While many of us envision the past through photographs and historical works, urban explorers actively seek it out in the myriad abandoned mansions, buildings and other derelict places that dot the (urban) landscape. Enter the Castle of Mesen in Lede, Belgium, – a building that is so impressive and unique that it’s impossible not to be drawn into its weird world.
The Castle of Mesen, or Kasteel van Mesen, has a chequered history. Destroyed and rebuilt several times, the current building dates to around 1628. Originally built as a major stonghold, it ceased to be a royal house after 1796. The Industrial Revolution brought with it a series of interesting reuses, from gin distillery to sugar and potash refinery, tobacco factory and finally a boarding school.
After the First World War the castle became a boarding school for girls, with tough classes and rigarous discipline exercised in a strict Victorian manner. The 150 pupils were reportedly allowed one visit per month and could only return home for one month of the year. The youngest girls were just 5-years-old! Infiltrating the castle today is difficult, while escaping from it a century ago must have been virtually impossible.
The school was financed by the Belgian aristocracy and days began early, with Mass at 7am. On top of academic lessons, girls received a thorough grounding in society’s highest standards, from impeccable etiquette to managing employees and being able to perform housework expertly. The process took 13 years to complete, with girls of 5-years-olds eventually leaving the school as 18-year-old ambassadors of high society.
Abandonment came after the Castle of Mesen passed into the hands of the Ministry of Defence, which left it to rot for decades. The cost of restoration ultimately spiralled to the point that it was considered uneconomical and the powers that be refused to list the castle as a historic monument. The fight is not yet over. But even if the conservationists win, will it be in time to stabilize the collapsing Kasteel van Mesen?
The Castle of Mesen is set in around seven hectares of parkland and overgrown greenery in central Lede. The impressive Gothic Revival chapel was added after the site was sold to a religious order in 1897, still standing proud despite 30 years of abandonment. Not surprisingly, the pews and religious adornments have long gone, replaced by decades of debris. For a birds-eye-view of the Kasteel van Mesen, click here.