Lens in northern France is born again

Miner statueI went to visit Lens in northern France some time ago. Lens is a previously industrialised town a few kilometres south east of Bethune and just to the north of Arras. Lens was once a dull and dejected urban centre. It was the home of the French coal mining industry in the last century. It ceased production in 1990. At that time, Lens was a sprawling conurbation of grubby activity. All that has changed these days but sections of the coal mining industry have been preserved for posterity. They function nowadays as educational and cultural reminders of the once great industry that contributed so much to the French economy.

As travellers approach from the north, they will spot the vast, almost overpowering, and remaining slag waste heaps that dominate the regional landscape way towards the Belgian border and beyond. The sight is quite spectacular. They form part of a new artistic culture that has brought new wealth to the decaying and now silent mining activity.

Slag heapThe coal slag piles have been protected for visitors to experience at first hand. They are constantly monitored by specialist engineers. They are not of the days of Aberfan in Wales so many decades ago. They are quite safe and available for all to climb and are very unmoving and firm underfoot. I stomped right to the top of one and admired the breath-taking view of the surrounding countryside from the top. It was a clear day and the Belgium coast could be seen so far away. The piled, man- made terrain had become an iron hard and jet black footing. It was a rough and grainy substance that permitted a sure grip. The heap was high though so visitors would need to be sure of their capacity to ascend it and of their appropriate foot-ware. Entrance was free and you could stay as long as you liked. It might take about an hour and a half or more to get to the top, take in the view and come back down again. There was no requirement for any guides on any of the separate heaps.

Lift shaftAssociated with the site were many abandoned miner’s houses that were once provided by the long gone state controlled mining company. Many have since been completely renovated. They are occupied nowadays by modern young families in bright and carefully maintained surroundings.

The original cast iron and towering lift shaft also has been protected at the location. Nowadays it stands silent and brooding with its stationary lifting wheel at the top. It forms a powerful component and symbol of what has now been transformed into an imposing, landscaped art form. It stands close to the site entrance where visitors can park their car.

Lens has also become the base now for an annex of the prestigious Louvre museum in Paris. A brand new glass and aluminium art gallery presenting a vast and imposing sight has been created. It stands in grounds landscaped to represent the old coal mining fields as an artistic statement. Louvre-Lens MuseumThe new ‘Louvre-Lens’ museum displays art works brought from its parent in Paris on a regular exchange basis. Many local people often visit the museum. The French have no cultural inhibitions and all can find something to admire and capture their imagination in so many different art forms. Entrance to the museum is free and it has provided much new vigour and interest to a once neglected region.

Lens always seems associated with dull and drizzly age old industrial processing. It probably cannot shift that association even today. Maybe that is part of its evolved culture though. Lens today is brand new and shiny. It uses its old entrenched culture to present itself to the world in a transformed state and can keep its head high again. It is a fine art centre of great quality, inspiration and variety amongst the duller tracts of countryside roughly halfway along the route to Paris from the coast. Take a look if you are passing and let Lens open your eyes to a new beginning. Lens nowadays is a modern day art oasis after it’s deliberately created re-birth.

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Bob Lyons

Retired airline pilot and European explorer

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