We had arrived in Bochum to visit friends, approaching this city in the industrial heartland of Germany known as the Ruhrgebiet in torrential summer rain. Somehow it fit the city that we explored that afternoon on foot – a no-nonsense, postwar urban landscape similar to many of the towns that were heavily bombed during World War II in western Germany, where the emphasis has long been on getting things done rather than aesthetic beauty.
But despite the concrete and mostly uninspiring architecture that Bochum offered up as a first impression, we’ve long known that there are possibilities for outdoor adventure and exploration absolutely everywhere, and the town that is famous for coal and steel and Herbert Grönemeyer is no exception.
The idea came from our friend Marcel, who had discovered that one of the better ways to explore the region is by taking a bike along the network of trails that link the various towns of the Ruhr, often following the route of former railways that once moved the different materials taken out of the mines or the products that these resources were then used to create. The Erzbahntrasse is one such route, using an old mine railway track to link Bochum with Gelsenkirchen, which was created in 2002 and has become one of the most popular routes in the region.
The only problem was we didn’t have a bike, but a couple of clicks on Marcel’s app in a leafy square not far from the start of the route and we were all moving gracefully through the streets of Bochum on two wheels. Riding from Bochum, the Erzbahntrasse begins at the Jahrhunderthalle, an architecture landmark of the city that was built in 1902 for a trade exhibition in Düsseldorf and then reconstructed in Bochum as a gas power station.
With the decline of coal and steel industries in the Ruhr, the building was repurposed once more, and it is now a concert venue and cultural centre, and we started our ride by circling the impressive building before heading into the neighbouring Westpark, a green space for the city created out of a former industrial wasteland.
In a light drizzle we began to ride, following the Erzbahntrasse along the bottom of the gardens of the cottages built to house the mine workers. On the other side of the old railway line were scrapyards and warehouses, as well as some of the last remaining mine headframes in the region. It was a reminder of how close everything would have been when the mines were operational, and how much the excavation of the earth shaped the landscape for miles around.
This became especially clear as the bike path was carried over raised bridges, high above the motorway with its steady stream of traffic in the gloom, as well as deep overgrown valleys, canals and still-functioning railway lines. This was a place of edgelands, of forgotten zones and abandoned corners, home no doubt to all manner of wildlife that we might have caught a glimpse of if they weren’t all sensibly sheltering from the rain that was now beginning to fall more steadily.
On we rode, our journey along the Erzbahntrasse now becoming something of a mission. A few other cyclists passed us as we went. Students and commuters, and a couple of riding groups, pausing at each of the information boards that told stories of the mines and the factories, the railway lines and canal barges, and the generations of people who lived and worked among these low slung hills.
We dropped down into valleys, passing through dripping tunnels to discover grassy meadows hidden between triangles of railway lines and roads. It was easy to imagine local kids developing a whole network of secret pathways and dens, far from the prying eyes of adults, making their way along paths of desire for warm beers and warmer kisses. Despite the grey and despite the drizzle, despite the scarred landscape and an architecture designed for function over form, there was a beauty here in the Ruhrgebiet. You just needed to know where to look.
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton