Whizzing up to Paris or back to les Sarziers on the TGV it is uncanny how often I glance up just as we are passing an unusual little stand of trees. Unfortunately the train goes so fast that it is miles behind us before I have time to get a photo and I have been unable to locate a picture anywhere on the web even though there are hundreds of these plantations across France. This group is made up of a short line of trees with alternating conical and rounded outlines – poplars and beeches perhaps. It always makes me smile to catch sight of them sitting incongruously in the middle of a vast agro-industrial cornfield. It much be such a pain for the gargantuan planting and reaping machines to negotiate around them and yet the farmer has no choice. His land is bisected by the méridienne verte.
Of all the grandiose and sometimes laughably overweening ideas and projects with which different countries marked the turn of the millennium, France’s contribution has always seemed to me to combine Gallic elegance and understatement with an acknowledgement of the natural world which was sadly lacking in so many other efforts.
The facts and figures are impressive. To materialise the Paris meridian, which extends from Dunkerque to Barcelona, passing through 9 régions, 20 départements and 344 communes, including ten in Spain, 10 000 trees were planted in different groupings and formations. On Bastille day 2000 the population was invited to celebrate the creation of the méridienne verte with a giant picnic along its length.
Marquer le passage du siècle et du millénaire c’est affirmer que nous avons habité le temps et que nous allons continuer à le faire par-delà la finitude de chaque destin.
(To mark the turning of the century and the millennium is to affirm that we have inhabited time and that we shall continue to do so, over and above the finiteness of our individual destinies).
Along its course the meridian is indicated by means of various signs, medallions and markers.
But there are other, much older memorials, such as this one erected at Manchcourt in the Loiret by the celebrated cartographer César Francois Cassini in the 18th century.
For the fact is that this imaginary line was the first zero meridian of longitude to be established internationally under Louis XIV in 1667. On the summer solstice of that year mathematicians from the Académie traced the meridian on the ground and around it the outline of the future Observatoire de Paris: the Paris meridian was born. A line of statues still gracefully marks its course through the Jardins de l’Observatoire, a homage to the genius of French scientists and mathematicians.
But of course France had no monopoly on scientific discoveries in the Age of Enlightenment. Subsequent measurements undertaken by French cartographers to extend the meridian into Lapland and Peru confirmed Newton’s theory that the globe flattens slightly towards the poles, disproving the assertions of an earlier Cassini ancestor.
You can already sense that there is trouble brewing between the French and English!
In 1884 an international conference was held in Washington DC with the brief to create 24 standardised time zones across the globe, equidistant by 15 degrees of longitude, and to decide on a zero meridian to use as a starting point. The proposer was Stamford Flemming, a Scottish engineer and creator of the Canadian railways, who was being driven mad by the complexities of timetabling which, under the existing cacophony of time zones across the continent, required five different time references for each station! After much heated discussion and seven inconclusive ballots, Greenwich was chosen for the new zero meridian, to the fury of the French delegation. (In order to sway votes in their favour the English had agreed to adopt the metric system which had been devised by the French after much more careful measuring and division of their meridian and adopted as the standard unit of measurement on the 18 germinal an III – 7 April 1795. Perfide Albion indeed – they are still waiting)!
Having lost out to Greenwich, the French were understandably in no hurry to give up their own meridian. French railways were already using a standardised time zone based on l’heure de Paris, and this was extended to the whole of France and Algeria. It was not until 1911 that France agreed to adopt Universal Time as calculated from Greenwich and then only because the law did not specifically mention the hated English usurper, but defined the time as l’heure du temps moyen de l’observatoire de Paris retardée de 9 minutes 21 secondes, as though France was merely running fashionably late for a social engagement.
And they still hang onto their meridian wherever they can.
At les Sarziers we are almost exactly on the 45th parallel of latitude, meaning that we are located half way between the north pole and the equator (a sign marks the exact spot as you travel to Lamastre on the Mastrou).
Where the méridienne verte intersects with the 45th parallel, at Ayrens in the Cantal, two lines of trees have been planted at right angles. And it was from this significant spot that in 1780 Rigobert Bonne formulated the cartographic projection with which the first modern maps of France were drawn up and which is used by the Michelin road maps. So wherever you are driving in France you are unconsciously respecting the Paris meridian.
And all this of course has nothing to do with a green sofa . . . . . or has it?
Photo credits, Pascal Maapar, G Brame, Hugues Mitton