Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Water pipes dug up at Gamone

A couple of years ago, when the bend in the dirt track that runs up beyond my house was about to be transformed for the first time into a macadam road, a mechanical shovel unearthed broken fragments of earthenware water pipes in the zone between the spring and the house.

Since I had already come upon old black rubber tubing used to bring spring water down to the house, I imagined that the earthenware pipes must have been part of an earlier water system. Some four-fifths of the inside of the pipe fragments were blocked by a calcareous deposit, now as hard as rock.

The inside surface of the pipes was lined with an enamel coating, making it easy to detach the calcareous core. The enamel then appeared smooth, bright and shiny, as if it were fresh out of the pottery oven.

The chief of the earthmoving firm that was building the new road recognized the pipes immediately, since this was probably not the first time that his machines had dug up such stuff. "Those are the well-known ceramic pipes from the town of Bollène, down on the Rhône." Although he was sure of the origin of the pipes, he didn't seem to know much more about them: neither the date at which they were manufactured, nor the name of the company that produced them.

When I made inquiries at the town council of Bollène, they told me that there were no manufacturers of water pipes in the region, and that none of the council members had ever heard of such an activity, in the past, in their town. This indicated, first, that these folk were surprisingly uninformed concerning the industrial heritage of their region, but it confirmed what I had imagined: namely, that these ceramic pipes were probably part of a very old installation, maybe even dating from the time of the monks at Choranche.

The pipes looked like expensive stuff, and their installation must have been a relatively delicate and time-consuming affair. I found it hard to believe that a modest Gamone farmer such as Hippolyte Gerin, mentioned in my article entitled Façade at Gamone [display], would have had the means, and gone to the trouble, of investing in such a sophisticated system. Besides, the thickness of the calcareous deposit in the pipes suggested that they had been in service for a long time before falling into disuse, and being replaced by rubber tubing.

After a few more inquiries through the Internet, and by phone, I've discovered that Bollène was indeed reputed for centuries because of the fine quality of local clay, which made it possible to manufacture high-quality industrial ceramics: not only water pipes, but refractory tiles for ovens. A director of a well-known tile manufacturing firm at Bollène told me that his company—which was quite old— was still making water pipes around the start of the 20th century. With a view to finding out more about my Gamone pipes, he suggested I should contact the university at Avignon to see if somebody has written a thesis on the history of local activities in industrial ceramics.

Readers will have gathered that I get a thrill out of attempting to solve puzzles of this kind...

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