Britain and France connected | Channel Tunnel history

Written by on February 7, 2014 in Holiday Travel, My French Life

britain and france connected

France and the UK were not always separated. Thousands of years ago they were connected by land but a humongous flood carved out a break and changed Britain’s landscape and the course of history forever and Britain became an island. Estimates say that as short a time ago as 6000 BC you could walk to France from Britain at certain times of the year!

Just think – if that flood hadn’t happened and we were still joined together – would the French be British or the British French?! It doesn’t bear thinking about does it? The two countries have been good friends at times and not so good at others and getting across to see each other was by boat for thousands of years until people started to think about new, better ways to visit each other and one of those ways was by tunnel.

An undersea tunnel between France and Britain

The Channel Tunnel that was completed in 1994 was not a new idea.

From 1803 to 1805 an army of 200,000 men, known as the Armée des côtes de l’Océan (Army of the Ocean Coasts) or the Armée de l’Angleterre (Army of England), was gathered and trained at camps including Boulogne-Sur-Mer and Montreuil-sur-Mer. Invasion boats were built with gusto in ports around the coast including Etaples, forts were built, training was carried out and Napoleon visited for frequent inspections and ceremonies. The first Imperial Légion d’honneur was awarded on one such visit and the area is full of historic buildings, plaques and reminders of those heady days when France planned to invade the UK.

It was never going to be easy and trial runs from Boulogne were not auspicious. Napoleon demanded new ideas, fresh ways to fuel his plan. Troop carrying balloons was one idea, and a tunnel under the Channel was another (shown in the cartoon above dated 1803).

Of course – the invasion didn’t happen and the tunnel didn’t happen – then.

The tunnel was actually an idea that had evolved during peaceful times – the designer Albert Mathieu-Favier had approached Napoleon in 1802 to discuss his plan for a tunnel from Calais to Dover. He thought it would be possible to dig a tunnel big enough for horses and carriages to drive through. Oil lamps would provide illumination and long chimneys rising above the sea would provide ventilation. He planned to build up the mid-Channel sandbank, called Varne Bank (almost 6 miles long) into an artificial island which would be a half way post, the horses could be changed there and you could get something to eat and drink. All very civilised – but a tad flawed, digging out the tunnel would have taken years and years with primitive boring equipment and no-one had the appetite (or the money to spare) for that.

Seventy years later a more serious attempt to build a tunnel came with a UK Act of Parliament in 1875 authorising the Channel Tunnel Company Ltd. to start preliminary trials. It was an Anglo French project with a simultaneous Act of Parliament in France. By 1877 several shafts had been sunk to a depth of 330 feet at Sangatte in France but the project was abandoned due to problems over finance and flooding on the UK side.

Eventually, as we all know, along came a serious plan which was given the green light in 1964 by both the UK and France and in 1973 confirmation to go ahead was announced. After a series of delays and mind-changes, work started in 1987.

Britain and France Connected

On December 1, 1990, a historic meeting between British and French building workers took place when they met in the middle and toasted the event with champagne.

Four years later on May 6, 1994, a year behind schedule and way over budget, Queen Elizabeth II and President Mitterand declared the Channel Tunnel  – the longest undersea tunnel in the world – open. France and Britain were once more connected.

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