Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Country lanes

Here in the Old World, the rural landscape has naturally inherited a vast assortment of ancient and less ancient man-made features. This is particularly true in the case of thoroughfares. In south-west England, for example, I've always had the impression that the main roads between big towns are often simply macadamized transformations of the old pathways used by horse-drawn vehicles. Passengers on the upper level of double-decker buses hurtling along such country roads are anguished by the experience of brushing up against overhanging branches of trees. On my few occasions of moving around in such settings in Britain, I've often had feelings of claustrophobia, and wondered what would happen if a driver were to find he had a flat tyre on a narrow road of this kind. The truth of the matter, I think, is that well-heeled Brits in this part of the world drive expensive vehicles that simply don't break down... As for the rest of humanity, they're no doubt smelly creatures from the mainland continent. So, as Shakespeare hinted, all's well that ends well.

Here in France, fortunately, narrow major roads of that British kind do not exist, since the state has systematically intervened to make sure that the public administration can knock down old buildings and acquire the necessary land surface to create thoroughfares of a decent width. And users of our rural roads include, of course, not merely local residents, tradesmen and tourists, but agricultural workers as well.

In the middle of summer, the mayor of Choranche (an agriculturalist) decided to set up an official enquiry into the idea of selling off some of the ancient public paths in Choranche. In the context of the enquiry, which culminated in a public meeting last Monday evening, residents of the commune (a hundred or so individuals) were surprised to discover that there had never been many significant requests to privatize parts of our public domain, apart from a few flagrant cases of tiny sections of paths that happened to pass uncomfortably close (for certain residents) to their houses... for the obvious reason that, once upon a time, householders were more than happy to have a track from their front door to the village.

In fact, the only noteworthy case of a lengthy segment of a public lane crossing a large area of privately-owned land concerns land owned by... the mayor himself! Insofar as it's thinkable that the mayor may have taken advantage of his elected role to tackle a purely personal problem (I hasten to point out that I totally refrain from expressing publicly my personal opinion on this matter), we might well be heading towards a situation in which the conclusions of the ongoing enquiry will be simply nullified by an administrative tribunal invoked by citizens who feel that the mayor has gone too far.

Aware that this official enquiry had been set up, I hastened to write a document aimed at protecting and indeed enhancing the public nature of the marvelous path that runs along the crest of the hill up behind Gamone. Known in olden times as Greenery Lane (le chemin du Vert), this ancient path—whose geographical contours remain perfectly detectable—was a segment of the principal itinerary between Pont-en-Royans and Presles. It came as no surprise to the mayor of Choranche to see me submit to the enquiry a document concerning Greenery Lane, because he knows that I've been trying for years to promote the idea of removing weeds from this track, setting up pathway signs, and encouraging hikers to discover this fabulous itinerary. Click here to download a PDF copy (with photos) of my 22-page French-language paper on Greenery Lane.

In fact, since I have to climb up the steep hill behind my house (donkey territory) to reach Greenery Lane, I don't wander up there very often. Over the last 20 years, my preferred pathway for almost daily walks—once with my dear departed Sophia, now with Fitzroy—is Gamone Lane, which is the non-macadamized extension, further up the slopes in the direction of Presles, of the roadway that leads up to my house and the neighboring Ageron property.

A fortnight ago, when I was wandering exceptionally up along Greenery Lane, I discovered an excellent viewpoint down onto my everyday Gamone Lane (the pathway crossing the slopes).

These ancient rural lanes are patrimonial treasures, which must continue to belong to all of us, both residents and visitors. The idea of privatizing and selling them off is utter heresy. Fortunately, there are now so many informed and patrimonially-sensitive citizens dwelling in this part of the world that the mayor's crazy intentions are surely doomed to fail.

There will be municipal elections in France early next year. Some of us who've attempted to do the electoral arithmetic for Choranche conclude sadly that the commune has a sufficient quantity of conservative old-timers to guarantee the reelection of the present mayor. Fair enough. Enlightened citizens—most often "foreigners" whose ancestors were born in faraway places beyond the tiny confines of Choranche—will continue to oppose any stupid attempt to sell off our country lanes.

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