Journey to the Centre of France

Chris and I have been doing a lot of cycling recently. Getting Covid back in March, losing Tobi and gaining Polly disrupted things for a couple of months, but we’re now back in the saddle as often as we can manage it. We’re regularly doing trips on our ebikes of around 60 kms, and we’ve managed several 80-somethings too. Not bad going for two oldies!

One trip took us to the centre of France. Well, maybe or maybe not. There are no fewer than seven places claiming to be the geographical centre of the country! However, as far as we’re concerned it’s in the village Bruère-Allichamps in Cher. The controversial spot is marked by a monument, which is slap bang in the middle of a busy crossroads. It incorporates a Roman mile-stone, which was uncovered in 1757. In 1799 the Duke Armand-Joseph of Béthune-Charost set it up in the centre of the village. Around sixty years later, somewhere between 1860 and 1870, the French geographer Adolphe Joanne worked out the spot was also the centre of France. The Touring Club of France made this official in 1950 when it affixed a plaque to the monument.

The Touring Club of France was founded in 1890 by a group of cyclists (known as velocipedists at the time) with the aim of encouraging tourism in France. For nearly a century it supported and promoted a variety of tourist activities, including hiking, motoring, motorcycling, camping in the mountains or by the sea, mountain walking, horse riding, aviation, photography, archaeology and heritage conservation. One fascinating way it bolstered the pastime of mountain walking was by providing financial support to mountain guides, but only if they were the fathers of a lot of children! The Club was dissolved in 1983 due to financial difficulties.

The mile-stone should really be called a league-stone, as it gives distances to nearby Bourges, Chateaumeilland (today spelt with a t at the end) and Néris-Les-Bains in Gallic leagues (2,500 metres). These co-existed in Gaul alongside Roman miles (1,500 metres).

A little more about the Duke, as it turns out he was an interesting person. He was a colonel in the cavalry, then owner of coal mines, and finally settled in Berry, where he became very interested in agriculture. He introduced flax, rapeseed, madder and tobacco, reared pigs and kept bees. He also did some clever cross-breeding of local sheep with some brought in from Spain. He set up a woollen mill in Meillant and studied and wrote about the roads and waterways of Berry. He founded schools and hospitals, and workshops for former soldiers. Despite being such a generous benefactor, he had a hard time of it during the Revolution, and was imprisoned. His son, unfortunately, was executed. The Duke himself died of smallpox in 1800 and was buried in the splendidly gothic castle at Meillant.

Having admired the monument from the pavement, between passing lorries, and then dodged the busy traffic to get a close-up shot of it, we decided to make a brief detour from our planned trip to take a look at nearby Noirlac Abbey.

This Cistercian Abbey was founded in 1150 and endured for more than 600 years before being dissolved during the French Revolution. For most of the nineteenth century (1822-74) it was a porcelain factory and the various religious buildings became kilns, workshops, warehouses and lodgings. The Département of Cher acquired the Abbey in 1909, but before being restored it to its former glory between 1950 and 1980, it housed American expeditionary forces in 1918 and Spanish republican refugees in 1936.

Before heading off we hunted for toilets in the huge car park, but they were firmly locked. That wasn’t impressive, but we were impressed to come across ebike charging points!

All in all, it was a tiring but enjoyable and historically and geographically fascinating outing on our Tenways.