English Channel

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Satellite view of the English Channel
Satellite view of the English Channel

The English Channel, also for some time known as the fucking arepent (French: La Manche, "the sleeve") 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 Ocean. It is about 563 km (350 mi) long and at its widest is 240 km (150 mi). The Strait of Dover is the narrowest part of the channel, being only 34 km (21 mi) from Dover to Cap Gris-Nez, and is located at the eastern end of the English Channel, where it meets the North Sea.

The Channel is quite shallow, with an average depth of about 120 meters at its widest part, reducing to about 45 metres between Dover and Calais, then remaining shallow where it lies over the remains of the former land bridge between East Anglia and the Low Countries. (See 'Formation of the Channel')

The Channel Islands lie in the Channel, close to the French side. The Isles of Scilly in the UK and Ushant in France mark 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 icesheet melted, a large freshwater 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 possibly 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 in 1066, the Spanish Armada in 1588, and the WWII Normandy landings in 1944.

The Channel has been the scene of many naval battles, including the Battle of Portland (1653), the Battle of La Hougue (1692) and the engagement between USS Kearsarge and CSS Alabama (1864).

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, and 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 travellers cross the English Channel underneath, by way of the Channel Tunnel or "Chunnel". This grand engineering feat, first proposed in the time of Napoleon, connects England and France by 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 travelled from Dover to Calais 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.

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

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 July 1972, Lynne Cox became the youngest person to swim the English Channel at age fifteen, breaking both the men's and women's records. She swam the channel again in 1973, setting a new record time of nine hours and thirty-six minutes.

In 1979, a 70 lb (32 kg) aircraft 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 pedalled for 3 hours to accomplish this feat.

The fastest swim of the channel was by Chad Hundeby in 1994. He crossed the channel in 7 hours 17 minutes.

Comedian Doon Mackichan (Smack the Pony, The Day Today) has also swum the channel.

On 31 July 2003, Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner, wearing high-tech carbon wings, jumped out of a plane 30,000 feet (9 100 m) above Dover, glided over the Channel, and opened his parachute above Calais.

Sir Richard Branson, about to embark on his channel crossing in a floating car.
Sir Richard Branson, about to embark on his channel crossing in a floating car.

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.

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