This is an account of my cycle ride across France, from Dunkirk to the Pyrenees, following la Méridienne verte in June 2015. (See About and Meridian pages.)
La Méridienne verte, the Green Meridian, was the name given to the Paris Meridian in 2000, to mark the millennium. I had read about it with growing interest in Graham Robb’s excellent The Discovery of France. There had been celebrations along its length on 14 July 2000, with a great party half way along, at the centre of France. Markers were set up in every commune, and 10,000 trees would be planted, oaks in the north, pines in the centre, olives in the south. That’s one every 100 metres.
How intriguing, this ‘green spine’! This new knitting together of France, marked by trees now fifteen years grown, a spine surely consolidated by the local efforts of communes and individuals. How had it developed, this millennium – even millennial – idea? I wanted to see.
So, to mark my 70th birthday, I cycled the length of the Green Meridian, from chilling rain in Dunkirk on the North Sea, to baking heat at Py, high in the Pyrenees.
As I cycled south, keeping close to the Meridian, other themes and points of focus came up in this ever various and diverse country. Some big, even grand: the great cathedrals and the emergence of the Gothic; the contrasting cities of Amiens, St-Denis (and Paris, of course!), Bourges and Albi; the impact of war, from Dunkirk beaches through Great War battlefields, German occupation, the Wars of Religion to the Albigensian Crusade; the mystery of the ‘Centre of France’. Some more personal: revelations of Alain-Fournier and the sources of his marvellous novel, Le Grand Meaulnes; going back to where I lived a rural dream forty years ago. Sudden moments: seeing the mosaic in an oratory on the Loire; visiting the grave, high above the Tarn, of an original surveyor of the Meridian; crossing a bridge one early apricot morning, the sun a bouncing bomb exploding … And the question of whether the Paris Meridian, that product of scientific rationalism, has a deeper, possibly mystical meaning. An idea refreshed by Graham Robb’s recent The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe, a map centred close to the route I followed.
But really it is the daily record of my journey through a country I find fascinating, in which the details build into a mosaic picture of endlessly beguiling France.
(Added July 2016.) I made my trip when Grexit seemed likely, and the future Brexit vote just a sideshow to consolidate Cameron’s power. Now it feels like a turning-point of history, with everything ‘before’, including all I wrote in this blog, viewed through the prism of the ‘out’ vote. The future is a foreign country: we’ll experience things differently there.
Route and overnight stops: