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Visiting the Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin, France
They may not like to admit it, but the powerful countries we find in Western Europe would not be what they are today if it were not for mining.
It may have been dirty, it may have been dangerous, but mining fuelled the industrial revolution that transformed nations into empires and made the 20th century arguably the most transformative in human history.
The coal that came from the mines provided the light for cities, provided the steel for the buildings in them, and the power for the factories working there.
Coal mining also created jobs for countless hundreds of thousands of people, fostered the communities that grew up around them, and supported the families that made their lives there.
Yet, as coal mining as a mass industry come to an end towards the end of the last century, it was these communities who were among the first to turn their back on its story. They were not alone, though.
In Western Europe, many people saw the mining industry as a blight on the environment, as an embarrassment of the lower classes, and as a part of history that should be buried down where the coal itself came from.
There was a push to get rid of the legacy of mining – but in one part of France, there were some who saw the value in it.
I’m talking about the Nord- Pas de Calais Mining Basin, just north of Paris. It was one of the most important coal mining regions in this part of Europe for about three centuries.
But now, in our current century, Nord-Pas de Calais is important for a different reason. Now it’s because it has been so well preserved.
To imagine it, don’t just think of a single mining site – try to imagine an enormous landscape that stretches for more than 100km and consists of over 120,000 hectares.
When UNESCO added the mining basin to the World Heritage List in 2012, the overall site was made up of 353 separate components, from villages to lift infrastructure, and from mining pits to the spoil heaps created with the waste.
For a tourist, it may seem strange to visit an old mining basin – who really wants to see a spoil heap? I may not have thought of coming if not for the World Heritage Journeys of Europe project, which includes some other interesting sites that are ‘underground’.
But I can tell you, there’s actually an incredible beauty in this landscape.
It’s not just a physical beauty – although you certainly get that in some parts, both with the natural and the manmade. But there’s also a beauty in the story here: of the industry, the accomplishments, the humanity.
And all of it is told so well in the museums and cultural centres throughout the regions.
What is particularly impressive with the Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin is not simply how well the heritage has been protected, but how the old sites have been used for the exhibitions and events that help tell the story of the industry and the people who lived and worked here.
And, of course, it’s a story that we’re all a part of. Each of us would live in a very different world if it wasn’t for coal mining and the industrial and technological advances that it brought to this world.
The Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin is a large region and it would be impossible to see everything in just a day or two. But, if you are short of time, I want to give you a sample itinerary that you could use as the foundation for a visit to the area.
I should point out, though, that it focuses on the western part of the landscape because that’s where you get the highest concentration of major sites – but there are still a lot of great things to see in the east and you should try to find the time, if possible.
I’ve put all my suggestions onto this map of Nord-Pas de Calais so you can see where the different locations are in relation to each other.
The best way to get between them is by car. Public transport is possible but is not efficient. Cycling would be another option, though.
The best things to do in the Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin
Just before I start, I want to stress the point that it’s technically possible to see all of these things in one day – but it would be an extremely rushed day! You would be much better off spreading this out over two days – or even longer, with a few extra stops in the east.
Mining History Centre, Lewarde
For this itinerary, I would suggest starting in the east and heading west – and there’s no better place to begin than the Mining History Centre in Lewarde.
This is the site of the old Delloye colliery yard that once stretched out over eight hectares. It was converted into a museum in 1984, to tell the story of what it was like to be a coal miner in the region.
The exhibition area has an excellent collection of items and information panels showing you about the working life and the home life of the miners.
You can also see some of the original facilities like the bathrooms with the innovative clothes hangers, the lamp room with its rows of lamps, and some of the original machinery.
But the highlight is going down into an old mining tunnel where the museum takes you through the development of the industry from the dangerous days when everything was done by hand, through to the more recent mechanised era.
Spending a couple of hours here to start your time in the mining basin means you’ll have a solid understanding of the different elements you’re going to see.
Les Chevrettes du Terril, Rieulay
If you’re visiting on a Wednesday, Saturday, or Sunday, you might like to pop into a wonderful place called Les Chevrettes du Terril.
It translates as ‘The Goats of the Heap’ because this is a goat farm where the animals graze on the spoil heaps created during the mining days. It’s perfect for the ecology, because the goats get the food they need and it keeps the biodiversity in balance.
It’s also a restaurant/cafe and the farm is a particularly fun place for families because it’s got something for everyone. In particular, you can pick up (or eat in) some the delicious cheese made from the goat milk, and try some of the other local products.
Les Chevrettes du Terril is run by two brothers, who are always up for a chat. They might even convince you it’s worth giving up your corporate job to start an organic goat farm!
The farm is right next to the Les Argales, which is an old mining subsidence lake. It’s been converted into a park, which is popular for activities like sailing, canoeing, and hiking.
Another one of the major mining sites that’s been protected is the 9-9bis pit at Oignies. Almost 5 million tonnes of coal was extracted from here between 1933 and 1990, and it had up to 2500 workers at its peak.
You can still visit some of the original buildings on a guided tour and even see some of the machinery in action. An association of former miners and history-buffs keep them in good condition to protect the heritage.
Like many of the old sites, some of the space has been converted for modern use – in this case, as offices and conference facilities. Life continues and this is not just a relic of the past.
These days, the 9-9bis site is particularly famous for its concert called called the Metaphone. Not only can you see a performance inside, but you’ll get a free show outside when the instruments on the walls play!
11/9 Mining Pit, Loos-en-Gohelle
One of the strangest elements to be protected as a part of a World Heritage Site are the spoil heaps (also known as slag heaps) across the Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin. They are basically the waste from coal mining, that was piled up in an efficient way.
The two largest spoil heaps in Europe are found at the 11/9 Mining Pit at Loos-en-Gohelle, on the outskirts of Lens, and are 184 and 182 metres high!
There are paths that you will take you to the top of each of them, and there are even guided tours that show you all the flora and fauna that live on them. If you’re going by yourself, it’s a great spot for sunrise or sunset.
At ground level, you’ll find the old infrastructure from the number 11 and 9 mining pits. Most of it isn’t open for general visitors and is used as cultural facilities.
But I would recommend you have a look around the old mining town attached to the site. The companies that ran the mines created these communities for the workers so that their families would be looked after and they would be able to get everything they needed here.
The mining town at the 11/19 Mining Pit site is one of the best examples and is easy to walk around.
When you’re in Lens, you can’t miss the highlight of the region – the Louvre-Lens Museum.
The content of the museum doesn’t have anything to do with the mining heritage, as such, but it is built on an old coal pit and has incorporated the industrial history into the architecture and the landscaping around it.
This was the first satellite branch of the Louvre, and one of only two in the world (the other is in Abu Dhabi). But it’s not just a collection of leftovers. It brings its own unique approach to some of the best items in the Louvre’s collection.
On display are more than 200 items that stretch out over a single room. On one wall is a timeline of 5000 years of human history. The pieces in the room align with their correct date against the timeline.
There’s also a geographic order to the collection, so as you walk along the 120 metres of gallery space, you can veer to the left or right to explore different regions.
Each work of art is a masterpiece in itself, but there’s an extra value in seeing the transition of styles all at once. Nothing in the layout is accidental.
For instance, if you stand in one particular spot, you’ll be able to see four statues of men from different eras, each showing the next artistic progression.
The Louvre-Lens Museum is a good enough reason to visit the region on its own! Best of all, the permanent exhibition is free to visit. There is, however, an admission cost for the special temporary exhibitions.
Cite des Electriciens, Bruay-La-Buissiere
Continuing to the west, the next location I recommend visiting is the City of Electricians.
It is a mining town built by the Bruay company between 1856 and 1861 and is the oldest remaining in the region. I also think it’s one of the most beautiful, with the earthy paint and white trims along the straight rows of doors.
There are two different interpretation centres here. The first, in a modern building, has interesting interactive displays about the development of mining towns from social and architectural perspectives.
The other, in a row of original houses that are now connected, you can find out more about life here for the residents and their place in the broader landscape.
Stroll through the gardens, stop for a drink or a bite to eat at the restaurant, and see if there’s anything on display at the temporary exhibition space in the Engineer’s House.
Some of the houses at the City of Electricians have been turned into accommodation and I think this would be a great place to stay if you want to base yourself in the west of the mining basin.
More spoil heaps, Haillicourt
As you drive through the landscape, you’ll spot quite a lot of spoil heaps along the side of the road or off on the horizon.
They come in all different shapes and sizes – partly because each pit had a different amount of waste, but also because the construction methods changed over the years. (Yes, spoil heaps are ‘constructed’ and not just randomly dumped there.)
Not far from the City of Electricians, in the town of Haillicourt, you’ll find the Terril Viticole, which I think is particularly cool. It’s a vineyard on a spoil heap, that produces some great local wine!
Also in Haillicourt are the twin spoil heaps called Les Terrils du Pays à Part. They are almost as tall as the other ones I mentioned at Loos-en-Gohelle – these ones are 180 metres each (just a few metres shy).
So, if you didn’t get a chance to climb the others, then here’s another opportunity. They are also great for sunset, with some beautiful views out over the countryside, so that’s a good time for a hike.
Dining at Al’Frosse 7
Now, I haven’t really offered many suggestions for places to eat but you’ll find lots of great options in the region – after all, this is France!
Many of the sites you’ll visit will have cafes or restaurants and they are good options if you want to grab something as you’re sightseeing.
But I do want to mention one restaurant near Lens, which would be convenient if you’re staying overnight in the city. It’s called Al’Fosse 7 and it has a warm and lively atmosphere, with hearty local meals and an excellent selection of drinks.
But I particularly wanted to tell you about it because it is mining themed! The design of the interior, and the items that are used to decorate it, are all an homage to the industry that’s been so important to this region.
The restaurant is a good example of the evolution here in the Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin.
The coal mining industry was first embraced by the people because it offered jobs and economic opportunity.
It was then rejected because it was seen as dirty and unsophisticated, a relic of a different time.
And now, again, the region is proud of their heritage – blackened as some it may be – because it’s what has made this part of France what it is today. And, besides, a lot of it turns out to be quite beautiful – and certainly extremely interesting!
WHERE TO STAY IN THE NORD-PAS DE CALAIS MINING BASIN
The most convenient city to stay is Lens, which is in a central location, has a TGV train station, and offers lots of accommodation options.
For basic but comfortable accommodation in the city centre, I would suggest Hôtel Le Paris Brest.
A lovely affordable option is B&B Hôtel Lens Musée Du Louvre, which also has good parking.
For something with a bit more style, Appart Hotel Relax Spa is a wonderful collection of apartment-style rooms.
And the best new hotel in town is the magnificent Hotel Louvre Lens, right opposite the Louvre-Lens Museum.