Westhoek

Nieuwpoort: the Goose Foot (3.5 km)
Nieuwpoort - Dunkerque Canal: Nieuwpoort - Ghyvelde (FR) (23 km)
IJzer River: Nieuwpoort - Fintele - Stavele bridge (37 km)
Ieper - IJzer Canal (Ieperlee) (15 km)
Lokanaal: Veurne - Fintele (15 km)
Bergenvaart: Veurne - Hondschoote (FR) (14 km)

The Westhoek (west corner) is the western tip of Belgium. It is bordered on the north by the North Sea and west by the France. The eastern boundary was defined in World War One: the IJzer River from Nieuwpoort to Diksmuide and Knokkebrug, and thence south along the Ieperlee Canal south to Steenstraat. There begins the Ieper (Ypres in French, "wipers" as pronounced by the British) Salient, a semicircle of about 10 km radius to the east of Ieper to near Mesen in the south. From Mesen the line runs south across the Leie River into France by Houplines.

The region was the site of some of the deadliest warfare in human history, part of the Western Front in WW1. Many tens of thousands are buried in formal cemeteries, and many more remembered in name only on various monuments. More died in this area in WW2.

But violence is not new to the region. The 16th century was particularly bloody. The area was then part of Flanders, which largely converted to Protestantism by 1540. Unrest started in 1540, with major fighting between 1566 and 1582. The Spanish then established firm control and forced the people to return to the Church of Rome or suffer the consequences. In the meantime the economy had been destroyed, and many people (particularly cloth makers) had migrated north to kindle a boom in the Netherlands.

The landscape of the northern Westhoek is boringly flat - so flat that the IJzer River has no obvious current yet no locks for 41 km. The elevations are those created by man: railway and road embankments, canal dikes, buildings - even the relatively few trees. Yet there are some great opportunities for tourist cycling.

Through the Westhoek (and in fact the entire Belgian coast) you can safely ride the coast, often in sight of the sea. The route alternates between corniche promenades in the developed areas and bike lanes along the coastal highway between them. There is also a paved footpath running alone the dunes in some wild stretches. It is generally marked "no bicycles," but in the off seasons there is little foot traffic. During the summer school vacation, and on warm weekends before and after, expect mobs.

Nieuwpoort: the Goose Foot (3.5 km)

Today, the coast of Belgium has no natural harbors. And there have been none in historic times west of the Zwin, the mouth of which was where the Belgian-Nederland border is now. Fishermen and other boaters had to work off the beach, or take advantage of the few river mouths. In the 12th century the most important of these was the mouth of the IJzer. The settlement on the left bank of the IJzer mouth was given the official name of Nieuwpoort (new port) in 1163. Through the centuries the mouth of the IJzer has been widened and deepened into a channel stretching about 3.5 km inland.

Since Belgian independence, coastal port development has focused on Oostende and Zeebrugge. Nieuwpoort no longer has much commercial or military use, but the fishermen remain and Nieuwpoort has become a major yacht harbor. (With 1,890 slips - parking places in the water - Nieuwpoort claims to be the largest yacht harbor in western Europe. 700 additional slips are planned.) With the coming of the railroad Nieuwpoort-Bad joined the string of resorts along the North Sea coast. In 1914 the German advance was stopped at the IJzer, and the town totally destroyed in the ensuing 4 years on the front line. With the exception of the Church of Our Lady, which was reconstructed according to its original design, postwar construction created an entirely new town.

Breakwaters surmounted by piers that extend over 500 m into the sea from the corniche flank the mouth of the harbor. From the corniche (frite stand) the channel extends 3.5 km inland. The east side is difficult for access, with disused commercial facilities, a nature preserve, part of the yacht harbor, and a sand and gravel facility. On the west side you ride roads which are closed to most traffic. After passing part of the yacht harbor there is a section of boat yards and support facilities and then the fishers' terminal.

The Goose Foot
When you reach the highway bridge (with tram line), continue straight across the road. Ahead of you is a basin, the Goose Foot. Entering the basin opposite the channel from the coast are six different waterways, all with dams and/or locks. From north to south and west these are marked as the Nieuw Bedelf (drainage canal),
Plassendale vaart (canal to the Brugge - Oostende canal), Kreek van Nieuwedame (drainage), IJzer River, the Veurne ambacht (this is the one used to flood the polders between the railway and the IJzer in October 1914), and the Veurnevaart (canal to Dunkerque). Across the bridge is a large circular monument to King Albert, who led the Belgium resistance to the German invasion in WW1.

Turn right along the bike path along the west side of the basin to the first lock and bridge. For the Duinkerke (Dunkerque) canal, continue straight. For the IJzer route, turn left and cross 4 bridges, then turn right. For the Plassendale canal turn left and cross 5 bridges, then turn right following the LF 1 bike route signs.

There is a diagram of the basin complex on the east side of the western (Veurnevaart) lock. It certainly does look like a goose's foot. (Jun 1998)

Nieuwpoort - Dunkerque Canal: Nieuwpoort - Veurne - Ghyvelde (FR) (23 km)

Mostly pleasant riding through the polders, with an occasional village. Much of the route is on highway, but the traffic is probably never very heavy because through traffic will use the parallel E40. This canal connects Nieuwpoort with the port area and canals at Dunkerque. It was important in the past during times of war, but today is rarely if ever used by commercial traffic. You will see some pleasure craft in the summer months.

From the Goose Foot, this canal is the western-most exit. Take the road on the northeast side of the canal - that on the south soon becomes dirt. In a little over 1 km you come to the first bridge - an old rail bridge without a name. This is the famous railway embankment that was the allied front line in this sector after the German invasion was stopped by flooding the land between the railway and the IJzer River in October 1914. The railway was closed in 1974, and is now De Frontzate rail trail from Nieuwpoort to Diksmuide.

Just past the rail trail on your right is the old Veurne canal, presumably the original eastern end of the canal we are riding. It loops north and then northeast to meet the IJzer north of central Nieuwpoort. Central Nieuwpoort in fact has a moat, composed of the IJzer, Dunkerque and old Veurne canals. This moat marks roughly the line of the 14th century fortifications, which were dismantled in the 1860's.

Continuing along the canal on a rather decrepit road, another 700 m brings you to the Pelikaanbrug. The pavement on the north side of the canal soon ceases, so cross this bridge - up the steps. On the other side turn immediately to the right (west) on the dike. This is dirt but fairly well packed. Less than 200 m and you reach the highway and a bike lane. There are very similar (red numerals on white) KM for the canal and the road. The road markers are every 100 m and are parallel to the road. The canal markers are every 500 m and perpendicular to the road and canal with the distance marked on both sides.

Just past KM 4.5 on your left is a monument to the men of the Belgian IVth Division who fell in WW 1.

A little past KM 5.5 there is a junction. Turn off the highway on the road along the canal. In 400 m you reach the Voetbrug te Wulpen (the footbridge at Wulpen). (Jan 1999)

For the next section the riding is better on the north bank - a nicely paved service road. Cross the foot bridge. It is then 4 km to the edge of town of Veurne where you join a side street that parallels the canal. A half km of this quiet street brings you to the main north-south street of Veurne.

A detour into the center of Veurne (north of the canal) is essential. The town was founded by an Irish monk, St Walburga, in 772. In the 9th century it was fortified against the Vikings, but they destroyed it anyhow. The market square is perhaps the most beautiful in Belgium, a set piece of 16th and 17th century buildings. The two churches (parts from the 13th century) are worth a trip in themselves.

After visiting the town center, head west and look for signs to Adinkerke. Or go back to the beginning of the detour and turn right (as if you had kept going straight without the detour) to continue towards Dunkerque. (There is in fact a towpath you could use, but it is narrow and rough - better to stay on the street.)

In 500 m you reach a circle. If you wish to continue on the Lokanaal, turn left across the bridge (Ieperbrug) and then left on the towpath. If you wish to connect to the Bergenvaart, turn right instead after crossing the Ieperbrug.

For the Dunkerque canal, continue straight (actually the road curves to the right) another 250 m to the next circle and there turn left. You are on the N39. Cross the bridge and follow the highway to the right toward Adinkerke - which is about 2 km. There is a bike lane along the highway.

Bray Dunes
Adinkerke is a pretty little border town, apparently most popular with tourists from France and England for the purchase of cigarettes and gasoline. (It fact it looks like some places in North Carolina - cigarettes 24 hours a day!) Follow the road along the south bank of the canal. At the end of town the highway narrows - no more bike lane. However, traffic is probably never very heavy.

The border is 2.5 km from the edge of Adinkerke. The highway narrows a bit more.

The former border crossing facility is 2.7 km further, in the town of Ghyvelde. Here is also the first bridge across the canal in France. For some sea air, turn north across the bridge. The boardwalk at Bray-Dunes is about 2 km.

IJzer River: Nieuwpoort - Fintele - Stavele bridge (37 km)

Spelling note: in Dutch "ij" and "y" are the same vowel, pronounced like English "eye." IJzer and Yzer are the same word. In addition "s" may be used instead of "z", thus Yser is the normal English spelling.

From Nieuwpoort to Fintele this is a pleasant ride that can be combined with the Frontzate rail trail to form a loop of 34 km, and the Lokanaal and Duinkerk canal to make a 53 km loop. Much of the way is on road, but the traffic is light except on weekends. West of Fintele the towpath suffers from lack of maintenance and west of the Stavele bridge the dyke is closed because of a project to renew the bridges along the towpath. (That project was supposed to be finished by the end of September 1999.)

Improvement of the river for transportation began at least as early as 1166. The IJzer must have seen a lot of traffic when Ieper was a major commercial city. Today it remains lively, but as a recreational waterway. When the weather is good you will see numerous pleasure craft, including wind surfers in places.

The landscape is intensive agriculture, predominantly pasture. Only occasional monuments and one preserved section of trenches remain to remind people that the river from the coast to Knokkebrug was the front line in one of the bloodiest wars in history.

Along this front, 75,000 men died in October and November 1914. The section from Nieuwpoort to Diksmuide was secured (by the Belgians) by water. Starting on 27 October the locks at the Goose Foot were opened at high tide, and the land between the IJzer and a railway to the west was flooded.

From the Nieuwpoort Goose Foot, take the road along second canal (counting from the monument): signs for Jachthaven and Langelis route. You quickly reach the yacht harbor, on a large lake. Follow the shore to the St Joris lock, and cross the bridge next to the lock. At the east end of the bridge take the first turning to return to the lakeside. Continue east to the end of the lake and beginning of the river proper. (This is 3 km from Goose Foot, as you ride.)

You follow the right (north) bank of the river for less than 2 km, past the RW18 (E40) bridge to the Uniebrug and a pub. From this point the right bank is unpaved and/or blocked in places. Cross the Uniebrug to the left (west) bank. The first monument on the left bank is to the men who fell in the battles of the Yzer (17 - 27 Oct 1914) and Lombardsijde 4 Oct 1914). Across the road is another monument, to the 14th regiment - which lost 900 men in three days (22 - 24 Oct 1914).

From this point you ride a narrow road with occasional cars. This is a popular cycling route and the cars are (practically all) very courteous. The KM mark the distance from the Goose Foot.

Just past KM 11 is a monument to the 2nd Battalion 1st Grenadiers (Belgian), which participated in the First Battle of the Yzer on 22 Oct 1914.

Around KM 16 is the only major remainder of the Great War you will see: a preserved (or reconstructed) section of trenches called the Trench of Death (Dodengang). Just past that is a pub/museum with the same name. You then enter the town of Diksmuide. The Hogebrug (high bridge) is just before KM 18. Just past the bridge is the largest (or at least tallest - 84 m) WW1 monument, the IJzertoren (Yser Tower). (The present tower was built after the original monument was dynamited by unknown people in 1946.) For central Diksmuide, turn east across the bridge. There are several pubs clustered around the bridge.

To complete a 34 km loop of the IJzer Front, turn right (west) at the Hogebrug. Slightly over 1 km of road riding brings you to a church. Turn right just before the church - where there is a bike path sign. Past the church you turn left onto the Front Line rail trail. The railway embankment was in fact the Allied front, with the Germans on the other side of the IJzer River. The land in between was flooded. (July 1999)

To continue along the river, stay on the west side. This continues (contrary to GeoCart) to be a two-lane highway with no provision for bicycles. There is some traffic, particularly on weekends. Just past the Hogebrug you pass the IJzertoren monument and then under a rail bridge. You are again in countryside, with nothing to remark for 7 km - the Knokkebrug. Just past that bridge on the opposite bank is the end of the Ieperlee canal.

For the next 4.7 km the left (west, then north) bank continues to be minor road with little traffic. The road then moves a short distance away from the canal, and there is a paved towpath. The towpath pavement is in very bad shape - stay with the road unless you want to walk. The road parallels the canal for 1.5 km to Fintele and the end of the Lokanaal. (August 1999)

 
towpath west of Fintele 23 September 2000
In September 2000 you could continue along the river for another 5.5 km to the bridge at Stavele. Don't bother unless you simply want to say you did it. The pavement is so-so, and there is no plant trimming. Weeds including thistles and stinging nettles encroach on the narrow path, and a helmet should be worn to protect against branches. According to signs there is a project to improve this section of towpath, with a completion date of September 1999 - perhaps things will improve in the future.(September 2000)

 
water for the cattle
If you want to continue into France, one option is to turn off the IJzer on the Lokanaal and follow the LF 1 long distance bicycle route signs.

If you do ride this section of the IJzer, you pass mostly through pastures. Many have "self service" watering points for the cattle. When the cow drinks a lever is depressed, allowing more water in from a hose.

Ieper - IJzer Canal (Ieperlee ) (15 km)

This canal provides perhaps the most pleasant riding in the Westhoek, virtually all excellent pavement and part through a wooded strip as shaded and quiet as any found in the Kempen. And of course the destination is the very interesting city of Ieper. You ride by or near several WW1 cemeteries, and near the sites of some major battles. North of Steensraat the canal was the front line during most of WW1. The land in the north is absolutely flat, but as you ride south the land starts to roll gently. Tens of thousands fell trying to capture some of these "heights" (often no higher than 10 meters).

The canal runs in a fairly straight line, nearly north-south, from the IJzer River to Ieper. It was constructed in the 1170's, and contributed to Ieper becoming one of the industrial centers of Flanders. The Lakenhalle (cloth hall, originally built 1200 - 1304) is one of the largest commercial buildings of the Middle Ages to be found anywhere. The upper section served as a warehouse. Much of the skilled population fled north from the Spanish/Catholic repression in the mid-16th century, and the town never regained its place alongside Gent and Brugge as one of the most important in Flanders.

Ieper was basically leveled in WW1, and many buildings have been carefully rebuilt in the original style. You can see before and after pictures in various places around town. The primary WW1 sites are the Menen gate monument (Meensepoort, east of the market) and the new (1999) Flanders Fields museum in the Lakenhalle.

The canal begins at the Knokkebrug on the IJzer River. The canal is lined on both sides with trees, and you roll through flat farm country. For nearly 4 km you follow a narrow east bank road (less than 2 lanes wide) that fortunately has little traffic. Then by a farm the road turns away from the canal and you have paved towpath. Slight less than 3 km further you see on the left a private memorial to two local brothers who fell here in an attack on 26 March 1917. 200 m further is the Steenstratebrug, and the end of towpath on the east bank. Cross the bridge (pub on the west end) and continue south on the west bank towpath.

kayak polo on the canal
Source: Alex Carr May 2006
Another 1,300 m brings you to the town of Boezinge and Sluis Boezinge Sas (a redundant name, since sluis and sas mean the same). The land has started to roll a bit, and climb. This section is mostly heavily wooded, although for a bit you have some noise from a nearby road. The next lock (Boezinge Dorp) is nearly 2 km from the first, and you enter the beginning of the developed part of Ieper. This final 4.5 km of the canal was widened within recent decades, although there is no commercial use. The east bank is bare of trees, and followed by a road. The west bank remains shaded by a strip of woods, and has a fine bike path. Just before the N38 high bridge you see a monument to the right. There is a WW1 cemetery by the monument.

About 1,200 me south of the N38 bridge is the junction with the Comines-Ieper Canal on the west bank.

Another 200 m brings you to the current end of the canal in a little yacht harbor. The canal used to continue to the central market square. The street which is a visual continuation of the canal is that old route. If you follow it south 700 m you reach the market place of Ieper. (August 1999) (Comines canal notes added January 2003) (route verified by Jan Steyaert June 2003)

Ieper market square, Laken Hall on the left
Source: Alex Carr May 2006

The original plans for the A19 motorway, which now ends NE of Ieper, had it continue to Veurne near the coast. It would have consumed the east bank of the canal for about 4 km. This project has reportedly dropped off the plans.

Lokanaal: Veurne - Lo - Fintele (15 km)

Veurne, Lo and de Snoek brewery/museum make this otherwise pleasant ride a top priority.

The Lokanaal (or Lovaart) was opened in 1166, using parts of an earlier canal. Today there is little trace of industry south of Veurne, with the exception of a dock once used by the brewery at Fortem. Today the canal is apparently being maintained primarily for drainage, although you will see some pleasure boats. Virtually the entire ride is through polder farms. Today (August 1999) most of the ride is on a minor highway with little traffic. By summer 2000 there should be (according to the signs) a paved bike path the entire length on the other bank.

The canal begins in Veurne at the Nieuwpoortsluis (a lock which is now left open, and is in fact on the Dunkerque canal). If you are coming from the east on the canal from Plassendale, stay on the towpath on the north side of the canal for the 300 m past the Nieuwpoortbrug, and then cross the footbridge at the lock. Or from the west from the Ieperbrug follow the towpath east along the south side of the Dunkerque canal. Just west of the lock is Veurne harbor, on the north side of the Dunkerque canal.

From the lock, follow the towpath south along the west side of the Lokanaal. The first kilometer is somewhat industrial, but then you pass under the N390 bridge and the A18 (E40) bridge. The rest of the route is through farmland, with very short exceptions.

1.8 km south of the A18/E40 bridge the lovely bike path on the west bank ends. Cross the Kortewildebrug and continue south on a minor country road. (GeoCart erroneously shows a bike path.) The road is of interest only to those who live in the area, and traffic is very light. On some days the primary traffic is farm tractors and combines. Just south of the Kortewildebrug is the first of the very small old locks connecting the Lokanaal with an adjacent small canal at ground level.

Five and a half km of fine riding brings you to the Fortembrug. For a fun detour, or just to take a break, cross the bridge into the village. The de Snoek brewery/pub/museum is to the left at the first intersection. The brewery building was abandoned, and brought back to life by the Dolle Brouwers (mad brewers) in the 1980's. The Snoek light (color, not flavor or alcohol content) beer is much better than you typically find in a modern brew pub. The museum is open 10:30 - 18:30 daily in July and August, and 14:00 - 18:00 the rest of the year. Closed Mondays in the winter. (Note Sep 2000: check to see if there is now a bike path on the west bank.)

Four km south of Fortem is another tiny lock, connecting to the Machuitsbeek. (On 23 September 2000 the bridge over this lock was being reconstructed. Bicycles could be walked through with some difficulty.)

 
Markeymolen 1797
Slightly over one more km is the Lobrug, and next to it a mill, the Markeymolen. The town of Lo is to your left (east), and a mandatory detour. Turn east into the town. (August 1999)

Lo - Westpoort and Caesar's tree
Lo (woods) was first mentioned in 1089 and chartered in 1167. Until the beginning of the religious troubles in 1540 it was a major center for the weaving of cloth. There was a canal, the Alveringemgeul, at an early time, and it was improved into the current canal in 1166.

In 500 m you come to a small town gate and an obviously very old yew tree. The gate (the Westpoort) was built in 1269 and updated in the 14th century. It is the only remainder of the town walls. The tree is perhaps much older - legend is that Julius Caesar tied his horse to the tree in 55 BC, en route to Britain. Whatever the truth of that story, this is the oldest looking yew I have every seen.

A short distance further east is the town lovely square (actually an L), with a Renaissance style town hall (grand in a tiny way) dated 1566. The church of St Peter is the remainder of an Augustinian abbey founded by 1100. The church was burnt in the religious wars (1580) and rebuilt as soon as the Spanish has stabilized their control of the region. Note the wooden barrel roof. This is a hall church, with the side aisles as high as the nave. The tower is 19th century.

 
Kellenaarsbrug
Continuing south from Lo you have a choice: the east bank is a road with little traffic, the west bank has a new cinder bike path. One more km south is the Kellenaarsbrug. A short detour west of the canal to Pollinkhove reveals another hall church (burnt in 1853, and more interesting from the outside than in) with an unusual memorial to the dead of this tiny village (22 names) in WW1. Opposite the church is a large farm establishment. Note the spire on the house. It contains a bell to signal people in the fields. Similar spires are not uncommon in the eastern US, but unusual in Europe.

The remainder of the ride is less than two km, to the lock at Fintele. Just past the lock the Lokanaal joins the IJzer at KM 31. (September 2000)

Bergenvaart: Veurne - Hondschoote (FR) (14 km)

This route just barely qualifies for this guide. Much of it does not exactly follow the waterway, and the Bergenvaart has not been used by water traffic in many years. The bicycle paths/lanes shown on GeoCart do not exist. However, it is a good ride if you happen to be in this corner of Belgium.

The countryside is absolutely flat, and the fields unusually large. Trees are the exception, and all obviously planted by man. If you ignore the details, it could be central Iowa. But do look at the details! Many of the farms have structures that seem to date from the time this marsh was drained for agriculture in the 16th century.

The Bergenvaart starts on the western side of Veurne, from the Nieuwpoort - Dunkerque Canal near the N8 bridge. Start south on the east bank - a service road with little traffic. There is a disused shipyard on the west bank, and then a dam. Now you are in farm country, mostly grains and corn with occasional sections devoted to cattle. In 1.4 km you pass under the E40, and shortly thereafter join a road - Calonnegracht. There is very little traffic for the next km where you join a more important highway and enter Bulskamp. The road leaves the side of the canal through the center of the village. The imposing church dates from 1883, and is most notable for the Commonwealth War Graves (30) of some of those who died 30 May - 1 June 1940 in this area. There is a pub just before you reach the church.

The next village is Wulveringem, The people here love to name their houses, and many of the name signs seem to have been made in the same shop. At the end of this village keep straight on a service road along the canal where the highway turns to the left.

Slightly over 2 km of riding through more farmland and the service road (Ketseweg) turns away from the canal at a crumbling bridge. In 700 m you reach a junction with Moeresteenweg. Turn left on that road towards the squat church tower in Houtem. This town was the headquarters of the Belgium Army during the Great War, with the headquarters building on the south side of the church (plaque). The church itself is 15th and 16th centuries, and there are 16 Commonwealth War graves on the north side.

From the front of the church go south a short distance to a place where you can turn to the right. An ancient farm is to your right. At the first junction (sign "hoofdkwatier" by the farm buildings) turn left towards Hondschoote. In about 200 m you join a minor highway. Continue straight on the highway as it heads south and then curves to the SW. The border is about 2 1/2 km from the church, where the pavement changes at a ditch just past a Fina station.

A little over a km of riding through the French countryside (watch for a bunker on the left just after you cross the border) brings you into the town of Hondschoote. Head for the church: 14th century, tower completed 1513, burnt during the religious troubles in 1582, restored in the early 17th century. It is a surprisingly large building for this small town, and in extreme need of repair. On the square are several fine old buildings, particularly the town hall. The tourist office is a tiny structure near the front of the church. If you follow the D3 road north from the town center you will find a real gem: a windmill dating from 1127. (July 1999)

Last updated 26 July 2006

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