There’s no pleasing some people. On a sunny afternoon in the Jardin des Tuileries I feel hemmed in by the crowds. In the peace and quiet of the Petite Ceinture I start to feel lonely. I’d climbed the steep, new staircase from busy Place Balard and walked twenty yards along the disused railway track when I realised there wasn’t a single person in sight. In a city of five million people, finding yourself suddenly and unexpectedly alone prompts a quick mental check. What’s wrong with this place? Is it safe? In the case of this stretch of the Petite Ceinture, I think the answer is yes, apart from the usual outdoor hazards. It’s quiet but far from deserted. Peacefully wild.
The Petite Ceinture has been going wild since the last freight trains stopped running on it in the 1970s. Much of the 32km track encircling Paris is overgrown and officially out of bounds but a few sections are gradually being opened up to public use, like this 1.5km stretch in the 15th arrondissement. Opened in 2013, this section of the track has been tidied up for public access but the vegetation either side is still being left to go its own way, within limits. The railway ‘heritage’ is being preserved too. Although one of the twin tracks has been leveled with gravel for easy access, you can still balance along the rails on the opposite track or step between the weathered wooden sleepers.
The ‘open’ sections of the Petite Ceinture are shut off from the rest of the route by sturdy, steel railings but those only deter human visitors. As far as wild plants and animals are concerned there’s an unbroken green corridor right around the city. A colourful mix of wildflowers is establishing itself in the inhospitable terrain of the trackside ballast. This is viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare), growing with knapweed, ox-eye daisy and sorrel, a subtle mix of colour and form that any parks manager could be proud of. According to the city council website, a total of 220 species of plants and animals have been recorded along this short section of the track, including an extraordinary 21 species of birds nesting in the trackside woodland, out of bounds to human visitors.
Only a short section of the ring, to the west of Paris, has formally been closed to rail traffic, another section is now used by the RER and the rest is technically in reserve. The sandy pathway in the picture is laid over the rails and sleepers and could be removed for the track to be reopened to rail traffic. A community association, campaigning for the preservation of the route, claims that rail services could be resumed alongside pedestrian pathways, without damaging the developing ecosystems. As wildlife habitats and human use develop side by side, managing the Petite Ceinture, or letting it go its own way, will be a perpetual balancing act.