My best friend A is lucky enough to have a family apartment at Oostduinkerke on the Belgian coast. It is from A that I first heard about the dying tradition of paardenvissers, an ever-shrinking group of shrimp fishermen who still use horses to trawl for their catch. It is a tradition that can be traced back half a millennium and was once common not only in Belgium but also in the UK and France.
By 1968, there were only seven horseback shrimp fishermen left in Oostduinkerke, this number had risen to around twelve when they were recognised as an ‘intangible cultural heritage’ by UNESCO in 2013.
Being a bit of a sucker for quirky Belgian events, seeing the fishermen in action has been high on my ‘must see’ list for some time (the Ypres cat-throwing festival is also waaaay up there, roll on May 2015). Mr B and I had checked the timetable for this summer, only to be thwarted by his departure for a year-long project abroad.
Readers, the stars aligned and Mr B returned for a few days of R&R that coincided with the last outing of the season. The morning was gorgeous, one last shot at summer for this year. There is always something magical about having a day off when the rest of the world is working, isn’t there?
We decided to start at Koksijde, the amusingly named village just down the coast from Oostduinkerke, and strolled along the broad, golden sands hand in hand, feeling quite giddy with being reunited, albeit briefly, and the sense of pending adventures.
At the Oostduinkerke end of the beach you’ll be able to see a small group of the shrimp fishermen working together (Alison at CheeseWeb has a beautiful account of her visit last year here). We, however, were lucky enough to stumble across a lone fisherman, well away from the crowds, surrounded only by his wife, a couple of clam diggers and shrimp fisherman working by hand…and a practically every seagull in Belgium.
We caught the paardenvisser as he emerged from the sea after his first run of the morning, unloaded his catch for his wife to sort and went back in for a second trawl, his feet hitched up high by the horse’s neck in the traditional way.
Horses scare me but this little fisher horse was a peach. So patient, and perfectly accustomed to wading along the water up to his neck, fearless in the face of the waves breaking around him.
It is an incredible sight and, I can’t help feeling, a much more sustainable way to gather the tiny, grey shrimp that Belgians love so much.