Shades picked out of the past;Travel;France

5th February 1999 at 00:00
A French coal mine raises literary and celluloid ghosts for Kevin Berry

You can't miss the mine at Wallers Arenberg. It's bigger than anything I can remember from the Yorkshire coalfield or any coalfield in England, but Wallers Arenberg is not on a main route to anywhere. It is hidden away in the wooded countryside of France close to the Great War battlefields.

There are very few signs of coal mining in northern France now. Slag heaps have been levelled or are rich with shrubbery.

I was in France to watch the Paris Roubaix cycle race, the classic race along cobbled roads, and finding the mine was a happy accident. The Forest of Arenberg is a popular point for spectators and the coal mine is a landmark near the forest entrance.

"It looks like something out of Germinal," said my companion.

And there is a connection here with Emile Zola's 19th-century novel about the appalling life of miners. The director Claude Berri found the coal mine and its village and used it for exterior shots in his 1993 film based on the book.

We were taken round the site by a retired miner who led us to a huge building. He opened the door, we stepped inside, and it was as if we were a mile under ground.

We had entered one of the long tunnels that Claude Berri's technicians built inside the mine buildings. They put old-style telephones at intervals because the tunnels were so long and ran rail lines the length of the tunnels.

There are flapping doors every few metres. It all looks so real, but touch the rocks and you feel the fibre glass.

There are exhibition rooms which explain Berri's film, the life and death of the mine and an underground explosion in the early years of the century.

Maps of the site and the surrounding area have a key to show where certain film scenes were shot and there are photographs of the local people playing extras and meeting the actors, including the charismatic Gerard Depardieu.

A corner of one room shows costumes from the film, static figures and a wagon being pushed through a tunnel. The women wear headscarves and look rather like the English novelist Thomas Hardy's farm girls; the men have smocks and tin hats and look similarly and strangely romantic, but the miners and their families had horrific lives.

The size of the mine is striking, with its three huge towers with winding gear, wide, steep staircases and a large area where the men queued for the cages to take them underground.

Twenty years ago almost 3,000 men would work on each underground shift. We were taken to the changing rooms. Imagine four secondary school halls and you have an idea of the size. The miners' clothes and valuables were kept on hooks that were lifted up high with a pulley.

The mine is an iron and steel monument - some might call it an industrial nightmare. Girders, huge chains, tired, broken engines covered with rust, conveyor belts, dials, levers, pistons and staircases leading ever upwards and onwards.

Water drips, and it is the colour of rust or oil, the wind sighs and sheets of metal clang. Thick wire ropes and cables are everywhere, the yards are a mass of rail lines.

The huge shafts were sealed with concrete when the mine was abandoned only 10 years ago.

Close your eyes and you hear murmuring ghosts.

Open them and the pages of Germinal are brought to life, all that is missing is steam and smoke.

Wallers Arenberg is 10 km north west of Valenciennes in the Region Nord Pas De Calais.The Site Minier is open from May to September. For prices tel : (00 33) 27 35 61 61

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