Fighting back vertigo, I cautiously lean over the viaduct’s north rail. Below me the sunken roof of the abandoned Old Mill of God, sinks peacefully into the Solstice mist. The mist wraps everything in a layer of reminiscences, as if the past is seeping gradually yet inexorably into the present.
The Pathenay viaduct is nothing special by French standards. The passenger railway did not arrive in the Gatine until the early 1880s, a good forty years after its debut in France. Being less industrialized than Britain and Germany, railway construction in France moved at a gentler pace than its more competitive neighbours. Nonetheless, it is unarguably a mighty structure—184 metres of hewn stone and metal beams, with eight massive granite arches spanning the River Thouet like portals for the missions of ancient giants. Its midriff supports a huge steel deck, seven metres wide at the point where I now stand. Through the slatting, ruler-shaped glimpses of the river 25 metres below toy with my visual cortex and make me giddy. I imagine others here, in this spot, inspired, worried, depressed, in love. It is hard to imagine a more romantic place to declare one’s affections, nor anyone surviving the fall.
It feels magnificent. A wondrous co-existence of function and form. How we overlook our local wonders! I have climbed the Pyramids of Giza, drunk tea beneath the Colossi of Memnon, listened to the azaan from the courtyard of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, climbed the walls that guard the vaulted mysteries of Karnak, and watched the sun rise over Athens from the Parthenon. Still, the Parthenay viaduct somehow holds its own among them; its behemoth stone feet imprinted into the earth, its grand curvaceous arches trace the shape of the steps they dream to take. I try to photograph it, but it is too enormous, and defies the limitations of my camera lens. I end up with awkward, squashed angles, that do little justice to its splendorous dimensions.
By any measure, the French do a very good bridge. Napoleon’s army would have been wiped out many times over were it not for the ‘pontonniers’—a crack crew of temporary bridge builders, who were said to be able to construct a 150 metre long bridge made up of pontoons (flat copper-bottomed boats) in under seven hours. From the medieval era to the present, France’s architects, engineers and craftsmen have created some of the finest specimens in the world. At over 92 metres, the Fades Viaduct in the Puy-de-Dôme department, is the tallest bridge ever to be built with traditional masonry, and still holds its own as the world’s tenth tallest railway viaduct.
In 1341, the Pont du Diable over the river Tech, held the record for the world’s largest bridge arch, until Italy snagged the title fifteen years later. Gignac Bridge in the Hérault department was hailed as the most beautiful bridge of 18th century France, and of course, Gustav Eiffel left a remarkable legacy, including the impressive Garabit viaduct, 565 metres of wrought iron spanning the Truyère in the mountainous Cantal. French engineers continue this formidable legacy today. In 2004, the Millau Viaduct, a suspension bridge that spans the valley of the River Tarn in southern France, became the tallest bridge in the world, higher even than the Eiffel Tower.
Though modest by these standards, the Parthenay viaduct has me under its spell. The tracks it carries have not seen a train in a while, yet it is still lovingly maintained, like a family heirloom. As late as 2000, the town found the funds to replace all the deck’s old bearings.
I began to photograph it from different angles, and at different times of the day, observing its changing moods as the Gatine sank ever deeper into winter.
As my study of the viaduct deepens, so does my fascination. It was built to last but it is never the same. Its beauty unfolds in proportion to my attention, revealing itself in ever-subtler layers of light, perspective and stone.