You have to go up before you come down
Finally, the day had arrived to have my first explore in Belgium.
V picked me up from my hotel and we headed off. I had not made any special requests, so I literally had no idea what we were going to see and explore that day. And frankly I did not really care. I just wanted to see something new. A few weeks prior to this trip I was in Chernobyl, the mecca of urban exploration, but no way would I be able to keep riding the high of that trip for much longer. We are urbex junkies.
We didn’t drive long before V told me we were going to explore a famous abandoned coal mine. I was excited and ready to go. Industrial sites, though not on the top of my list of favorite abandoned locations, were always something I found very interesting to see up close and shoot.
We parked on top of a hill and V told me our way in would be from the back, so we had to walk down the hill through a forested area. Ok, that sounds like fun.
And it was.
School’s not out
“The Coal mine of Hasard de Cheratte (or Cheratte 10) was the main colliery of the Société anonyme des Charbonnages du Hasard, and had four shafts. It is located in Cheratte, a section of the Belgian town of Visé in Liège province in Wallonia. The first shaft was dug in 1850 to extract dice coal and closed for the first time in 1877 following an accident. It reopened 30 years later in 1907 and operated until 1977. In the early 21st century the mine has gained some notoriety as an urban ruin. Remediation of the site and the demolition of several buildings start in 2017.
This first shaft was dug in 1850 to a depth of 250 meters. After reviewing the mine to know its state, the engineers noticed that the coal was located deep down. The first mine was dug again and reached a depth of 420 meters. The place on which the mine is located is not very big. The extraction company decided to build a headframe, a first in Belgium. This tower was fitted with an extraction machine and several motors working with direct current. A washhouse was built in 1920 by Beer de Jemeppe Company, and a second extraction mine with a metal tower opened. In 1927, the Belle-Fleur mine was equipped by a little tower made of reinforced concrete and a low power winch. Its work was to bring the tailings back to the surface.
A third mine and a headframe were built between 1927 and 1947. In 1938, the mine reached 313 meters in depth, but it only became operational in 1953. It was improved and reached 480 meters depth. The extraction machine at its top was insufficient. The engineer decided to install a machine on the floor, and to improve it. The n° 1 mine stopped the extraction and became a rescue mine. Then, its additional buildings were converted into showers and cloakrooms. The n° 2 mine was sealed off. In the 1930s, the site reached its apogee, employing 1.500 workers. When it closed on 31 October 1977, it employed more than 600 miners.
After its closure, the site was purchased cheaply by Mr. Armand Lowie, a Flemish real estate developer, who decided to dismantle it. However, decrees were published to protect the site in 1978, 1982 and 1992. In 1997, the Belle-Fleur tower underwent solidity control and is equipped again
In 2007, the Hasard mine was included in a Walloon Government rehabilitation program, to restore the facades and roofs of the Phalanstère, as well as the machine room and the wooded hill. The tower of mine n° 1 has been classified as a local heritage site since 1980.
At the end of 2008, Mr. Lowie filed a building permit for the demolition of the concrete tower of shaft no. 3 and ancillary buildings to replace them with housing and shops, but opposition was strong and the project was suspended. On 30 April 2013, after more than 30 years of controversy between the owners and the authorities, a notice of expropriation was recorded by the Minister Philip Henry and the site became public. The SPI is responsible for cleaning up the site with a budget 2,070,000 euro. A conversion plan is being prepared for the end of 2013, and unclassified parts of buildings will be demolished in October 2015. The site will then offer services to individuals and businesses.
In 2016, the installations of shafts no. 1 and 3 were in ruins, and the buildings of shaft no. 1 were classified as local heritage sites. The n° 2 shaft was destroyed, as well as several buildings around it. The no. 4 mine was well-preserved.
Mickey Mouse is dead babe, Mickey Mouse is dead
From the back of the plant, the entry was pretty easy, no actual fencing or similar. After moving past the ruins of some small buildings, we moved further down and through the branches and leaves of the tall trees, we saw the imposing tower of shaft no.2. What a sight that was!
But the main target was the actual building surrounding the tower of shaft no.1. We entered and moved first all the way up the tower, to the extraction machine of the shaft. I had never seen similar machines before from up close, I had no idea at the time what it was I was looking at, all I knew was that it was beautiful. It is funny how much you learn about things you see while exploring. Things that you would probably never care about otherwise, but after touching them, and breathing the same air as them, you become interested in their history and usage.
Perhaps it is also the fact that exploring abandoned places derives from a deep interest in history and learning about the inner workings of places we only know of from their outer shells mostly, meaning their exterior. For instance, we may be passing by a certain place daily going to work, or school, and we know the name of the place, or what it was. But we never really wonder about how it was on the inside when it was alive, because we have been conditioned to consider these abandoned spaces as obsolete and unimportant to our daily lives to give them more than a passing thought.
Walking inside the main coal mine building was a true time travel experience. Even though the place had decayed through years of neglect and disuse, and a surprisingly small amount of vandalism, it was not a mere empty carcass of a once majestic creature. It still held many of its original features and machinery that allowed us to feel closer to a different era.
Furthermore, something I always find extremely satisfying when exploring outside Greece, is that I get to see how buildings and institutions were designed and operated in other countries. Maybe the differences are not always that many, but they are significant and carry the weight of a country’s rich cultural identity.
Moving between levels and going from room to room, we saw the lamp rooms where workers would place their utility lamps after their shift, several offices, wash rooms and toilets where personal items were still left hanging from hooks. Even the table where workers would put up their punch cards was still there.
In one of the wash rooms, I saw a dead mouse. Contrary to what many might believe about exploring abandoned places, rats and mice are not the most common thing you encounter. Usually it’s pigeons, dead and alive. But yeah, rodents are not highly uncommon either.
Well hello there
As we were going down a staircase to step out of the main building, we saw a figure coming straight up. After the quick discussion he had with V, my friend told me he was some sort of caretaker (but in hindsight I believe he was just a grifter) who asked for a small amount of cash to allow us to remain there and have the front gate unlocked to leave. Yeah-yeah, I know what some of your will be thinking by now, especially a Tyrolese boy who will be laughing hard at this. However, at that moment, I literally couldn’t care less if a couple of Euros were to be spent to remove this annoying “fly” from the area. Plus, I felt like I was invited to someone else’s party so I had to follow V’s lead on this.
After the guy left, we exited the building ourselves and sat beneath tower no.2 for a short break for a smoke. I was still smoking back then and I do miss these cigarette breaks while exploring from time to time.
When the break was over we continued with the rest of the buildings. A very interesting find was next to the big room of the extraction machine of shaft no.3. There were pieces of metal on the wall along a corridor where workers were placing their work boots and many were still there.
We spent a few more minutes checking out more rooms and after a while we decided to leave and head to our second stop of the day.
Trust goes a long way…uphill
Remember the guy who promised to keep the gate unlocked for us after cashing the money he asked for? Well he never unlocked any gate. So up the hill we went, helping each other along the way as the climb was steep at times, but we were soon in V’s car and heading to our next spot. So far, so good.
Message of the day
I find myself often torn between two opposite ends in the emotional spectrum. One is absolute joy, and the other is a feeling of great sadness.
Joy comes when I know that I have visited a place before it had become a, excuse my French, total shithole. Or before it was torn down to be replaced by some modern building(s) to house people willing to spend too much money for really small flats.
Sadness comes when I see that a place I visited just a few years prior to my visit looked much better, or a really wonderful part of it (or item) was still there, intact, waiting patiently to be admired and photographed. Knowing I had just missed my chance makes me sad. On some occasions I find online or in books places that I am so excited to be looking at, that when I read they are no longer there and any chance, no matter how remote, of me ever seeing them up close is gone, I feel stripped away of some form of happiness. Even if a place is at the other side of the globe you always feel like there’s always a chance you may end up seeing.
With Hasard Cheratte I felt joy. Most pictures I found online from older visits made by others revealed little to have changed, or disappeared. But later photos showed serious signs of vandalism, making me feel lucky to have been there at perhaps a turning point.
One serious downside with urban exploration is that though you can say it’s never too late to start, in some cases it really is. Abandoned locations always pop-up, new ones are created all the time, but there will be a day when most, if not all, of the really old places, especially places like hospitals and factories, will have been either removed from the map, or transformed to something else unrecognizable.
At the moment, at least I can enjoy my exploration knowing that what I see is closer to my nostalgia, than someone 20 years younger. My son perhaps will one day explore on his own and if he can visit some of the places I have, they will look to him more like prehistoric, rather than historic.
But at least he will be exploring.
- While on Google Maps I found out that Hasard Cheratte is walkable via street view. The mark says 2017. If one is interested to check out my photos, than do the street view, they will see that in 3 years the places is in worse shape. I can only imagine how it looks today, though I’ve read somewhere there are plans to redevelop the entire location.
- In case anyone is wondering about location names, so far I have given both names of Birkwood and Hasard Cheratte. This will not always be the case, but both these places are quite well-known as locations in non-urbex cycles too, and they both have reached a state of serious disarray, meaning there’s not really much to do to help preserve these any longer.
TO BE CONTINUED….The Hangman’s Noose