Berck, sometimes referred to as Berck-sur-Mer, is a commune in the Pas-de-Calais department in northern France. It lies within the Marquenterre regional park, an ornithological nature reserve.
Berck is the most southerly town in the Pas-de-Calais to have a name with Germanic roots, variously spelt over the centuries. Its origin has been conjectured to come either from berg (a hill or possibly dune); bekkr, the Norse name for a stream (‘beck’ in northern England); or beorc (a birch tree), designating a wooded area.
The old town was formerly a fishing harbour which in 1301 was recorded to have 150 homesteads with 800 inhabitants. A mediaeval wooden lighthouse, known locally as a foïer, was built on a dune and lit by charcoal and faggots but this burned down several times. On one occasion at least it was as a result of the continuous conflict between the English and the French in the Hundred Years War. The chronicler Enguerrand de Monstrelet mentions that during 1414 the English garrison in Calais raided south and burned the town. Eventually the lighthouse was replaced by a stone tower at the side of which a chapel was built in the 15th century, but this did not save it from further mishap. During the second siege of Montreuil in 1544, the English advanced from the south and burned 200 houses, the church and the mill as they passed through Berck. What was left of the place was then burned by the French on their way to relieve the siege.
The chapel was later extended to join the tower, making what is now the church of St-Jean-Baptiste, but the tower was only converted to a belfry after the sea retired, leaving it 1.5 kilometres inland. It is for this reason that the present division between the original village and the sea-front area exists. As a result, boats were then designed with flat bottoms so that they could be drawn up on the beach and a cart was driven out to them in order to bring in the catch (see Eugène Boudin’s painting below).
In the mid-19th century, Berck took on a therapeutic role in the treatment of tuberculosis. The Maritime hospital was inaugurated in 1869 by Empress Eugenie. Other hospitals and benevolent institutes were soon created to cater for the sick and those in need of rest and recuperation. It was at this time that the medical benefits of sea bathing were being recommended and the town, advertised as just a three-hour journey from Paris, began to build up its tourist trade with the help of the railways.
At first one had to alight at the nearby town of Verton on the main line to Calais, but in 1893 a metre-gauge branch line was built connecting it with other towns in the region. As well as carrying passengers, there was also goods traffic from the brick-works at Berck Ville. Known locally as le tortillard for its wandering route, it was closed in 1955. There was a later narrow-gauge line running northwards through the dunes from Berck Plage to Paris-Plage, as Le Touquet was then known. It was built in stages via Merlimont between 1909-12 but gradually sanded over and closed in 1929.
During World War II the sea front was disrupted by the installation of the Nazi Atlantic Wall and the town suffered from bombing during the allied invasion in 1944. This contributed to the diminishing of the ancient fishing industry, which numbered some 150 boats at the turn of the century and had all but disappeared by the 1960s. Today, although the hospital sector remains economically important, the town has again promoted itself as a tourist attraction. A seaside bathing station, with an immense beach of fine sand on the Opal Coast, it continues to be a centre for sand yachting and the new sport of surfboarding. The former Berck Plage railway station has been converted into a casino.
Over the past two centuries there has been a steady growth in the population of the town, which in the 1793 census was 983, only a little more than the 800 recorded in 1301. In 1851 this had doubled to 2,216 and after the commercial development during the second half of that century had climbed to 7,799 by 1901. It more than doubled again by 1936 (16,700) but fell to 11,529 by 1946 and as of 2009 stands at 15,565.
In 1974 the town twinned with Bad Honnef in Germany and in 1981 with Hythe in England.