whole life have I been so amazed and affected by anything of this nature.”

Built of Avesnes stone, the white, baroque tower of Saint-Amand-les-Eaux is the town’s most potent symbol. That it survives at all is a tribute to local campaigners.

Powerful sentiments indeed! They were echoed by other early visitors and it was such words that eventually inspired Saint-Amand’s civic and political leaders to act to save their abbey tower. After the French Revolution, the abbey was systematically dismantled and raided for its stones and building materials. It was declared a property of the State in 1789. Most of the statues were vandalised during la terreur in 1793, and over the following decades the nave, transept, choir and adjacent buildings were all pulled down. So, when they were classified as a monument historique in 1846, the tower and the échevinage were alone, at the edge of the vast tract of land once covered by the abbey. A park, library and theatre now stand in its old footprint.

Saving the tower

The town’s mayor and member of parliament, Alain Bocquet, has been a key figure in the quest to save the tower. Soon after he was elected to office as mayor in 1995, Bocquet brought the deteriorating condition of the tower to the attention of the French Ministry of Culture. By the millennium, he had quite remarkably galvanized the entire population of Saint-Amand with his robust campaigns to save the tower. ‘Ma tour vaut le détour’ (My tower is worth the detour) was the catchphrase, recalling the classic terminology of early Michelin and Baedeker guides. There were postcard petitions and posters, and suddenly the small town in the Scarpe Valley was famous all over France — and even elsewhere in Europe.


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About

Patricia Stoughton is a journalist specializing in French culture and history, with a particular interest in the hidden treasures of west Brittany.

This article was published in hidden europe 38.