Crossing the Channel by stagecoach

Channel TunnelDiary date: 26th January, 1986

My 1986 diary has more space than the previous year and comes with an unexpected bonus feature – an area headed ‘Notes’ every two or three pages. On the now 28-year old Notes page for January – conscious of my requirement to keep abreast of all things French – I solemnly recorded the fact that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President François Mitterand had signed an agreement on the building of an undersea tunnel between the two countries.

The scheme they chose involved the construction of two one-way rail tunnels for shuttle and high-speed trains, plus a third service tunnel connected to the other two at regular intervals. Among the schemes they had rejected in coming to their decision were a suspension bridge, a set of artificial islands joined by bridges and a tunnel, and a set of road and rail tunnels.

However, for sheer visionary ambition, I doubt anyone has ever really improved on the plan put forward in 1802 by mining engineer Albert Mathieu-Favier. Favier suggested a single two-level tunnel. The lower level had practicality in mind and was a watercourse designed to collect and deal with the inevitable leaks. By contrast, the upper level was an altogether more romantic affair. It was to be used by horse-drawn carriages and stagecoaches, and lit with oil lamps. Air was to be provided by great iron chimneys connecting the tunnel to the surface, towering at regular intervals above the waves. Half way across, an artificial island was to be built on top of Varne sandbank to allow tired horses to be changed and travellers to rest and stretch their legs.

Favier’s zeal was sufficient to gain the support of Napoleon Bonaparte, who took the opportunity at one point to discuss the tunnel with a visiting British statesman – Charles James Fox. However, with war in the air – and the British suspicious of the First Consul’s motives – the idea was quietly put to one side.

Today’s tunnel is about as far from Favier’s vision of sedate, lamp-lit carriages as it is possible to get, with high-speed Eurostar trains hurtling beneath the sea at 100mph and the world’s largest roll-on-roll-off shuttles ferrying lorries and cars to and fro every 20 minutes. It’s an astonishing feat of engineering – and one that Favier would almost certainly have approved of.

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