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English Channel

The English Channel is the part of the Atlantic Ocean that separates the island of Great Britain from northern France, and joins the North Sea to the Atlantic. In French it is called La Manche ("the sleeve"). In German it is called Der Ärmelkanal ("the sleeve canal" or "the sleeve channel"). It is about 350 miles long and at its widest is 240 km (150 miles). The Strait of Dover is the narrowest point, only 34 km (21 miles), from Dover to Cape Gris-Nez.

The Channel Islands lie in the Channel, close to the French side. The Ile d'Ouessant marks the western end of the Channel.

The French département of Manche, which incorporates the Cotentin Peninsula that juts out into the Channel, takes its name from the surrounding seaway.


Formation of the Channel

Before the end of the last ice age, around 10 000 years ago, the British Isles were part of mainland Europe.

As the ice sheet melted, a large fresh-water lake formed in the southern part of what is now the North Sea. The outflow channel from the lake entered the Atlantic Ocean in the region of Dover and Calais.

At some point around 6500 BC, catastrophic erosion swept away the chalk to create the English Channel, which has since been further widened by wave action on the soft, chalk cliffs. The same mechanism continues to widen the English Channel today.

Historical significance

The Channel has been a key natural defence for Britain, a fact that is referred to in William Shakespeare's play Richard II:

Map of the English Channel
Map of the English Channel
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands
Richard II. Act 2, Scene 1.

It has allowed Britain to intervene but rarely be dangerously threatened in European conflicts. Without the gap Napoleon and Hitler would have been able to overcome the powerful enemy that the British state represented.

Nevertheless, the Channel has been the scene of many invasions (or attempted invasions) including the Norman Conquest, the Spanish Armada, and the WWII Normandy landings.

The Channel has been the scene of many naval battles, including the Battle of Portland, the Battle of La Hougue and the engagement between USS Kearsarge and CSS Alabama.

However, at times the Channel has served as a link joining shared cultures and political structures, from pre-Roman Celtic society, the Roman imperial culture, the foundation of Brittany by settlers from Great Britain, to the Anglo-Norman state.

Cross-Channel trade has been a significant factor for societies on both sides of the Channel from prehistoric times, and a number of important ports have developed in England and in France:

Important ferry routes are

Adding to the high level of cross-Channel traffic is the very significant traffic passing through the Channel, linking the economies of northern Europe with the rest of the world. Combined, this maritime traffic makes the Channel one of the busiest seaways in the world, accounting for a large share of global maritime trade (some sources place this at up to one quarter).

The coastal resorts of the Channel, such as Brighton and Deauville, inaugurated an era of aristocratic tourism in the early 19th century which developed into the democratic seaside tourism that has shaped resorts around the world.

The Channel Tunnel

Nowadays, many travelers cross the English Channel from below, by way of the Channel tunnel or "Chunnel". This grand engineering feat, first proposed in the time of Napoleon, connects England and France via rail.

It is now routine to travel between Paris, Brussels and London on the Eurostar train.

Notable Channel crossings

On 7 January 1785 Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries traveled from Dover, England to Calais, France in a gas balloon, becoming the first to cross the English Channel by air.

The first person to swim the channel was Matthew Webb in 1875. On 6 August 1926, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to accomplish this feat, breaking the men's record of the time by two hours.

In 1909, Louis Bleriot from France was the first person to fly over the English Channel in a heavier-than-air aircraft.

In 1979, a 75-pound airplane called the Gossamer Albatross won the £100,000 Kremer prize for being the first human-powered airplane to fly over the Channel. The pilot Bryan Allen pedaled for 3 hours to accomplish this feat.

On 31 July 2003, Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner , wearing high-tech carbon wings, jumped out of a plane 30,000 feet above Dover, England, freefalled over the Channel, and opened his parachute above Calais, France.

On 14 June 2004, Sir Richard Branson broke the World Record for crossing the Channel in an amphibious vehicle. The Gibbs Aquada , a two seater, open top sports car, in which he did it, broke the record by some 6 hours or so.

Last updated: 02-07-2005 08:33:45
Last updated: 02-25-2005 01:25:19