If I’m being completely honest, it didn’t take long after arriving in La Louvière to realise that perhaps the best thing I could do with my time was to leave. I’d just completed an exhausting 30km walk along the region’s canal network, and this was my final stop before heading home. I’m glad I stayed long enough to visit the excellent Ceramics Museum and the lovely Mill Art Gallery, but otherwise La Louvière hasn’t too much to offer the casual visitor.
Walking around the town felt a bit like being an eyewitness to post industrial decline. I feel a little guilty saying that, because a town that was once one of the foremost centres of industry in Belgium has clearly been through some ‘stuff’. The simple fact of there being a Ceramics Museum hints at the fate of La Louvière and the surrounding area.
A once thriving ceramics industry, powered by the region’s coal mining industry, defined the town’s economic fortunes for a century and a half. Ceramics were exported around the world, but in the closing decades of the 20th century the renowned Boch Frères ceramic factory, founded by Eugène and Victor Boch in 1841, fell foul of globalisation. As did the town and the many people employed in the factories.
Some of the most interesting exhibits in the museum are photos of strikes and protests from the 70s, 80s and 90s, ending with the inevitable demolition of the factories, chimneys and mounds of broken molds. By then, the factory had branched out into making toilets, and the piles of smashed toilets are particularly poignant. After years of struggle, the factory finally closed for good in 2009 and was completely demolished.
The museum dedicated to telling this story incorporates the only surviving part of the factories, the bottle kilns used for firing the earthenware. There are plenty of original Boch Frères products on display and there’s a great film exploring the ceramics process. Sadly, the remainder of the vast site of the factories still hasn’t been fully redeveloped, and it leaves a big gap in the centre of town.
If La Louvière feels a bit depressing, the nearby hamlet of Bois-du-Luc is a poster child for post industrial decay. I made a special detour to visit because it has an UNESCO listed museum that incorporates the old coal mine and surrounding ‘company town’. The collapse of the industry and closure of the mine in 1973 devastated local communities. It felt appropriate that I’d made the journey in vain, the museum was closed.
I did unearth an extraordinary fact about mining in this region, though. In the post-war period, Italian miners were lured to La Louvière with a promise, made by the Belgian government to the Italian government, that they would receive a diet as similar to their normal diet as post war rations would allow. There must have been some very disappointed Italians. I doubt any of them ever saw a vaguely tasty tomato again.
This helps explain why La Louvière has more Italian restaurants than a town this size should be able to support. Something I was lamenting as I unsuccessfully hunted for a traditional brasserie for lunch. None of this should be allowed to take away from the reason I’d come to this former industrial belt of Wallonia: in the countryside surrounding La Louvière are glorious reminders of its industrial heritage.
Snaking through the countryside is the old Canal du Centre, connecting the River Meuse to the Scheldt. The stretch of canal that runs from Thieu to La Louvière has four hydraulic boat lifts built between 1888 and 1917, their frames like metal dinosaurs towering over the peaceful landscape. Since 1998, they have been listed as an UNESCO World Heritage site. The fourth lift is on the outskirts of La Louvière, but it was the journey there that was special …