Long before Monty Python’s lumberjacks leapt from tree to tree as they floated down the mighty rivers of British Columbia, les flotteurs de bois were active in the Morvan.
By 1550 the population of Paris had tripled over just 50 years. Demand for wood for fuel increased accordingly, and Paris looked longingly at the 47,000 hectares of forest in the Morvan.A Long Digression:
A hectare is 10,000 square metres. If, like me, you are accustomed to thinking in acres (an acre is 4840 square yards), this conversion table may come in handy. (www.metric-conversions.org)
Later I shall mention another metric unit, the stère. In Suffolk we bought our firewood by the ton. Here it comes in stères: a stère is a cubic metre.
As so often happens with me, one web search led to another. The law of 18 Germinal, Year III (7 April 1795) defined five units of measure:
• The metre for length
• The are (100 m2) for area of land – so a hectare is a square 100 metres by 100 metres.
• The stère for volume of stacked firewood
• The litre for volumes of liquid
• The gram for mass or weight – so a kilogram is 1000 grams.
Napoleon abolished the Revolutionary calendar (12 months of 30 days each, with names based on the seasons, starting in autumn) in 1806. Traces survive in Lobster Thermidor and Emil Zola’s novel Germinal, which was on my required reading list in 1964. Do not rush out to buy it…
In Britain, a contemporary wit lampooned the Republican Calendar by calling the months: Wheezy, Sneezy and Freezy; Slippy, Drippy and Nippy; Showery, Flowery and Bowery; Hoppy, Croppy and Poppy.
How do you transport all that timber? By river, of course. The Cure runs into the Yonne and the Yonne flows into the Seine. You trimmed the tree trunks, stamped each with its owner’s mark, and tossed them into the river. Then, when the river became navigable, you roped them together into trains de bois. No leaping from tree to tree: sorry, Pythons. According to a wonderful French website with old photographs, a 19th century train de bois comprised 200 stères of timber. This website, which sadly has no English translation, describes how the flotteur and his apprentice steered their logs towards Paris. The trip took about 15 days. Once the logs had been unloaded at Charenton or Bercy, the flotteurs went home by road, a journey which took just four days.
Clamecy on the edge of the Morvan is the acknowledged capital of flottage, as depicted on the paper place mats in many a local restaurant. A website points you towards the town museum with its excellent flottage exhibit.
There is, however, nothing like watching the real thing; and in June 2015 this epic journey was re-enacted. On 6 June a real-life train de bois left Clamecy on its long journey towards Paris. Well, to be precise, two 36-metre trains de bois floated from Clamecy to Auxerre, where they were roped together to form a 72-metre version. The website of our local newspaper, Le Journal du Centre, featured an interactive map showing the progress of the train de bois. (http://www.lejdc.fr)
The journey was eventful, to say the least, with enthusiastic crowds greeting the train de bois at every point in its journey.
I normally have plenty to say for myself, but instead I would like to point you towards the story on Youtube: all 8 episodes of a serial produced by the Nièvre Tourist Board. You will be able to see the flotteurs, dressed in period costume, navigating the waterways. You can find this here. Look for the feuilleton in 8 episodes, Un Train de Bois Pour Paris.
Un feuilleton is a serial or soap opera; French tv has several. Several people have compared my tales of life in the Morvan to a soap opera. Now for the latest episode, a tale of plunder, looting and shameless exploitation. The villains are red squirrels, which are very rare in Britain but fairly common here. Red squirrels! Yes indeed – Squirrel Nutkin is alive and well, nibbling the fircones and raiding the bird table for sunflower seeds. We often come across infant trees sprouting in unexpected places, thanks to the walnuts, cobnuts, cherries and chestnuts stashed by Nutkin and his mates. I pot the best ones up and pass them to friends.
Well, by the middle of May 2015 our big cherry tree was bent like a weeping willow and I prepared my jam pan and bought some extra sugar. Word got around, however, and every squirrel in the neighbourhood arrived, reinforced by an invading army of blackbirds. Within a day they had stripped the tree and scattered the cherry stones.
Squirrels are said to be shy. Ours have taken to coming onto the patio for a drink of water. Well, some people advertise birdwatching holidays. Maybe Charity Cottage could offer squirrel-spotting. We have vacancies in July and can lend field glasses and a digital camera!
Together with husband John, Rosemary Border Rabson emigrated to the Morvan in rural Burgundy in 2005, where few other Brits have ventured. Rosy's chief preoccupation is Charity Cottage, a holiday home-from-home in their garden at Maré le Bas. Rosy runs Charity Cottage in aid of Combat Stress. The cottage has its own website, www.charity-cottage.org.uk , which has links to Combat Stress.
The Rabsons are taking bookings for 2015.