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Discover one fine equine tradition; KEN BENNETT can't rein in his enthusiasm for an ancient Belgian fishing ritual.

Byline: KEN BENNETT

IAM lurching towards the iron grey troughs of the North Sea with a nonchalant but purposeful swagger on a fishing trip with a unique difference. My companions, Max, Thomas and Ward - three giant draught horses and part of a unique band of brothers - are collectively the size of a muscular rugby scrum.

But they are gently towing my cart to witness a spectacle which will see them delicately dredge a golden harvest of shrimps - each no bigger than your thumb - from the seabed.

Because the hardy fishermen of this pretty Belgian coastal resort of Koksijde-Oostduinkerke - it means East of Dunkirk - are the only ones in the world to catch shrimp while riding on horseback.

And they are a huge draw for holidaymakers captivated by this rare sight on beaches just 20 miles north of Dunkirk and 40 miles north of Calais, a quirky option for foodies.

Wearing bright yellow oilskins and waders, the fishermen drive their Trojan steeds up to chest deep into the water.

Then, side by side they advance, dragging nets to scoop shrimps from the sandy seabed, occasionally leaving the water to empty their treasure trove into wicker baskets on each side of the horses.

And now this well-honed, ancient ritual has received a prestigious accolade by UNESCO, who have recognised the fishermen and their horses' art as "intangible cultural heritage".

The sight of the southwester-capped fishermen and the horses was once commonplace along the shores of Belgium, the Netherlands, north-eastern France and even eastern England.

But today only a handful survive, celebrating this ancient way of fishing at the ultra-clean beach at Oostduinkerke, famed for its gentle slope with no underwater obstacles.

The shrimp fishing takes place at low tide, both in summer and in winter, for about two hours - an hour before, and one hour after, low water.

The horses themselves, normally robust stallions of the Brabant or Hainaut breed, are famed for their exceptional strength and powers of resistance, and are loved by hordes of children who throng the beach.

But away from the draw of the sea lipped by spiritual sand dunes (it's a protected nature reserve), other visitor attractions along Belgium's 41-mile-long coastline include forests zig-zagged by hiking and cycling trails, information centres, a programme of free guided walks and para-karting.

However, visitors seeking a reflective, cultural experience, can take time out at the Paul Delvaux museum which was transformed from an old hotel-restaurant into a sanctuary for the master's paintings, watercolours, drawings, sketchbook and prints.

You can even share a life-sized reconstruction of his studio and many personal artifacts.

Alternatively, if you are still hooked on the region's fishing heritage, visit the National Fishery Museum - 'Navigo' at Koksijde.

It keeps the rich fishing past alive with elaborate collections presented in life-like settings, works of art, illustrations, and hands-on elements. A coastal fishing vessel, OD.1 Martha, acts as a stepping stone for the various storylines at the museum.

Koksijde-Oostduinkerke is less than an hour's drive to the cobbled streets and canals of Belgium's medieval capital of Bruges, and just 20 miles from Ypres, with its many war memorials.

I stayed in this buttoned-down resort, content to enjoy the cosy terraces, beautiful shops and most of all, the astounding food.

But, hey, I'm off to rejoin the horses and share the spoils of their labours - tangy fresh shrimps, cooked on the beach and on sale for just one euro a portion.

I muse what might happen if you could combine their sublime taste with Belgium's other national treat: chocolate.

What a thought, it's enough to make a horse laugh.

TRAVEL FILE KEN BENNETT travelled to Belgium with P&O Ferries, who have one sailing in each direction daily between Hull and Zeebrugge. The overnight crossing takes 121/2 hours. On board facilities include self-service and a la carte restaurants, a showbar with live entertainment, piano bar, quiet lounges, cinema, casino and shops. In the summer holidays the Junior Kids' Club keeps children occupied.

Until the end of March, P&O Ferries has an offer which means that when one passenger pays, one goes free. Two people sharing a cabin can take a two-night minicriuse for PS75, inclusive of coach transfers between Zeeburgge and Bruges. See www.poferries.com or call 08716 646464.

Ken stayed at the family run Hotel Soll Cress at Koksijde - see www.sollcress.be.

Details of accommodation, how to reach Kiksijde-Oostduinkerke and times the horses go shrimping can be found at www.koksijde.be.

CAPTION(S):

One of the horses hard at work off the Belgian coast, and the shrimp harvest, above

Shrimp fishermen trawl the seabed for their latest tasty catch
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Huddersfield Daily Examiner (Huddersfield, England)
Date:Mar 1, 2014
Words:776
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