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Swimming on coal

Small pool with great effect

If water rats like Philip, Lea, Miriam and their friends can take a dip in the works swimming pool, they do so as often as possible – if possible, every day. Jumping from the edge of the pool is allowed here. For six weeks, the azure blue pool in front of the coke oven battery of the Zollverein coal mine attracts children and adults from Essen and the surrounding area: summertime is bathing time.


Structural change is an abstract term. When old industrial sites are put to new uses, surprising moments arise. Zollverein coal mine is one such example. The 100-hectare site with 96 buildings, over 200 technical installations and machines, around three kilometres of conveyor bridges and over 13 kilometres of pipelines is one of the world's largest industrial monuments. Embedded in its centre – somewhat hidden – is an open-air swimming pool. Measuring 60 square metres, this pool may not score points for its size, but it makes people happy even more.

Rust red and light green, the unique backdrop of the former coking plant rises to dizzying heights, whilst azure blue sparkles in it the calm water surface of the works swimming pool – it sparkles even when the sky is grey. The summer at Zollverein has not stayed dry for years. Wooden planks frame the pool and on the shady side a puddle traces the contours of an elephant's back. Every year during the summer holidays, everybody finds the perfect way to cool off here: free of charge, as there is no entrance fee. The fact that the bathing fun is free for everyone, however, not only pleases school children and swimmers from the region, but also the tourists. They come from neighbouring towns and cities and from far away.

"From Holland, France, China and Japan, from America and Russia: people come to us from all over the world,"

says Annelie Dietrich

The swimming instructor has been working as a lifeguard at the works swimming pool for 12 years whenever North Rhine-Westphalia takes its summer holidays. Every year she enjoys coming back to work here, which is mainly due to the clientele. "We really do have a lot of nice visitors," she says while standing in the shade next to the stairs leading up to the pool. On hot summer days like this, the whole world meets at the works swimming pool. The Ruhr Valley goes swimming.

Why visitors from all countries come to Essen to bathe in this pool, and why it is probably the most popular tourist destination in the Ruhr Valley every summer, is something that nobody at Zollverein is surprised about. Everyone is delighted about the bathing visitors. "I don't think that there is such a swimming pool with the coal mine's world cultural heritage anywhere else," say Dietrich and her colleagues by the pool's edge. This unique backdrop simply thrills everyone.

"It's always really pleasant to cool down here", enthuses Fatih Görgülü from the safety personnel, adding it is "nice, clean, cool water". The 29-year-old has been familiar with the pool since he was a boy. In 2001 the swimming pool was installed next to the coking plant café. He was nine or ten years old himself at the time. Just like the children today, Fatih and his friends liked to spend their summer holidays at the works swimming pool back then. Now he is responsible for safety and order – he himself finds much better words for his job: "I ensure a relaxed atmosphere here," says Fatih and grins. He estimates the ratio of residents to tourists at 50/50: "Some only find out by chance that we have a pool on offer during the summer holidays – others come here for precisely that reason. The small works pool is transformed into a powerful magnet on those particularly warm days: everyone makes a pilgrimage to the cooling water that brings people together.

Despite its modest size, the bright blue pool creates a brilliant contrast in the monumental industrial monument even from afar, which with its conveyor belts, shafts and the 55-metre high colliery winding tower forms a world of its own over an area of around 100 hectares. Thousands of pipes wind like nerve pathways between the rusting structures. Until 1993, coal was still being burned in the nearly 200 coke ovens at the Zollverein coal mine after being shut down in 1986. When the last furnaces went out due to the steel crisis, the game was finally over. The entire plant is listed as a historical monument, and in 2001 UNESCO declared Zollverein a world cultural heritage site. What is called structural change started to take place.

This is exactly what the Zollverein open-air swimming pool is a symbol of: works swimming pools had a long tradition in the Ruhr area. The idea for the mini-pool among the gigantic colliery backdrip originates from the Frankfurt artists, Dirk Paschke and Daniel Milohnic. They had two overseas containers welded together to form the five by twelve metre pool: a work of art to touch and experience. Four small portholes on the side walls allow a view under the water surface, which makes for fantastic pictures especially when jumping from the edge of the pool. This moment with eyes closed, fingers pinching the nose, feet piercing the surface of the water, bubbles bubbling up, kicking legs, the upper body pulling itself up. The children love to practice their dives here, creating little works of art. Until someone like Fatih "ensures a relaxed atmosphere" and dives into the water himself. Due to the converted containers, the pool has a constant depth of 2.40 metres, which makes it an ideal diving pool. And so every year the traditional diving contest "Splash! Boom! Bang!" takes place in the works swimming pool. In 2019 the entire national splashdiving team travelled to Essen as guest of honour and presented acrobatics on and over the edge of the pool to the audience.

The pool holds a total of 130,000 litres of water, and water samples are tested three times a day to ensure purity. "Even if it is a work of art, the works swimming pool is a completely normal swimming pool with a chlorine and filter system," emphasises the lifeguard. Annelie Dietrich grew up with Zollverein. Her grandfather was employed at the coal mine, her father as well. Fatih Görgülü, whose father worked underground for more than 15 years, has a similar story. "Born on coal, die on coal! Because I grew up here, Zollverein is very close to me," he says and grins. "Now I'm the kind of guy who warns kids when they start messing around – just like we used to do." Children like Philip, Lea or Miriam may well form the next generation of swimming champions. After all, they regularly attend the DLRG [German Life Saving Association] rescue training. Everyone can let off steam at the works swimming pool. Apart from children on school holiday, the spa welcomes many other regular guests, who also make a daily pilgrimage to the coking plant. Every evening, a translator spends half an hour crawling her laps in the works swimming pool and meets like-minded people here. Others prefer to come before work – the pool opens from 12 to 8 pm. "From time to time we have night swimmers here, despite security," says the lifeguard and raises her eyebrows. At night the water surface is not actually covered. The warm summer nights are especially popular, when it cools down only imperceptibly, with some people making it over the fence into the cold water.

During the day, up to a total of 90 swimmers can go up on the platform and dive into the pool. It is not surprising that both neighbours and tourists queue up in front of the colliery's pool at 42 degrees Celsius for a cool-down. On hot days, the wooden flooring around the pool, brightened by the chlorine water, is covered with colourful bath towels. Every centimetre of space is utilised, everyone romps around and in the water. The summer at Zollverein no longer smells of coal, but of swimming pool and currywurst. And with every summer, the fan base around the works swimming pool grows. There can only be one place like this.

Coal, miners and "Glück auf"

It is perhaps the most beautiful coal mine in the world and for some people even the "Eiffel Tower of the Ruhr area". With the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Essen is the anchor point of the European Route of Industrial Heritage. At the time when the mining industry was operating at full capacity, the Zollverein colliery was just one of over 300 mines in the Ruhr area. But the Ruhr Valley has been reinventing itself since the nineties. The tradition of the miners is never forgotten despite structural change.

The Ruhr area, also called Ruhrpott (Pott for short), is known throughout Germany for its openness, for its cordiality and for its solidarity. This developed historically, because the "underground drudgery" required mutual trust. Every day, millions of men risked their lives and their health to bring the black gold to the surface. Weather man, pit foreman, squire, tusker, cart runner: all the miners were covered with a black layer of dust at work, the dirt started in the washing machine and shirts were only neat and clean on Sundays. A colliery brings generations together – sons, fathers and grandfathers usually worked at the same colliery: "Born on coal", they still say in the Pott today. Because the fathers are still around and pass on their memories to their sons and grandchildren.

The world as a playground

He takes a running jump to a concrete wall, swings himself over the opposite wall, then a second jump, his feet landing unerringly on a pole, a front flip through the air, his hands on the soft Tartan flooring: Tim laughs as if nothing unusual had happened in the last three seconds. As traceurs, he and his friends practice the art of dynamic movement almost every day – preferably on the new parkour course at the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex.

Hard jumps, soft landing: parkour runners - in French: traceurs know their body and constantly set it new challenges. In the background, music is booming, its beat driving you to the next somersault, the next jump and the next stunt. Teenagers in particular gain a lot from parkour: on the one hand it increases their self-confidence, on the other hand it promotes new friendships and takes them out into the fresh air. It is the same for Manon. The 22-year-old was born in France, just like the sport of parcours. When she came to Essen from Paris three years ago, she immediately made friends through her sport. Today she works as one of the parkours trainers "at Zollverein". Here, ramps, steps, walls, bars covering around 600 square metres form a special kind of playground, right next to the colliery's former coking plant.

Inspiration Essen

One Ground for your home

The clear lines of the industrial architecture of the former Zollverein colliery in Essen were the inspiration for the expressive Modular ONE flooring. Linear structures in rust brown contrast with the cool steel grey.

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