It is often said that to really get to know a place you must get off the main roads and take the quiet detours instead. This is especially true of France, where the main roads are so very efficient at whisking you through whole regions, and where the detours are truly quiet and have many delights to reveal.
Better still, leave the modern road network behind, along with your car, and explore the track-ways and bridle-paths (sentiers and chemins) that form another, hidden, network of centuries-old ‘highways’.
Before the motorcar changed things forever, every hamlet and village was connected to all of its neighbours by a web of ‘chemins’ that naturally took the shortest and easiest routes. After all, travel was time-consuming and arduous enough. Most people were on foot, perhaps leading a donkey laden with panniers of goods to and from their destination. The slightly more affluent would have a small donkey cart. (We found evidence of this when we discovered an old donkey shoe, with its typical straight-sided U shape, beside a local track). Only the gentry had the luxury of a horse. The roads were earthen. Muddy stretches were improved by adding stones, often taken from the fields, which built up over time to form a solid surface.
With the 20th century came the needs of the early motorcars which couldn’t cope with rough and ready surfaces, muddy fording places, steep hills. Nor was it realistic to upgrade every lane to overcome this. So choices had to be made. One route had to be engineered to link several settlements often patching together bits of different chemin. Ever wondered why you find yourself having to meander several kilometres out of your way to get to a village you know is only just over the hill? Look closely at a local map (such as the Série Bleue 1cm=250m series) and you may see the direct route to the village-over-the-hill still survives as a chemin.
Not all have survived, of course. Modern farming and ever-larger arable fields, new Autoroutes which slice through the landscape, and even the total disappearance of some settlements due to rural de-population have all taken a toll. Yet some survivors are surprisingly ancient. Our 17th century Calvados cottage is served by one such chemin, arrow-straight and aligned to other Roman roads in the area. (I recently found the distinctive red Roman Samian ware when replanting the hedge that borders it.) Others have origins as Pilgrims’ routes which date to the Middle Ages and linked church to church, sanctuary to sanctuary until the place of pilgrimage – Mont St Michel for example – was reached.
All would have been central to daily life, as well as special events like wedding parties going to church, messengers bringing news of revolution and upheaval, generations of men going off to war. These sleepy lanes have witnessed countless dramas and strolling down them offers a direct and unique opportunity to connect with history.
To help with this, and see how much of the old network survives in your area, it’s a good idea to compare modern maps with ones which pre-date the age of the motor car. A good starting point is to search your local Archives Departementales. You can visit in person, but most records and maps will be freely available online. Most useful for detail is the old Cadastral Plan: a sort of early 19th century Doomsday survey of land use and ownership. Not only are the old roads all marked on the map but so are their original names. These names are clues. Often simply the names of the settlements they linked, but sometimes indicating a stretch of road used to get somewhere more important further afield. For example, one now insignificant lane in our commune is noted ‘Ancien Chemin de Rouen’.
Other names reflect who used them. I have found a ‘road of the millers’ (which is on high ground and so probably refers to long disappeared windmills) a ‘road to the white pits’ (probably a reference to a quarry of the local white stone) and a ‘track of the chicken coops’ which goes to a hamlet called Coquerel. Researching these old highways can be a journey in itself.
Many old tracks are now the main feature of the colour-coded walking routes available from local Tourist Information office. (With a good map it is possible to go off-piste and create your own.) Villages and towns take pride in their heritage and often place information boards at places of interest along the way. What more relaxing way to understand the grass-roots of your area? The history, wildlife, cultural heritage, and all the ties that bind that tapestry together.
It makes me smile to reflect that the best way to ‘get off the beaten track’ is to wander down one!
By Janet Mozelewski