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France: Walking the rails

Running along a defunct railway line, the Axe Vert de la Thiérache offers a glimpse into the bygone, bucolic age of steam

France: Walking the rails
Cycling on the Green line, Ohis. Image: Alamy

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In the hamlet of Ohis, there’s a viaduct of the type that prompts passersby to pause and acknowledge the skill of the engineers who created it. So I do as I’m told, admiring the stone legs of a 19th-century wonder. It’s an arrogant joy, straddling the Oise River with such ease that — even though the railway line it once carried, from Hirson to Busigny, closed to passengers in 1959 — it seems to view the river as a footnote, stepping across it as if it were a stream.

I’m underneath the viaduct, by the water — hiking along another, separate ghost of Northern France’s once-labyrinthine rail system. And in this moment, I feel sorry for it. For while the Hirson-Busigny route above us was a busy one in its prime, there was no broad-arched majesty to what is now the Axe Vert de la Thierache. Just the rumble of a branch line in mundane motion.

Of course, the Axe Vert doesn’t need my sympathy; it’s been dead for almost 40 years. And its tracks have long since vanished, pulled up to make fence posts for farmers and support struts for barns and outhouses. It was hardly a superstar in its lifetime — a 24-mile link between Hirson and its nearish neighbour, Guise, in the Aisne department. If ever there were a railway that knew its place, it was this. Built in 1909, it was commandeered for the First World War almost as soon as it was operational. Still, it struggled back to the light, resurrected once the guns fell silent — and chugged unfussily through the mid-20th century, carrying rural travellers and dusty coal trucks. In fact, it survived all the way to 1978, when raw economics finally demanded that it cease activity. Few mourned it. In 1980, it was stripped back to a grass trail. It wasn’t until 2014 that it earned the tarmac, which means that, finally, cyclists and walkers can follow it without muddying their feet.

I’m one of these visitors, chasing the memory of steam engines and carriages past fields and furrows. And I’m alone. I’m not surprised either. Neither Hirson nor Guise could be described as close to anywhere — hidden in the green blankness of the Gallic countryside. They sit marooned — some 50 miles north of Reims, 30 miles south of the Belgian border.

Yet, having stumbled upon this vague ribbon of yesteryear, I’m keen to trace it from one end to the other. And I find that, as I go, I have flashbacks for company — signal posts stranded in hedgerows, dislocated tunnels echoing my footfall where once they resounded to the bluster of locomotives. Then there are the redundant stations; sturdy phantoms that still look like halting points — haunting the path in the villages of Etreaupont, Gergny, Saint-Algis. Each has the name of its village and its year of birth, 1909, inscribed in the brickwork. Each has been repurposed as a house, a cottage. In Autreppes, the building is now a family home, slides and swings in the garden — although the raised level of the platform is still visible behind the fence, awaiting a train that’s eternally late.

In the tiny settlement of Sorbais, I lose the thread. The exact arc of the line has been lost, erased by cattle sheds and grain stores, and I have to detour by road for half a mile. It feels a good spot to rest for the night, and so I do — at Le Bocage, a family-run bolthole that’s both comfortable and inexpensive. I’ll continue in daylight, on to Guise, through a realm of cows chewing pasture in silence. I’ll meet no one and nothing except the past.

Published in the May 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

Read more tales of European walking trails here.