Discoveries in Belgium’s East End

::: Side-puzzles — Mine Magic — Flat to Hill.  (a – e)

 

a. Which side are we on?

Ghent is a well-known destination in Belgium, but I didn’t go there: I went to Genk instead – to start with! Yes, Genk, not Ghent! Genk is in the east-end of Belgium. So if you go from the middle of Brussels, Ghent is to your left, and Genk is to your right: only it’s a bit further in still, the country extends much further into the continent than you might expect: it is not so small after all!

 

Left, right, west, east: as you internalise that you are in Belgium’s East End, and that the whole country has an East End due to its long kind of horizontal shape, you start wondering about directions as you find that the famous seaport Oostende (ie. East End) is in the West End! So how come that? It’s clearly an East End from the English side, but why would it be called East End here in Belgium, where it seems wrong by 180 degrees? I found out that it’s because there was once an island! An island off the coast of Belgium, and this island had a West End port and an East End port. What happened later though, is that the West End port side of the island sunk into the sea! Whereas the side of the island where the East port was merged with the mainland! So that side remained and became the Oostende that we still know. Whereas the west end is deep inside the water!

That old lost little island was called Testerep, and it’s not up now, it’s down, deep down! So give a little thought to what we have lost. Testerep, in itself, was a relic of the earlier bigger Doggerland, too, the land that famously connected Britain with Belgium too – when the channel was a river. So it was Doggerland, then Testerup, and now just Oostende in the west end. Changing of the elements! Pay homage to this past island!

So when I am talking about east and west sides here, I don’t mean Flanders versus Wallonia: that’s another issue, that’s a north-south issue – I am talking about this east end, or These East Ends! And in the east, there’s pretty Wallonia too, and more and more of it too! So I’ll talk about it later.

N.B: totally complicated directions: and I haven’t even mentioned that the province of East Flanders is not in this East End of Flanders, but between the province of West Flanders and Antwerp and so, almost in the middle of the country. The peculiarities of the positions of east and west don’t easily cease to amaze.

 

b. Triangle, Mine

Genk: how it became a destination, and discovery, in the first place is because it was the meeting point for the European Mining Heritage meeting I was attending! So the idea was to deepen the ‘mining work’ I had done – not literally but literarily – and look at other mines, and more mines, and i found there was more to them and in them, even now, in their ‘retirement’ when they are no longer working.

 

I stayed in a place called Tongeren, to the south of Genk.  Tongeren turned out to be the oldest town in Belgium. To get here from Genk you need two trains: there is no direct line, I have to change in Hasselt. So here my triangular travel between Tongeren, Hasselt and Genk came in, and, as so often in my travels, I have found myself again in a triangle-correspondence between three towns.

Genk is full of former mines: coalmines mostly. It’s an absolutely industrial area – this is a region of seven mines, spread around itself and Hasselt, making up the Limburg Mine  region. Tongeren, because I stayed there, became my daily starting-and end-point. It is itself outside the mining region, and instead is the oldest town in Belgium, evoking the medieval age! It’s also on the southern end of Flanders, edging on Wallonia, so this is where my edge-adventure, too, began!

Tongeren is old-monk-Trappist, city-walled, cobble-stoned, ancient city-walled, with medieval magic. Famous also for ‘Ambiorix’, ambitious leader of the Eburones, which is not a reggae-band (nothing to do with the Heptones!) but an old Gallic tribe!  I stayed in the youth hostel in the street with my name: Ursulastraat! In ‘my’district was the famous ‘Moerenport’ too: like Moorgate, maybe older.

 

The medieval character of Tongeren is not just in the buildings but ‘in the air’ too: as if it unfolded secrets and stories of the past, interminglings across centuries and influences, impressions, inscriptions. I felt home in a way that cannot be easily described, and need poetry and excavations in order to pinpoint the kind of space I encountered there.

c. Meeting, Mines, Machines, Magic

Then the mine meeting: I went here to do my presentation of the Mine and Yours – a mining and twinning project, which I have written about back in October (also on this blog), and added part 2 of this project too. Also I was curious of course to get more insight into mines. Then what I saw completely overwhelmed me: these mines of eastern Belgium were big, very big!

 

There were seven mines here alone, 7! And each of them was not just a mine, but what I didn’t anticipate that they also had a lot of machines in them! And many gadgets, and individual showers for the miners, hundreds of them! As if they lived there somehow, and like a whole world is in a mine.

Mining magic! Machinations! like putting the whole world into a structure. Industrial structure, mega mine, megalith! But infinitesimal order prevails, perhaps. Hundreds

 

upon hundreds of machinery in one mine. A kind of Myopia, too, seems to threaten: press the wrong button, and you could blow it all up! Danger of industrial progress? It could be either you, or more. How safe you are depends on which machines you use. There’s a machine called ‘widow-maker’, it’s not safe! Miner’s sacrifice, for our supply.

Knowing that other mines faced the same situation and the same struggles is so comforting and liberating. It’s striking too, miners’ strikes happened too, miners of all countries, strike!.

 

Surrealist magic with a little bit of horror mixed in. Industrial superlative! Machines to last a lifetime!

I got so absorbed in the mine’s belly, its bundle of stories, its work and meaning, its symbols and signs.

 

The last mine of this complex of seven was closed down in 1992, but it looks fresher than that. Some of those mines had been transformed into sites for creative business, museums, pubs, art-spaces. Belgium seems to really appreciate its mining heritage. Industrial heartland with a heart!

 

Heart indeed, soul, spirit: our group was shown miners’ churches, and miner’s villages, modelled on the garden city model in England. There’s a kind of war-and-peace side to this too: men who worked in the mines during the war in Belgium were freed from fighting in the war. This was the case in Britain too, but there wasn’t the prestige associated with it as it was here in Belgium. The  story of the boss of one mine I heard was particularly moving: he was so disgusted with the war that in the middle of all this tragedy he ordered his miners to build a church instead! A church against the war, even in the face of aggression, worry and large-scale multidimensional existential scare. An amazing act!

 

d. Lim-Lux – another word for this edge-crossing

Tongeren, apart from being in the east end of the whole of the country, is also at the southern boundary of Flanders-part of the country. If you take a train from here southwards, you reach Wallonia immediately, because Tongeren is the last stop before the boundary.  Like Genk and Hasselt further north, it is in the province of Limburg. Limburg also exists as a province in the neighbouring Netherlands, but this is Belgian Limburg. From here I went to Luxembourg! Like Limburg, Luxembourg is also a double: it’s a little country of course, but also it’s another province in Belgium! So I went from

 

Lim to Lux, and each of those has a double, and each is on the respective other side of the division between Flanders and Wallonia. Doubles and divisions, geographical mirror-images and double LLs! Just to add on to this, between the two provinces of Lim and Lux, there’s Liege! LLL then…

My destination in this Luxembourg was a place called Barvaux-sur-Ourthe. I had chosen this little town with this long name for two reasons: one is that it is close to Durbuy, which is known as the smallest city in the world -and there is something exciting about going from the oldest town in this country to the smallest city in this world! Secondly, Barvaux is the closest railway station to reach the remains of this regions’ ancient stone circle. A tiny bit of Stonehenge here then, a rare site in continental Europe. When I got here, I found it’s still a bit far to go, and a bit difficult to find too, so I just went to the river instead. But to my amazement and delight I found another ‘stone circle’: not a circle, but a place of worship made of stone! It was at the far side, and low side of a hill leading to a chapel. The far side, the hidden side: how wonderful. Here is the energy, the spirit, survival – mixed in with Christianity but not stopping there, going beyond spiritual boundaries, traditions, edges and taboos.

There’s a lot more to say on the way. Literally, on the way, as there is something you notice which happens as you get there: here in Wallonia it’s not flat anymore, as in Flanders: it’s hilly! Before you reach Liege, hills come ‘rolling in’, and they ‘roll on further’, the more you move down south. With the rivers in the middle of them all – first the Meuse, then the Ourthe, it looks like West Yorkshire around Hebden Bridge. These hills are the Ardennes, but they could be brothers and sisters of the Pennines!

 

From mines to mountains and back again -from flat to hill, and back – from Flanders to Wallonia and back -from one pretty place to another.

It’s funny, then, how not only the language changes between the two halves of this country but the geography too: Flemish for the flat land and French for the hills.

 

e. Back to the other side of the Tunnel

I had seen and found out a lot but far from all I wanted to see: I hadn’t even made it to the labyrinth at Barvaux, and not even to the Gallo-Roman museum in Tongeren! I had to take two trains home: first to Brussels, and then to London. So I set off in Tongeren, arrived, in the end, in‘ Tottenham, and passed under the tunnel under the channel with the Eurostar between these two Ts. Taking the  Eurostar also meant a stopover in Brussels, specifically Brussels-Midi rather than the centre. So I had to discover what was to be found on location around here, which I enjoyed with unsurprising psychogeographic curiosity: Brussels as seen, and walked, from here!

I found: a park, and in it a ‘porte’ (‘ Halle Gate’: a grand old tower which was part of Brussels’ second city wall), a market, and some interesting art-galleries. It’s called St. Gilles around there., not quite like St. Giles over here, but really interesting, more cozy, multicultural, arty: like Walthamstow in, but not too much inside, London perhaps.

Then Eurostar time came and I went for it. Land, tunnel, then land again, this time England. It’s only the second time I’ve ‘eurostarred’, and the first time from and to St. Pancras and I loved it. Arriving at the centre of London rather than at the edge, where the airports are, is great in this case: you just walk into and inside central London: from the platform to the centre! St. Gilles, St. Pancras, Salutations, and the east side I had just come from. This is the (east) end I had enjoyed on both sides: on the Flanders side, and on the Wallonia side. They are both beautiful ends: belle, Belgium, bellissimo!

 

 

 

 

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