Two narrow canals, one fed by the lake in Huelgoat, one by the rivière d’Argent, go throughthe woods and around the valley, à flanc de colline, mid-slope.
The upper canal is full of trouts. It is home to mallards and wagtails, and crosses enchanting beech woods. The green leaves, still tender at the end of April, are translucent in the sunlight. After an electric power station, the water slows down. On the other side of the valley from Huelgoat, I spot newts and a grass snake in the canal, now but a damp ditch. A red squirrel plays hide-and-seek with me for a while. Bluebells, dandelions, primroses burst into flowers, brackens and ferns unroll. The wind is a gentle breeze. The woods are filled with bird songs, as the summer residents have arrived, the chiffchaffs and warblers.
Mountain bike trails run down the steep slopes; their bridges and jumps criss cross the path that runs along the canal. A break in the trees lets me see, in a clearing downhill, a wooden installation, which I take to be a raised shooting seat, the kind used for wild boar hunts.
Further on, the hill is pierced by a gallery; the entry is blocked off, a sign warns against gases. I have stumbled upon a site called the Mine. This must be the best-kept and most surprising secret in Brittany. Since my visit there, when I told people about it, people who know Brittany well, I have had the same reaction: “A mine? You mean a quarry?”. Mining is unheard of in Brittany, and yet Locmaria-Berrien was indeed mined for lead and silver.
At first it is difficult to make sense of the site. Its various installations are disseminated over a vast area, and the wooded, steep-sided valley (vallée encaissée) doesn’t allow for an overview, a vue d’ensemble.
At the bottom of the valley, in landscapes reminiscent of the Californian gold rush, a few wooden shacks, the rails where the ore was carried out, slag heaps (les terrils), installations to sort, crush, wash the ore. In addition to powering the pump, the lower canal’s waters were filtered for their silver. It is then I understand the river is called rivière d’Argent.
As I walk around, trying to piece the puzzle together with the little information the few signs gave, I meet an elderly woman, walking her dogs. She explains the two canals used to bring water to power the pumps that kept the galleries from flooding. Mid-slope, the clearing I saw was in fact the technical area. What I took to be a shooting seat is the top of a well. There are also offices, now covered in ivy, the hydraulic wheel, and the houses of the engineers, whose only foundations remain.
She can’t answer all the questions I have about the mine, but pointed me in the direction of the top of the hill, where another well stood. The next day, as I walk along country lanes to find it, I meet her again. She makes me notice the rows of miners’ cottages, les corons, where the workers used to live. Nowadays they are popular with Brits as holiday houses; indeed they are the closest France has to terraced houses. The occasional sinkhole in the garden would unnerve me, personally.
My guide very kindly offers to open the local museum for me, and the day after, she picks me up for a private visit. The tiny museum for this unique industrial heritage in Brittany is in the old school of Locmaria-Berrien. It is a true labour of love, the work of ASAM, l’Association pour la Sauvegarde de l’Ancienne Mine, the local association for the preservation of the mine. Models, posters, videos and geological exhibits give me the insights the site itself wouldn’t.
It seems the Celts and the Romans already exploited the seam. In the 15th and 16th century, its silver became important for the mint in Rennes. The golden age of the mine was in the 18th and 19th century, when new technologies allowed a mining company to go further and deeper. The expertise came from elsewhere; the engineers were from Harz, Saxony, Bavaria – in modern Germany-, Wales, or Cornwall. The skilled workers were French, from the mining regions of the north of France.
The locals, men, women and children, formed the unskilled labour, nine tenth of the workforce. The working conditions were as bad as you can imagine. In 1767 the local women led the first female industrial strike action in France. After six weeks, they won and protected their level of pay. You can read more on the Association’s fantastic website (in French).
The exploitation ended in 1934. It is estimated only a third of the seam has been exploited. The current owners of the mine, a mining company, clearly don’t seem keen to encourage tourism… I feel I have discovered a secret.