The first great French beam has been cut from an ancient oak for the new roof at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. The devastating fire in April 2019 brought the 96-metre spire that topped the roof crashing to the ground. A stunned Paris – and the world – could only look on.

The first oak to produce one of the great beams comes from the Bercé forest in the Sarthe department which lies between Tours and Le Mans in the little known Loir Valley (without an ‘e’). The 250-year old oak tree has been cut into a 20m long, 30cm wide beam at a sawmill at Craon, southeast of Rennes.

Tall oaks in autumn in the berce forest
Oaks in the Forest of Berce © Romain Perrot/CC-BY-SA 4.0

The hunt for the right trees began in January and February 2021. It was a complicated task. Most trunks have to measure over 1 metre (more than 3ft) wide and 18 metres (60 ft) long. Eight of the trees were located in Bercé. The other 9,992 trees that are destined for the cathedral come from 200 French forests. They had to be felled by the end of March to prevent harmful tree sap and moisture entering the wood fibres.

The sawmill is just one of 45 that are currently doing similar work on ancient oak trees that were felled as part of the normal cycle of managing the great forests. They’re being donated by the National Forests Office and are worth up to tens of thousands of euros each.

It’s an emotional time for a country that cares passionately about its heritage – of which Gothic cathedrals form a huge part. As the head of the project to rebuild the cathedral, General Jean-Louis Georgelin, said: ‘The whole of France is taking part.’

Notre-Dame de Paris at night from back showing whole building illuminated before the 2019 fire
Notre-Dame de Paris before the fire © Atoma/Wikimedia Commons

The first beam will be part of the base of the old 96m-tall spire. The spire wasn’t part of the old cathedral; it was added in the 19th century by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc when the building was being renovated.

President Macron has an ambitious target: to open the newly restored cathedral for the Paris Olympics in 2024.

Oaks make up about 32% of all France’s forests and have always been vital for the country’s prosperity. Where do all those oak barrels for wine come from? And what about those castles like Guédelon? This castle that is being reconstructed according to medieval principles stands in an oak forest that provides much of the oak. Here’s more about the grand project of Guédelon.

Aerial view looking down onto Guédelon a medieval castle built from scratch. Walls, entrance with towers in front , interior courtyard, building of hall at back and two more round towers
Aerial view © Guédelon

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