The long sobs of autumn - Pedalling to the pictures - CycleBlaze

March 28, 2022

The long sobs of autumn

Bressuire to Champdeniers

The railway lies abandoned and peaceful now. But the humblest flowers have bloody memories
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PICTURE THEM. Garage mechanics, men with cows, the kid that nobody liked. Men who didn't expect to see out the year.

  Secretly, separately, in danger, they hide bulky radios beneath blankets and tune to London, to nonsensical messages from the BBC.

  "Gilles has a new cow"... "The baker says good morning"... "The birds sing at dawn"...

  And then “Les sanglots longs des violons de l’automne.” The long sobs of autumn's violins.

  Men who knew each other but pretended they didn't nodded in the street, perhaps a hint of a smile, then walked on. They knew but nobody else did: D-Day would be in two weeks.

  And finally: “Blessent mon coeur d’une langueur monotone.” Invasion barges were on their way. The job now was to cut telephone cables and to loosen rails to send German trains plunging into ditches.

  We can never pass the unobtrusive signs that mark such bravery without pausing and thinking. Then we ride on, a snapshot recorded. Most back then were dead within weeks.

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"Here, on 22 August 1944, to delay Occupation troops moving north to the front following the allied landings in Normandy, local Resistants sabotaged the rail line, derailing a German engineering train."
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  The rail line at Bressuire, and therefore the bike path, starts peculiarly. The track is everything you'd expect and you can gaze at steel worn to a polish that stretches to... to where? To Paris, certainly, because this section was never lifted. And then? Maybe Vienna, or to Bucharest perhaps. Maybe, if you had the sensitivity of a poet, you could touch the rails and feel the distant movement of the train from Istanbul.

  Trains are like cyclists: you see them, you rarely reflect on where they have been or where they are going, but they are there nevertheless, each on an adventure of their own.

  You get to the path by skirting the station, behind factories of unexplained sort, then on a narrow road and eventually a nip to the left and back to the right. And there it is, the path we rode to get here a couple of days ago but looking different now, because rides are never the same in the other direction.

  We negotiated the same barriers with the same delicacy and sat eventually at a bench which had been placed not for usefulness but pleasure. The pleasure, in this case, of eating biscuits.

  We were just beyond the Resistance sign. And then, on a bike which may have seen those days, came a man with a bucket on his handlebars. The bike was pale green with an open frame and tyres that barely held him off the ground.

  There was, of course, the one appropriate question: "What are you doing with a bucket on your handlebars?"

  I couldn't tell you how old he was. He wore old clothes but household slippers topped with shiny black leather. He looked at us. He didn't smile. He just propped his bike against a tree and walked towards us, bucket in hand.

  And then he said: "What am I doing with my bucket?" And from it he produced a transparent plastic bottle. He carried it beyond us and slowly poured the contents over two new trees young enough to need supporting canes.

  "I do it two or three times a day," he said, emptying his bottle and returning it to the bucket. "It's been so dry."

  He waved through more trees at his house. "It's not far."

  And then he rode away, contented by his deed, probably never having been asked to do it, maybe having bought and planted the trees himself simply because the world didn't have enough.

Colourful if peeling eccentricity
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  I wish I could tell you as much about the Nombril du Monde, the world's belly-button. But it was closed. I can tell you it's in the village of Hérisson, which means "hedgehog", and that there are enough visitors to merit a coach park on the edge of the village and witty, hand-written signs posted from there to the entrance.

   If you're determined to know more you can, here:

  This evening we are in a bed-and-breakfast beside the pub where we had lunch before the weekend and where we will soon eat once more. And then we will quietly reflect on a quiet, satisfying day on closed roads, quiet lanes and unsurfaced trails. And of men living who gently water trees and those long dead who did what they could for their country.


The coded messages - in this case lines from a poem - were broadcast from London each evening. Each was an instruction to act, or news that a downed pilot had been smuggled back to Britain. For the Resistance ran lengthy escape routes across France to neutral Spain and Switzerland: planes could be replaced but their pilots less easily.

  The Germans blocked the messages and listened to each to guess their meaning. Sometimes they were helped by information extracted by torture. One operator did guess the significance, or that there was some significance even if he didn't know what, to the first lines of the poem. He urged his bosses to listen for the rest. They ignored him.

  If you want to know more and hear some of these messages as they were broadcast, click here:

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