FolkestoneJack's Tracks

The beauty of the blast furnace

Posted in Germany, Völklingen by folkestonejack on May 1, 2018

The town of Völklingen in Saarland is home to one of Europe’s most unusual tourist attractions – a preserved iron works which serves as an art gallery, museum and science centre. It’s an important historic monument, recognised as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 1994 on account of its being the only intact example of an integrated ironworks in Europe and North America and the place where many technological innovations were first developed.

The origins of the complex can be traced back to the establishment of the first ironworks in 1873, though it was the entrepreneurial spirit and improvements introduced by the Röchling family from the 1880s that really established the long term success of the operation. Remarkably, enough remains from each stage of the site’s development to present a physical chronology of the evolution of pig-iron production. The site has been left as it appeared in 1986, when the blast furnaces were shut down, though the overall appearance is of an ironworks of the 1930s.

The view of the ironworks that greets you as you get off the train at Völklingen

The complex is easily reached by public transport from Trier with regional express trains taking around an hour to make the journey south and local services taking an extra twenty minutes on top of that.

I caught my first sight of the iron works from the platform and marveled at the monstrous tangle of chimneys, pipes and blast furnaces that filled the skyline. The photographs I had seen really did not do justice to the scale of the place and made it even harder to fathom how anyone could have had the foresight to preserve the entire complex, let alone open it up to visitors!

The extent of the visitor route through the site is really impressive – it’s a good 7km from start to finish. Along the way this takes you 27 metres above group to a 200m long platform where monorail cars once ran along the platform to supply the six blast furnaces with raw materials (each monorail car held approximately one tonne of coke or two and half tonnes of ore, sinter or scrap, operating at a speed of 3mph on the flat). To reach the platform involved climbing plenty of metal staircases, wearing hard-hats, but the effort is amply rewarded.

It gets even better – you can climb up to a 45 metre high observation deck at the top of the blast furnace group to see the terrific panoramic views of the complex and the industrial landscape in which it sits. I’m pretty scared of heights but the photographic opportunities helped me overcome this…

The 45m high observation deck at the top of the Völklingen ironworks offers stunning views

Once we had climbed the heights we headed back down to ground level and on to ‘The paradise‘. As you might already have guessed, the name plays on the hellish nature of the coking plant in its active life and the wildlife that has taken over since then.

A leisurely walk around the well signposted 1000m trail provides some interesting views of nature’s battle with the ironworks, as well as the gigantic machinery and narrow gauge locomotives that once kept everything moving in and out of the site. Once we had completed the circuit we returned to the starting point, in the blower hall, admiring the enormous wheel shaped blowers.

Some of the most poignant exhibits were the smallest and most human items displayed – such as the wooden shelter that the workers built to protect themselves from the dust in the sintering plant and the paper file recording the prisoners forced to work at the plant during the second world war. The terrible human cost was highlighted in one of the museum displays – of the 12,276 foreign workers who worked at the Rochling iron works between 1942 and 1944 around 250 died. Forty five were infants that had been born at Völklingen.

One of the figures from Ottmar Hörl’s Second Life – 100 workers

Overall, the time we spent exploring the site (following the route marked on the handy map they provided) were some of the most rewarding I have spent in any museum.

It was an absolute dream for industrial photography and took us a good three hours to explore, despite visiting in between exhibitions in the main space (during our visit we got to see a gallery of photographs from Banksy’s dismaland project and an exhibition of Ottmar Hörl’s mini worker sculptures distributeds across the site, but the next big exhibition about Queen Elizabeth II was not due to open until 19th May 2018).

At the time of our visit entry cost 17 euros per person, including all the exhibitions on offer. I kept having to pinch myself at the freedom on offer here – I can’t believe that we would ever have opened anything like this in the UK with our very cautious culture of health and safety!

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