Lille’s old slagheaps (terrils) – awaiting UNESCO world heritage status. What happened to Britain’s? Did they all get used for road building?

I had an upstairs seat on the Lille-Lens train this morning – almost as satisfying as sitting at the front upstairs on a bus. It didn’t make the scenery any more inspiring, though. It’s not just the flatness: there’s something lowering about the thought of First World War slaughter combined with my Germinal-and-pneumoconiosis-inflected view of coal-mining. (In 1906 1,099 miners were killed in an explosion just outside Lens. I realised afterwards that I had passed through that railway station.)

Lens was occupied and shelled for the full four years of the war. Its inhabitants fled then returned after the war – because coal needed to be mined once again – to a town that was more than 90% destroyed. It was a fate suffered by many northern French and Flemish towns. Some, like Ypres, chose to recreate the pre-war town; others, like Lens, were receptive to newer styles. Nothing was prescribed or proscribed in Lens.

The 1925 Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes in Paris was significant in spreading Art Deco ideas . . . but by the time they got to Lens they must have collided with existing tastes, so here it makes for a very eclectic bunch of buildings. You arrive at the railway station and are charmed by the barrel vault and locomotive outline of the building, mistakenly thinking you’ve hit a rich pure Art Deco seam:


Lens railway station, designed by Urbain Cassan, inaugurated in 1927. Concrete and single storey in order to spread the weight of the building. With so many mine workings, subsidence is a perennial fear.

The mosaics inside announce that you have entered a mining town x 4:


Mosaics by Auguste Labouret

Two of the grandest buildings in town are the former offices of the Société des Mines de Lens and the trade union headquarters:


Miners’ union HQ, completed in 1911, destroyed during WWI, rebuilt in almost identical style 1922-23. Workers get their tongues round the architectural language of power.


The Great Offices of the mining company. Designed 1928-30 by Louis- Marie Cordonnier. At first sight, it’s very Flemish (i.e. emphasising independence from Parisian influence), but the structure of the balcony and bay windows have Art Deco touches (a more international style less burdened with history). The interior – judging from the brochure I got from the tourist office – is much more Art Deco. Some of the furniture was made by the Majorelle factory and the glass by Daum in Nancy, whom I first encountered in the context of Art Nouveau. They obviously moved with the times.

As for the rest of Lens, there are plenty of decorative ceramics, mosaics/tesserae and fruit/floral/foliage plasterwork on façades. The reconstruction of the town must have kept local builders and artisans very busy.

The last coal mine closed in 1990. I can’t think of what that does to a single-industry town. Like many eastern German towns that I have passed through, Lens (and Roubaix too) teamed up with another struggling municipality to form a larger agglomeration, and is reinventing itself – or being reinvented by central government – as a cultural tourist destination.

So, with my (ahem) cultural tourist hat on, behold me in Lens.


About aides mémoires

This is a chronological list of things I have seen, places I have visited, and thoughts that have wandered through the space between my ears. A reading group of one; an art appreciation society limited by my preferences and prejudices; opera criticism by one who knows nothing about the subject.
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