Trip duration: 3 days | Approx cost: £150 inc ferry, fuel and accommodation | When: February
Doinit factor: A chance to explore Belgium’s industrial past!
The world is full of well-known and amazing buildings which attract hordes of visitors, but, for a small community it’s the decaying, abandoned, and unknown which lure their fascination; This is the world of ‘urbex’, or urban exploration. It’s a world that I, along with Dan and Macca will be delving into over a weekend in Belgium.
By coincidence our road trip to Europe starts the day after Brexit. The Dover ferry port is rather quiet, and after what seems like 101 questions from the border force asking where we’re heading and why, we’re boarding the ferry. It’s a pretty quick 90-minute crossing and a relatively straightforward drive along French and then Belgian anonymous motorway. Prior to our adventure, there’s was a degree of research needed in the form of scrolling through urbex blogs and forums, followed by a bit of detective work on google maps. Turns out one of the un-official rules of urbex is not to share the location or exploration sites (a rule I’ll respect in this article by not revealing exact locations).
After about two and a half hours we reached our first destination near the town of La Louvière. Here we’ve learnt of a massive steel works which is partially closed as of 2013. We’ve parked up and walked along the perimeter for about 25 minutes but with the only signs of access being official entrances manned by official looking people we accept defeat. This is one semi abandoned complex we won’t be exploring. Somewhat demoralised I (and I’m sure the boys) hope this isn’t going to be the start of a weekend trend of walking around sites rather then gaining access!
THE UN-OFFICIAL RULES OF URBEX!
- Never explore alone
- Don’t break anything, even to enter
- Don’t take (steal) anything from these sites
- Don’t share the exact locations (you’ll note this article doesn’t share exact locations)
- Don’t run
Our second stop of the afternoon is only about 30 minutes away, at the abandoned Power Plant IM. Built in 1921 it was one of the largest coal power plants in the country, even before it was expanded further in the 1970s to allow for the burning of gas, which it did until it’s closure in 2007. As we approach the site the sheer scale of the station’s cooling tower becomes apparent – perhaps for me, I release I’ve never actually been up close to one of these before so I’m in awe of its smooth symmetrical rounded concreate towering above me (forgive the pun). As we approach the site, we’ve noticed a handful of people around, we’re initially worried these may be security guards ready to hinder our attempts however it soon clear, like us, they’re explores. We approach an elevated door at the end of a metal staircase, not knowing what to expect, and urging it not to be locked, I express a sigh of relief to learn the door is thankfully unlocked.
Entering the cooling tower is a surreal moment, it’s a place not meant for humans but yet there are a couple of others inside taking pictures and wandering around. I find the stillness, the bright green moss on the grey concrete rather tranquil. Across a river is more of the abandoned complex, but the only way in is to try and climb on to an industrial bridge where the lower steps have been removed. It requires a bit of ape like scrambling, but we manage and head over to the buildings just as it begins to pour down. There’s no door per-se, rather a large opening, so access is unhindered as we step into what could easily be a dystopian film set with rubble, mangled metal, and rust wherever you look.
It will soon start getting dark so we’ve decided to call it day and once again negotiate the bridge over the river. As we head to our car we do see an opportunity to take a look into what looks like an abandoned train depot, which is an added bonus which makes up for the disappointment of not being able to access the early site.
We spend the night in a hotel in the town of Liege, which rather unexpectantly turns out to have quite a raucous a night life. The next day begins with a rather abrupt wake up call, unsurprisingly I’ve slept through the alarm and Dan’s thrusting some strong coffee in my face. Eventually, once I’m somewhat corpus mentis we’re heading to explore some more remnants of Belgium’s past.
We start our morning with a visit to Fort de la Chartreuse. Built in 1817 by the Dutch it served, as the name suggests, as a Fort before being used as a barracks, and later as a prison by the Germans during WW1. It also served as an American military hospital briefly during the second world war. Since 1988 the site stands abandoned, with the most recent tenants, the Belgian army, leaving. Access is via a road leading to a semi opened gate with the buildings occupying a pleasant green space. We pass a few joggers, mothers pushing their prams and people walking there dogs. I’m surprised to see that no boards blocking the entrance. The building has literally been left open for anyone to wander in.
Still around the proximity of Liege, our second stop is the Cockerill Sambre steel works. This is a huge complex which became defunct in 1999. We’ve pulled over by a fence but after a quick look around and noticing the barbed wire and cameras, and with yesterdays defeat still fresh in our minds, it’s not long before we mutally agree to give up and head to our penultimate urbex spot.
Only a short drive away we reach the ArcelorMittal steel works, from online forums and browsing through google maps we think we’ve found a way in. Parked in a seemingly quite industrial estate we duck under a flimsy mesh fence and briskly head towards the buildings. Once there it’s somewhat secluded and we walk along the building trying to find an access point, then by chance we hear a screech of metal as a gust of wind pushes a large shutter open. An entrance has reviled itself!
Inside it’s pretty dark and it takes a few minutes for our eyes to adjust, but we’ve also come prepared with torches. The whole area is cluttered with metal as we cautiously make our way deeper into the complex where it suddenly opens up into a huge industrial hall, completely deserted with only the eerie sound of rain and wind around taping and shaking the metal and glass roofing. This really is an urban explorers playground and what I feel the weekend has been building up to.
It’s hard to leave this place but we’ve a ferry to catch. There’s just enough time for one last stop, it’s close by and on the way back. Dan’s online research has found an old Chateau which he was eager to explore, but as we pull up we’re disappointed to find the grounds are being used as an airsoft (paint ball) arena. Without any protective gear, and the risk of being shot in the face too real we accept defeat and head home.
It has been a fun weekend and a great introduction to Urbex. With Dan driving and Macca in charge of google maps (at this point I’d question what my role was in all this) we’ve visited more than half of the sites we intended. The thrill of seeing places closed to the public, coupled with the problem-solving element of how best to (safely) enter abandoned sites really has given me a hunger to do this again soon.