Built on black gold
The 20th century got off to a fine start in eastern Flanders. On 2 August, 1901, “Flemish black gold” was discovered in the Kempen region of Limburg. Coal transformed this virtually uninhabited region of arid heathland and boggy morasses into a thriving industrial heartland.
Flanders’ only authentically intact mine, and the town they built around it
Over the next three decades, seven huge coal mines were built within cycling distance of each other. At its peak, the Flemish mining industry employed 46,000 mineworkers and yielded 10 million tonnes of coal per year.
One of the seven collieries was in Beringen. The town is the oldest in the Kempen, with records dating back to 1239. Before the discovery of its underground treasure, Beringen was noted as the birthplace of August Cuppens. This Flemish pastor-poet was one of the leading lights of the Flemish literary scene. In 1885, he established the weekly cultural magazine 't Daghet in den Oosten, which ran for 30 years.
The seven-kilometre August Cuppens Walk takes you around the town, passing the recently restored Church of St Peter in Chains. Dating back to the early 15th century, its baroque altar and 17th-century pulpit are worth stopping to see.
Treated like heroes
To discover Beringen’s coal mining history, however, you have to leave the town centre and travel a few kilometres north. You travel back in time, for nowhere else in Limburg is the province’s mining heritage so extensively preserved.
Although the first coal seams were discovered in 1901, it was not until 1917 that the first Flemish mine – Winterslag, near Genk – started extracting coal. Beringen mine was the next to open, in 1922. The golden age of the industry was in the 1950s, but it was short-lived, with most mines closing during the 1980s. The very last one – Zolder – closed in 1992.
It was decided that one mine should be preserved intact, and Beringen’s was chosen. It was converted into the Flemish Mining Museum, which gives visitors fascinating insights into the lives of coal miners and the development of mining in Beringen and elsewhere in Flanders.
A visit to the museum starts with a documentary showing aspects of everyday life of miners in the early days. With the help of original black-and-white footage, an old miner reminisces. We learn how he started on his apprenticeship at the age of 14, sorting coal. His father was already down the pit, working 48 hours a week, six days out of seven, in what he describes as heavy, unhealthy and dangerous work.
Our friendly miner recalls how, during the Second World War, Russian prisoners were employed at Beringen, which was controlled by the German army. The coal was exported directly to Germany to support the war effort. Ironically, after the war, the Russians’ places at the coal face were taken by German POWs.
The old miner’s tale becomes more upbeat as he remembers the heyday of the 1950s. By then, conditions underground had been much improved, and the collieries were making big profits, which were ploughed back into the local area. Schools, hospitals, social clubs and new roads were developed. Prince Boudewijn visited Beringen colliery. “At Expo ’58 we were treated like heroes,” he recalls, and “Beringen Football Club was playing in the First Division.”
But then, the old miner’s eyes mist over as he tries to make sense of what happened next. “Coal became too expensive; at least that’s what they said,” he comments.
The development of the Kempen coal basin was no longer a priority for policymakers. Zwartberg mine was closed in 1966. Newsreels take over the story. Protests and demonstrations were held outside the colliery. Vehicles were overturned. The police tried to restore order, and two miners were killed. “Nothing was the same from this day onwards,” says the old man.
He was right. Restructuring merely delayed the inevitable. Production stopped at Beringen in 1989.
The next part of the tour is a scale-model of the colliery, with a rather old fashioned but effective audio-visual presentation describing the role of the coal production process and each of the buildings.
Then it’s time to visit the mine itself. The shaft was sealed off and filled in for safety reasons when the mine closed. Everything else remains much as it was when the last miner clocked off.
The endless lines of tiled shower cubicles are remarkable. Each miner also had his own numbered locker (top half for clean clothes, bottom half for dirty), with a heating pipe underneath. You can follow in the men’s footsteps as they head towards the shaft. You see where they would have collected their lamps; open flames at first, not just for light but to detect dangerous underground gases. (If your lamp went out, it was time to get out.) Later, battery-powered lamps attached to helmets were introduced.
Every miner also had a numbered badge, which he would leave behind when he took a lamp – a vital security check at the end of each shift. You see carbon monoxide filters, which were introduced after the 1956 disaster at the Marcinelle colliery in Wallonia, which claimed the lives of 262 miners.
Equally fascinating is the room where the foremen divided the miners into teams and allocated tasks. “The metal cages and gates might look like a cattle market, but with 2,000 men passing through at the start of each of eight-hour shift, such a strict system was necessary,” says Filip Delarbre, the museum’s curator.
Each team would then pass down a further corridor to collect their tools and water bottles before entering the elevator which would send them almost a kilometre below the surface. They would then spread out horizontally along 100 kilometres of tunnels to the coal face.
In the simulated underground tunnels and galleries are drills, picks, shovels, lamps, conveyor belts and rail wagons. You find out not just how the miners worked, but how they eat, drank and breathed 850 metres below the surface – all historically accurate.
If you are feeling in need of fresh air, then a walk on the slag heap will do you good. When the coal was brought to the surface, it was “dressed” by removing the stones (slag). The resulting heap has been grassed over. Footpaths lead to the top for impressive views over the colliery complex and the surrounding countryside. Nearby is the Mine Manager’s villa and five hectare garden, which is also open to the public. The gardens have been renovated, although the villa was unfortunately destroyed in a fire.
Shipped in by the thousands
A question that might arise while looking down at the vast colliery is: “Where did all the miners come from?” It’s a reasonable question, considering the region was virtually inhabited, while at its peak, nearly 6,800 worked at the Beringen colliery.
When the mine opened in 1922, miners from collieries in Wallonia were drafted in, followed in the 1930s by workers from Poland. After the Second World War, the collieries in Limburg were in desperate need for manpower, and the Belgian government made a deal with the Italian government that if they sent workers, Italy would get cheaper coal.
Between 1946 and 1956, 28,000 Italians arrived in Limburg to work down the mines. When the Italian government terminated the agreement in 1957, following the mining accident in Marcinelle in which nearly half the 262 victims were Italians, the collieries imported workers from other countries such as Greece, Spain, Turkey and Morocco.
Of course, these workers needed a place to live, and the result was the creation of a totally new mining village: Beringen-Mijn. The company didn’t just build houses – they had to provide schools, shops, sports facilities, cultural centres, churches and a hospital. A walk through Beringen-Mijn is a fascinating experience, especially if you hire the digital Story Traveller from the museum or tourist office, which provides an entertaining guide through the most interesting spots.
The multicultural character of the village is immediately evident from the different places of worship. Worthy of a visit is the Fatih Turkish Mosque, with its Ottoman architecture, twin minarets and beautiful hand-painted tiles. Equally impressive is the Greek Orthodox Church. St Theodardus Mining Cathedral was actually built during the Second World War – when many other churches were being destroyed. Its Gothic arches hark back to the black mineshafts.
More than mining
There are plenty of places to visit in and around Beringen that are not related to its mining heritage. From May to September, a walk with a difference is around Blueberry Fields, where you will be brought up to date with the cultivation of blueberries and cranberries, their health benefits and their uses. In July and August, you can pick your own. Any visit should be rounded off with blueberry ice cream or a glass of cranberry juice.
Learn more than you ever thought possible about goats at ’t Kasteeltje Goat Farm in the Vennestraat. This also includes how goat’s cheese, ice-cream and cheesecake are made, all of which can be sampled afterwards.
If you prefer sheep to goats, head to De Stalse Schans in Guido Gezellestraat. The owners breed Flemish milk sheep, an endangered breed. Again, after finding out everything about milking, shearing and breeding, you get to taste the milk, cheese and ice cream.
A very unusual museum, meanwhile, is located in Genebroekstraat. ’t Pad van Pien Barometer Museum tells the story of all kinds of meteorological discoveries. Various information panels cover topics such as weather, climate, air pressure and humidity. You can measure the strength of the wind, weigh air and create air pressure. At certain times you might catch a glass-blower at work.
Touring the mines
Visitors are only allowed into the Flemish Mining Museum in Beringen as part of a guided tour. Daily tours are in Dutch, but other languages are possible if booked in advance. The tours are actually led by ex-miners. Their extensive first-hand information makes every tour unique. “Children in particular enjoy the opportunity to meet an actual mineworker and ask him questions,” says the museum’s curator. (And everyone has to dress up in miners’ clothes.)
Touring on wheels
The coal seam that was discovered in Limburg extends through the Netherlands into Germany. Two recreational routes take you through the post-industrial landscape from Beringen to Heerlen in the Netherlands and on to Jülich in Germany.
The Green Route takes cyclists through the most beautiful natural areas of the region, while the Metropolis Route is targeted at motorists and focuses on the industrial heritage and urban areas. Over a length of about 250 kilometres, both routes contain more than 70 leisure opportunities and a number of highlights on mining, nature and culture.
A route book with descriptions and maps is available from the Beringen tourist office. Both routes start at the Flemish Mining Museum.