The Spoil Tips

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A visiter autour de l'Hôtel Louvre Lens

When you arrive at Lens, you may wonder what the black mountains you can see from the hotel are. They are in fact massive piles of accumulated waste removed during coal mining called spoil. The spoil tips are mainly made up of shale and sandstone that was removed from the coal mines up to 1990. The French name terril comes from terri  (Belgian Walloon language) which means a pile of earth and stone. At the beginning the waste was extracted from the galleries and carried in baskets by the miners, then later by poneys (which were lowed into the mines) and finally emptied into wagons that came up and out of the top of the hills, hence the conic shape.

There were 350 spoil tips in 1970. Some were destroyed to mark the historical change and erase the memory of the mining era. Others saw a symbol of the past and the potential to create something worthwhile. There are 200 left in the region today and their structures vary. The shape of the tips changed and evolved over the centuries. The first tips were flat, followed by the cone-shaped tips, then cone-shaped tips with flat tops, modern tips made up of several cone-shaped tops and lastly small, successive mounds on which railways were built to transport the coal.

Although some still contain toxic waste, most have become unique biological environments where species quite unusual for the region have taken root, such as French sorrel, wild rose hips and goosefoots from New Zealand. The Pinchonvalles tip in Avion has recorded over 200 different plant species. Lastly, a few have been turned into sport and leisure centres for the public. It is possible to climb the 11/19 spoil tip at Loos-en-Gohelle – though it is quite physical and correct footwear to avoid slipping is required. The summit and its neighbour are both 610 ft high, the highest spoil tips in Europe, and offer fabulous 360° views of the region. Extreme sport lovers can even enjoy hang-gliding here. One of the most original transformations is tip 42 at Nœux-les-Mines, where an artifical ski slope has been added!