River Bievre, once a source of ice!

The river Bievre was once known as Befar, a Gallic name that meant beaver.

Manufacture des Gobelins chapel in 1823 on the bank of the River Bievre
Les Gobelins chapel in 1823 on the bank of the River Bievre

The 36km long river rises near Guyancourt, not far from Versailles in the department of Yvelines.

It then flows into the Seine near Austerlitz railway station.

For centuries it flew among the meadows and woodland of the marshy left bank.

It would regularly flood in the spring season, however, would withdraw into its bed after a few months.

The huge pools it left behind froze during the then harsh winters and were used as ice-rinks.

This ice was also collected in big blocks, stored in deep wells and covered with soil.

Cut in cubes, it was re-used during summer in order to keep food and beverage cool.

The word glacière (ice storage) left its name to the Metro station Glacière on Boulevard Auguste Blanqui.

River Bievre, the Gobelins River

The physiognomy of the Left Bank started to change by the end of the 14th century, when the Flemish dyer Jean Gobelin set up his workshops along the Bièvre.

Soon tanning and leather related industries (butcher’s shops, leather dressing factories…) settled along the river.

Square Rene le Gall above the the River Bievre
Square Rene le Gall above the the River Bievre

Unfortunately, they poured their wastes into the Gobelins River, as it became known, turning it into a putrid sewer.

The Bièvre crossed the Rue Mouffetard under the Pont-aux-Tripes (Guts’ bridge).

The Mouff as the locals called it, is today a popular and animated street of Paris, which is famous for its market.

Sadly its name evolved from moffettes, a slang word used to describe the putrid exhalations of the river.

The establishment of industrial and related craft factories triggered local urbanization.

Open-air cafés and restaurants opened on the river banks.

They became renowned for the quality of the beer they served; they indeed catered for the workers of the Gobelins workshops who were essentially Flemish!

Many water-mills, such as the Moulin-des-Prés or Moulin-Jehan-de-la-Crolle, were in used until the middle of the 19th century.

So were the many tanneries and related craft industries, distilleries, laundries, gun-powder, paint, starch, paper and carton factories…

All these polluted the River Bievre to the point that it posed a serious health issue, which demanded immediate action.

River Bievre today

Improvement work lasted for 50 years.

Manufacture des Gobelins chapel today today - underground Bievre
Gobelins chapel today – underground Bievre

By 1910 the little river’s rate of flow was regulated.

It was also entirely channeled underground and integrated into Paris network of sewers.

It today flows under the Square René-le-Gall, a 2500m² park located on the southern side of the Manufacture des Gobelins.

Fortunately the workshops and polluting industries have long gone!

The good news is that the City of Paris is considering reopening some sections of the river and let it flow in the open air…

The town of Fresnes in the Val-de-Marne department, took the initiative in the early 2000’s; it indeed re-opened a section of the River Bievre in the 3-hectare Parc des Prés.

Could Paris be next? Let’s hope!

Directions: 13th District – 42 Avenue des Gobelins
Metro: Gobelins on Line 7
Coordinates: Lat 48.835254 – Long 2.352458

Photo Wikimedia Commons:  Gobelins in 1830

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