The Good Life France

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Lens in Northern France | a city reinvented

Coal slag heaps showing signs of vegetation mark the landscape of Lens, northern France

Lens in the Nord department, a few kilometres south east of Bethune and just to the north of Arras was for three centuries a major production area for the coal mining industry. When production ceased in the late 20th century, Lens for a while, had an air of dejection. Today, that’s certainly completely changed, however, sections of the coal mining industry have been preserved for posterity serving as educational and cultural reminders of the once great industry that contributed so much to the French economy. Bob Lyons climbs the UNESCO listed slag heaps of Lens…

UNESCO listed slagheaps

Man walks up a coal slag heap to admire the views over Lens. northern France

Any visitor to Lens won’t fail to spot the vast slag waste heaps that dominate the regional landscape. There are 51 of them. The sight is quite spectacular and forms part of a new artistic culture that has brought regeneration to the area. They’ve even achieved UNESCO world heritage status. Unesco defines the region as an “organically evolved” cultural landscape, part of a list of “distinct geographical areas or properties uniquely representing the combined work of nature and of man”.

The coal slag piles are constantly monitored by specialist engineers. They are quite safe and accessible for climbing. I walked right to the top of one and admired the breath-taking views over the surrounding countryside from the summit. It was a clear day and the Belgium coast could be seen in the distance. The man-made terrain has a rough and grainy substance that is easy to walk on. Entrance is free and takes around an hour and half for the climb and return.

There are other reminders of the days of the mines. Mining pits, workers cottages and mining villages, an original cast iron lift shaft. They form a powerful component and symbol of what has now been transformed into an imposing, landscaped art form. And a tourist attraction.

The slag heaps are becoming transformed by vegetation, trees and plants, even vines. One has become a dry ski slope.

You don’t have to take a guided tour but they are offered at Base 11/19 de Loos-en-Gohelle. Details: Lens Tourist Office

Lens Louvre

Ancient statues at the museum of Lens

Lens is also the base for an annex of the prestigious Louvre museum in Paris. The glass and aluminium art gallery, very different from the Paris museum, is a vast and imposing sight. It stands in grounds landscaped to represent the old coal mining fields as an artistic statement. The ‘Louvre-Lens’ museum displays artworks from its parent in Paris on a regular exchange basis. Entrance to the museum is free. Read more about: Lens-Louvre Museum

Lens town and around

Pop into the town for something to eat and drink, there are plenty of friendly cafés. And the art deco train station is well worth a look. Built to resemble a steam train, it is a listed National Heritage Site.

Lens is close to many sites including Vimy Ridge, the Ring of Memory and Notre Dame de Lorette also known as Ablain St.-Nazaire French Military Cemetery.

Bob Lyons is an ex-pilot turned travel writer and total Francophile

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