The oldest church in Belgium and the arrondissement of Avesnes-sur-Helpe – menhirs; donkeys; forest; Wilfred Owen; Henri Matisse; August Bergin; the forum at Bavay

Anne and I had a little 24-hour excursion at the end of the long weekend just gone, mainly exploring the arrondissement of Avesnes-sur-Helpe in the département du Nord of the Hauts-de-France region, a small corner of the Republic that ended up French rather than Belgian due to the 1678 Treaty of Nijmegen which allowed Louis XIV to take it from the County of Hainaut. It has been rather neglected by its overlords in the 345 years since.

But before we got there, we stopped off at the Collegiate Church of St Ursmer in the small town of Lobbes near Charleroi. It is supposedly the oldest church in Belgium, and this year is celebrating the 1200th anniversary of its consecration in 823. Little is known of St Ursmer, a local boy who became bishop and is buried in the crypt (well, most of him; bits and bobs are in reliquaries). But the crisp, clean geometrical arches of the ninth-century church fabric are currently crowded with an exhibition of the iconography of the saint and how this affected the church.

The external view shows the ancient core and 19th-century spire.

St Ursmer’s major miracle was exorcising a demon from a nun, whose name has been forgotten, though artists agree that the demonic presence was expelled from her mouth.

The exhibition will stay in the church until, er, next Monday, and will then transfer to the former sacristy of the Abbey of Good Hope in Lobbes from 18 June, if you want to catch it there.

The church is only 10km from the border with France, and so we slipped across to the small French village of Sars-Poteries where various menhirs from the neighbourhood have been collected. My Celtic soul is still a bit revolted at the thought of moving the sacred monoliths from the places where their builders put them, but I suppose it is better than losing them altogether. One of them stands proud and upright in the centre of the village; the others recline in retirement nearby.

We stayed at Les Mout’ânes, a pension in the small town of Saint-Hilaire-sur-Helpe, where a luxurious double room with breakfast costs a mere € 89. Strongly recommended. They also have donkeys.

They don’t, unfortunately, do dinner for groups of less than four, so in the evening we headed down to La Petite Ferme de Lucien in Fourmies, a steakhouse in the style of an American diner except with French culinary standards. Very yummy.

On Monday morning we decided to explore the Parc naturel régional de l’Avesnois, which occupies most of the land surface of the arrondissement. This proved a little difficult; there are no real centres of tourist information, no established walks, and not a lot of information on the ground. We stopped at the arboretum in the Forest of Mormal near Locquignol where there are a couple of amusing wooden statues.

As we drove on to our next destination, we passed a sign labelled “Wilfred Owen”, and went back to investigate. Like all UKanian schoolkids, we were taught several of his gut-wrenching war poems in our English Literature classes. The house where he wrote his last letter to his mother on 31 October 1918 has been transformed into a large sculptural memorial, but sadly was not open on 1 May.

We parked there anyway and walked for twenty minutes through the woods to his grave in the nearby village of Ors; a few dozen British soldiers are buried in the municipal cemetery, including Wilfred Owen, who was killed exactly a week before the war ended. The woods were alive with birdsong and the cemetery was quiet. It was a thought-provoking walk.

I should add that I had consulted many French tourism websites about things to see in the arrondissement, and not one of them mentioned Wilfred Owen’s grave. We found it completely by accident.

Our destination at that point was the Matisse museum in the former bishop’s palace at Le Cateau-Cambrésis, the town where he was born. As is often the case with such museums, most of his best known art is elsewhere – there are two other museums in France alone which have more of his work. But there is enough here to show his evolution as a painter, from the 1899 First Still Life with Orange:

…to the 1906/07 portrait of his daughter Marguerite:

…to his later experiments with cut-outs, as with the 1946 Océanie – La Mer.

Upstairs, the museum has a lot more art by modern artists – lots of Alberto Giacometti, some Miró, a Picasso, a few by Fernand Léger (who impressed me at the Kröller-Müller Museum last year); and a large collection of art by Auguste Herbin, another local boy who neither Anne nor I had previously heard of, but who completely wowed us. This is a case where almost none of his art is elsewhere and the Matisse Museum in Le Cateau-Cambrésis has almost all of it. He started fairly representational, eg these early Chrysanthemums:

But then he went completely geometric in various media. Here’s a flat piece with the title Napoleon:

Here’s a more three-dimensional piece whose title I failed to record:

Here are two stools with Herbin covers:

And most spectacular of all, here’s a stained glass window, with the title Joy, that he designed for a local elementary school (this is an exact copy; the original is still in the school, where we later saw it from the outside).

This stunning museum charged us € 4 each as the cost of entry. I can certainly think of many occasions when I have spent five times as much to have five times less fun. It was practically empty and it was well worth the trip. (The same, sadly, could not be said for the lunch at the Restaurant du Musée Matisse across the street, where the service was slow and the food a bit disappointing.)

Finally we stopped off at Bavay for a look at the huge ancient Roman forum there; but unfortunately it was closed due to the bank holiday. We’ll have to go back.