From the distant present, this looks like a tale of steady progress: the speed of travel increased, people and merchandise moved about the country with growing ease and social and economic change arrived by carriage and locomotive instead of on the back of a pedlar or a mule. In the century that followed the Revolution, the national road network almost doubled in size and the canal network increased five-fold. There were fourteen miles of railway in 1828 and twenty-two thousand in 1888. By the mid-nineteenth century, a high-speed goods vehicle could cover fifty miles a day. On well-maintained surfaces, working animals became more efficient by the year: the average load pulled by one horse in 1815 was fourteen hundred pounds; in 1865, it was three thousand.
Roads improved more quickly than at any time since the conquest of Gaul. Tracks that had wandered across country like a peasant returning from a feast were straightened, steep hills were flattened by hairpin bends, violent rivers were tamed or bypassed by imperturbable canals. One day, people would have to travel hundreds of miles to have the thrill of crossing a rickety plank bridge or seeing a carriage wheel skittering on the brink of a precipice.
...The dreaded corvée, instituted in 1738, was the main road-building scheme until the Revolution. In some parts, almost the entire male population between the ages of twelve and seventy - when life expectancy was less than forty years - could be forced to work on the roads for up to forty days a year. The national average was one week. The only people who did not have to break stones, cart rubble and dig ditches were lords, the clergy and their servants, and a few essential workers: the teacher, the doctor and the communal shepherd. Invalids were excused but they had to pay for a replacement if they had any money. If the gang was one man short, two women took his place. Horses and carts could be made to travel up to four leagues (eleven miles) to the worksite. Shirkers were fined, imprisoned, given extra work or driven to the site by armed guards.
...It would be hard to exaggerate the inefficiency of the corvée. Often, the road was divided up between parishes, which meant it was unusable until every parish had finished its section. Some parishes sub-divided their stretch of road into individual segments and turned it into an obstacle course of tiny worksites. A procrastinating peasant with a persistent pothole and a broken shovel could hold up the traffic of an entire region for years. When the summer's work was done, many villages allowed their work to go to waste. A good road might allow producers from a neighbouring town to come to market and undercut the local farmers. Even if the village had wares and produce to export, the corvée was a crippling expense. By vigorous lobbying on behalf of the townspeople, the magistrates of La Souterraine in the Creuse managed to deflect the road from Toulouse to Paris. La Souterraine still lies six miles from the main road and is forced to promote itself with a slightly misleading map as 'the naturally enterprising town at the crossroads of major axes of communication'..
With a few spectacular exceptions, the roads themselves were crudely made - usually flattish rocks between embankments, loaded with stones, then covered with an extra layer of crushed stones or gravel, creating a thick, unstable cake of rubble. The innovation of the Limousin engineer Pierre Trésaguet in 1775, who halved the usual thickness to nine or ten inches, was widely ignored until the 1830s, when it was adopted along with other improvements devised by the Scottish engineer John Loudon McAdam. Most French roads were designed by architects rather than road engineers; many bridges were beautiful works of art until they collapsed into the river. A free national school, the École des Ponts et Chaussées (Highways and Bridges), was founded in 1791, but expertise on a national scale could not be created overnight. Even a century later, the roads lecturer at the École des Ponts et Chaussées could take nothing for granted:
Setting aside the depths that are covered by the waters of the sea, the surface of the Earth can be seen to have a large number of protuberances, separated by hollow sections called 'valleys'. The protuberances are called 'mountains', when they rise more then five or six hundred metres above the surrounding land, and 'hillocks' or 'hills' when the height is less. These terms are not absolute: a mountain in the Beauce would scarcely be a hill in the Alps. . . . The road is said to be 'en rampe' when it rises, and 'en pente' when it descends. These terms are relative to the direction in which one supposes one is advancing along the road. If one turns around in order to pursue the road in the opposite direction, the 'pentes' turn into 'rampes', and vice versa.
WITH POOR TECHNIQUES, lack of expertise and a self-sabotaging workforce, it is no wonder that road building was so painfully slow. In 1777, in the Généralité of Rouen (equivalent to the Seine-Maritime and parts of the neighbouring départements), thirty-seven thousand unpaid workers and twenty-two thousand horses worked for seven days each and produced twenty miles of road. This was fast. In the Landes, where carriages sank in the sand up to their axles, the engineer Chambrelent calculated that once a road had reached a certain length it would be destroyed by the process that built it: 'In travelling to the point where it will be used to prolong the road, one cubic metre of stone or gravel wears out more than one cubic metre of road.' In this case, physical reality was equal to the most perverse superstition: the more work done on a road, the shorter it became.
In 1833, he [Baron Hauss-mann] was sent to take charge of the arrondissement of Nérac, where horses had been known to vanish into mud-holes and the entire road network measured less than thirty miles. 'It did occur to me to go back to Paris and say, "Couldn't I be sent somewhere else?" '
This is why so much of the Roman infrastructure was still in use at the dawn of the industrial age. Some Roman roads had been marked on maps since the seventeenth century, not for antiquarian interest, but because they were the best roads available. Locally, they were known as the 'camin ferrat' or 'chemin ferré' (the metalled way), the 'chaussée' (the surfaced road), the 'chemin de César' or the 'chemin du Diable', since only Caesar or the Devil could have built a road that lasted so long. As the Marquis de Mirabeau observed in 1756, Roman roads had been 'built for eternity', while a typical French road could be wrecked within a year by 'a moderate-sized colony of moles'.
The grandest project of all was the Canal du Midi, which is now the oldest functioning canal in Europe. It runs for a hundred and fifty miles, through sixty-three locks and under a hundred and thirty bridges, from Sète on the Mediterranean, via Béziers, Carcassonne and the geological gap between the Pyrenees and the Montagne Noire known as the Seuil de Naurouze, all the way to the heart of Toulouse. This beautiful open-air museum of engineering masterpieces was the brainchild of a retired tax-farmer from Béziers, Pierre-Paul Riquet, who spent on it the entire fortune he had made collecting salt tax and died of exhaustion eight months before it was opened in 1681. It employed up to ten thousand men and women at a time and brought forty-five thousand cypresses and plane trees to the Lauragais plain, as well as millions of irises to protect and beautify the banks.
travellers on the road had to face the terrifying carters of Provence, who never gave way to oncoming traffic, unless, according to an ancient custom, the leading horse had four white hooves, in which case it had right of way. 'On two or three occasions', wrote Stendhal, 'my poor little carriage was almost smashed to smithereens by the enormous six-horse carts coming up from Provence. . . . True, I had my pistols, but those carters are quite capable of being afraid of pistols only after they have been fired.'
Michel Chevalier was a Saint-Simonian reformer who dreamed of steamboats and railways creating a global industrial cooperative, galvanizing snail-like peasants with 'the spectacle of prodigious speed'. In 1838, he pointed out the dismal fact that, until recently, in the time it took a coal barge to reach Paris from Mons (two hundred and twenty miles), a medium-sized sailing ship could cross the Atlantic to Guadeloupe, take on a fresh load, return to Bordeaux, then sail again for the Gulf of Mexico and return to France via New Orleans.
The common experience of a particular age tends to be measured by the fastest transport available at the time. Eighty-six per cent of French people have never flown in an aeroplane and most have never taken a TGV, though both forms of transport will be standard images of early twenty-first-century France in future histories. This distortion by speed is harder to correct for periods that lie beyond living memory. Turgot's reform might have brought Paris closer in time to the twelve hundred towns that lay on the post roads in 1775, but very few people ever took a high-speed coach. In the mid-nineteenth century, many villages to the north of Paris were connected to the outside world for half the year by stepping stones. In many parts, the sound of carriage wheels brought people to their windows. A pastor touring Provence in the 1830s found it hard to get his carriage through the main street of Bédoin at the foot of Mont Ventoux because of the crowd that came to see it.
A journey by diligence was something to be remembered for a lifetime. In 1827, a Lyon newspaper advised heads of families 'to consider making a will as a precautionary measure' before embarking on such a momentous expedition. The newspaper naturally assumed that the diligence traveller was a man of means. A high-speed coach was proportionately as expensive as first-class air travel today. The mail coach from Paris to Calais in 1830 cost forty-nine francs, which was a servant's monthly wage or the cost of dinner in a famous Paris restaurant. The reason why wet-nurses were so often seen in diligences was that their employers paid the fare. The exposed seats on top of the diligence were cheaper, but most of the 'rough and lowbred companions' that Murray's guide warned fresh-air travellers to expect had probably not paid for their seat: postilions were notoriously bribable and often allowed pedestrians to clamber on so they could enter a town after the gates had been closed for the night.
The man in the green tail-coat lived in a world where people thought nothing of walking fifty miles in a day. The simple lesson of the hare and the tortoise was easily forgotten by people who spent their entire travelling life sitting down. By the mid-twentieth century, a whole world of human-powered transport had disappeared from view.
Walking was just one means of locomotion. The swamp dwellers of the Marais Poitevin got about their watery world using fifteen-foot ash-wood poles with webbed feet that allowed them to vault across a canal twenty-six feet wide. The shepherds of the Landes spent whole days on stilts, using a stick to form a tripod when they wanted to rest. Perched ten feet in the air, they knitted woollen garments and scanned the horizon for stray sheep. People who saw them in the distance compared them to tiny steeples and giant spiders. They could cover up to seventy-five miles a day at 8 mph. When Napoleon's empress Marie-Louise travelled through the Landes to Bayonne, her carriage was escorted for several miles by shepherds on stilts who could easily have overtaken the horses. It was such an efficient mode of transport that letters in the Landes were still being delivered by postmen on stilts in the 1930s.
[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stilts#History_of_stiltwalking https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2011/10/11/a-most-arresting-image-a-shepherd-on-stilts-knitting-in-a-field/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GintracLandes.jpg]
In hills and mountains, gravity-assisted forms of transport were vital to the economy. In the forests of the Vosges, strange screeching sounds could be heard up to great distances. Until the 1940s, walkers in the woods occasionally caught sight of a pale-faced forest-dweller running stiffly through the trees, braced against a towering 2½-ton pile of logs. The sledges on which the logs were piled were known as raftons in Lorraine and schlitte in Alsace. The schlitteurs' sledges ran on wooden railways in trains of up to ten. They raced on greased ash soles over wooden viaducts that groaned under the weight, descending by long, gentle slopes that looped across the mountainside until they reached the tributaries of the Rhine, which took the logs on to Strasbourg and Colmar. The schlitteurs' legs were the only brakes. Wooden crosses at the side of the railways marked the site of fatal accidents.
Personal accounts of journeys never match the timetables. The following incident took place in 1736, but it could have occurred at any time until the mid-nineteenth century. One day that summer, in the centre of Strasbourg, a young artist-engraver from Germany was waiting to board the express coach for Paris, where he hoped to make his fortune. Johann Georg Wille and a friend had walked a hundred and sixty miles from Usingen on the other side of Frankfurt. They had arrived in Strasbourg with just enough time to register Wille's suitcase at the coach office and to climb the spire of Strasbourg Minster, which was the tallest building in the world. From the top of the spire, they saw the whole Alsace plain and the Vosges mountains where the coach would soon be speeding towards Paris. The sightseeing and the farewell breakfast went on too long. When they arrived on the square, the coach had gone and was already well on its way to the first staging post at Saverne, twenty-five miles to the north-west.
What was I to do? The only solution was to run after it. It had been raining and there were still occasional showers. The cobbles were slippery and the only support I had was my feeble sword. Strasbourg is seven leagues from Saverne. I covered the distance, as far as possible, without stopping to eat or drink, and did not catch up with the coach until it was entering the courtyard of the inn at Saverne where it was to spend the night.
In this case, the tortoise was the coach and the hare was the human being. According to a railway engineer who made the journey more than thirty times between 1830 and 1852, the diligence from Lyon to Paris usually took three days and three nights, or four days in bad weather. The mail coach took only forty-two hours and 'one met a better sort of person', but it was twice as expensive and had room for only four passengers. The true average speed of the Paris-Lyon diligence in the mid-nineteenth century, including stops, was therefore less than 4 mph - twice as slow as the speed of Roman emperors travelling in Gaul and just over twice as fast as Stevenson and his donkey.