Surrounded by woodland, next to a tranquil stretch of canal in a little-visited Paris suburb, sit the quietly astonishing remains of a gunpowder factory.
Sevran-Livry station, 20 minutes north of the Gare du Nord on the RER B, is not far from where the 2005 riots started, so I was agreeably surprised by the rustic peace of the tree-lined canal, five minutes after getting off the train. Violets, primroses, cowslips and marsh marigolds were growing by the towpath and two pairs of exotic Mandarin ducks swam past, the only things moving in the landscape apart from us and one or two other strollers.
The deep woodland, part of an ancient forest, but close to Paris, the canal and the railway line, offered an ideal site for the potentially dangerous government-owned factory which operated from 1873 to 1973. At the peak of its activity in 1914 the Poudrerie Nationale employed over 3,000 workers, producing 28 tons of powder daily, with the canal providing water for the steam-driven machines as well as transport for the raw materials and finished products. In 1944 the ‘poudriers’ clandestinely made explosives for the Resistance while the factory was occupied by the Germans.
The abandoned site has been a public park since 1982 but is still little-known, except to locals. It is listed as of outstanding natural interest because the deliberately scattered buildings, to minimise damage in case of an accidental explosion, and the undisturbed woodland with a variety of ancient trees and ponds have favoured species such as rare butterflies, newts, and woodpeckers which are not usually found in urban areas.
About 30 of the original 300 brick and stone buildings have been saved from demolition, one now a museum founded by the ex-‘poudriers’, and blend harmoniously into the woodland, forming one of the most surprising and rewarding public parks in France. I visited one of these buildings with a beautiful iron corkscrew staircase where a fascinating little temporary display had been set up. I can now identify the footprints and droppings of a weasel, a fox and a lynx, should I ever chance to come across them.
The Parc de la Poudrerie is about half a mile from the station to the right of the towpath, accessed by a woodland path with wood anemones and bluebells growing beside it. A handsome red brick and stone archway with old rail tracks underneath leads to the park entrance and a buvette where local families and cyclists sit at tables outside, basking in the sun. The archway is one of six, constructed in 1875 to carry overhead cables operated by pulleys which transmitted power to the factory buildings where the powder was made.
You could return to Paris from the station at Le Vert Galant, next to the canal at the end of the park, or continue for just over a mile along the tranquil towpath to the station at Villeparisis-Mitry, 26 minutes from the Gare du Nord – and another world.
More information about the park: //uk.tourisme93.com/parc-de-la-poudrerie.html