1986 – Reconnected

For a very long time, there was no separate landmass, or ‘island girt by sea’, which today we call the British Isles.  Rather, continental Europe extended west from France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and part of north-western Germany to embrace the current islands, large and small.  Historians call this area Doggerland, named after the Dogger Bank, a huge shallow area off the coast of England, underlying part of the North Sea.  As for why they chose that particular name, it was and is a favourite fishing area, and the shoal was, in turn, was named after 17th-century Dutch fishing boats called ‘doggers’.

Back in that distant past, there were other land connections.   Sweden was firmly linked to northern Germany, that larger area covering Denmark’s scattering landmass and the Kattegat, leaving the Baltic Sea as a vast inland lake.  All the evidence suggests that the land between England, Belgium and the Netherlands was relatively flat, with good rich soil, rather similar in character to the reclaimed polder areas around Wieringermeer, in the province of North Holland.  Obviously, back then there was no concept of Britain, France or any other version of what we call a country: Stone Age groups were small, probably isolated and independent!

This ancient geography began to change as the ice melted at the end of the last great glacial period during the most recent of the ice ages, some time around 10,000 BC.   Sea levels rose, the land began to tilt and Doggerland eventually became submerged, cutting off what had previously been the British peninsula from the European mainland, somewhere around 6,500 BCE.   The Dogger Bank, the upland area of Doggerland, remained an island until at least 5,000 BCE.  The process took time.  Reconstructions suggest the key stages included the gradual evolution of a large tidal bay between eastern England and Dogger Bank by 9,000 BCE and a rapid rise in the sea level soon after, leading to Dogger Bank turning into an island and Britain physically separating from the continent.

We have some slight evidence as to the more detailed sequence of what probably happened.  One hypothesis is that around 6,200 BC much of the residual coastal land was overwhelmed by a tsunami, resulting from a submarine landslide off the Norwegian coast, the Storegga Slide.   This would have hastened the departure of the contemporary littoral Mesolithic population, already under threat from the rising seas.  Once Britain became completely separated from the continent and its culture, the British Isles began to develop along a separate and independent path.  What remained of Doggerland after the Storegga Slide were some low-lying islands, probably abandoned around the same time as the tsunami took its toll.  An alternative hypothesis suggests the Storegga tsunami devastated Doggerland, but then ebbed back into the sea.  It was only later that sea levels began to rise again, possibly a result of North America’s Lake Agassiz breaking its banks, releasing a huge quantity of water.  To support this second scenario, broken shells can be seen between lower and higher-lying parts of the area, suggesting parts of Doggerland survived after the Storegga tsunami.

While it is fun to consider these various scenarios, the important point is that whatever did happen, Britain was now separate and began to follow its own path.  Separate, but not out of sight.  With the Continent visible from the cliffs of Dover on a good day,  France was only a short boat ride away.  Close neighbours and so, inevitably, both trade and tensions were to characterise interactions between Britain and France, with invasions and battles taking place on either side.  However, as is so often the case, it was trade which remained the most important factor through the centuries, and trade which shaped the future.

In 1802, Albert Mathieu-Favier, a French mining engineer, proposed boring a tunnel under the English Channel for coaches to make the journey.  Not for tourism, but for goods, the tunnel illuminated by oil lamps, and an artificial island mid-Channel for changing horses.  Imaginative, it was the first of many similar schemes.   In 1839 a French surveyor undertook both geological and hydrographical studies of the Channel, between Calais and Dover.  Armed with more data, a new plan for a railway tunnel was presented to Napoleon III in 1856, and nine years later a similar proposal was made to Gladstone, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer.  More ventures were suggested, but none took off, although in 1876 the English and French Governments agreed a ‘protocol’ for a cross-Channel railway tunnel.

A far more serious enterprise began in 1881, when a British railway entrepreneur and a French civil contractor (who had worked on the Suez Canal) started initial work on both sides of the Channel.  In England, a mile long pilot tunnel was excavated from Shakespeare Cliff, and in France one slightly shorter was dug out from Sangatte.  However, this promising beginning came to nothing after a press campaign and political pressure led to work ceasing, based on the fear a tunnel would make England vulnerable to attach!  The Shakespeare Cliffs and Sangatte works were rediscovered during construction work 100 years later.

Throughout the first half of the 20th Century, proposals were made and abandoned, often stopped because of those British fears of an invasion.  There were also concerns that hordes of tourists would come over, disrupting English life.  I wonder how many French, Spanish and Portuguese have read about this, and smiled wanly as they observe the hordes of British holidaymakers travelling to the continent today, happily displacing local culture in favour of fish and chip shops, beer, and sports betting.  Inevitably, Hitler’s rise gave impetus to new worries, in the belief that with slave labour he could build two Channel tunnels in 18 months.   However, once the war was over and air travel had become established, discussions over a tunnel took on a rather more serious character.  In 1958 the 1881 workings were cleared in preparation for a £100,000 geological survey by the Channel Tunnel Study Group, with 30% of the funding privately raised, coming from the newly created Channel Tunnel Co. Ltd.

Britain and France agreed to build a tunnel in 1964, in two stages. Phase 1, a series of  initial studies, would be followed by the signing of a second agreement to cover phase 2, set for  completion in 1973.  At last, a tunnel could be built, and construction started on both sides of the Channel a year later.  Started, but the whole exercise became tangled up with the British havering over joining the EEC, the Common Market.  On 20 January 1975, the Labour Party government cancelled the project due to uncertainty over EEC membership, and especially the likely increase in costs, given the general economic crisis at the time.  By this time the British tunnel boring machine was ready and had completed a 980-foot trial: stopping work led to cancellation costs of  £17 m.  The French were outraged at the British action:  their tunnel boring machine had been installed underground, and it was to remain there for 14 years, when it was sold, dismantled, refurbished, and shipped to Turkey where it was used to drive the Moda tunnel for the Istanbul Sewerage Scheme.  What a fall from noble purpose!

Four years later, the Conservatives came to power, receiving yet another proposal.   The British government didn’t want to fund the project, but Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, true to her principles, didn’t object to a privately funded project, which she assumed would be for cars rather than trains.  In 1981, Thatcher and the French established a working group to evaluate a privately funded project, favouring a twin tunnel to accommodate conventional trains with a vehicle shuttle service. By April 1985 four submissions had been shortlisted:  one was for a rail Channel Tunnel; one for a Eurobridge, (a 22-mile suspension bridge with seven huge spans); another for a Euroroute, a combination of tunnels, bridges, and artificial islands; and, finally Channel Expressway, road tunnels with mid-channel ventilation towers.

The outcome was inevitable.  While public opinion favoured a drive-through tunnel, concerns about ventilation, accident management and the fear of the damage that could be caused by car driver falling asleep led to the Channel Tunnel consortium being awarded the project in January 1986.  Among other reasons for the choice were that it caused least disruption to shipping in the Channel, least environmental disruption, was the best protection against terrorism (or invasion), and was the most likely to attract enough private finance.  8,000 years after Doggerland had disappeared, France and England were to be physically reunited.

I am not quite clear why some notable places got involved in this, but if the Chunnel was to start at Shakespeare Cliff, so the agreement to have it built was signed by the French and British at Canterbury Cathedral.  Perhaps the Archbishop was the witness to the signatures?  The treaty offered a ‘Concession’ for the construction and operation of the tunnel by privately owned companies.  The French terminal and boring from Sangatte involved five French construction companies; the same number of British construction companies were involved in building the English Terminal and the tunnel boring starting from Shakespeare Cliff. 

Overall, the tunnel’s construction was a ‘build-own-operate-transfer’ (BOOT)  project with an income deal (the ‘concession’).  The British and French governments gave the tunnel, now formally known as Eurotunnel, but the ‘Chunnel’ to the UK public, a 55-year operating concession from 1987 to repay loans and pay dividends.  In 1993 it was  extended by 10 years to 2052.  Private funding for such a complex infrastructure project was huge.  The total investment costs in 1985 prices came to £2.6 billion. When it was completed in 1994, the actual costs, in 1985 prices, had grown to £4.65 billion: an 80% cost overrun.

It wasn’t just money.  Everything about this project was huge.  Working from both the sides of the Channel, eleven tunnel boring machines cut through chalk marl to construct two rail tunnels and a service tunnel. Vehicle shuttle terminals were built at Cheriton (Folkstone), connecting to the M20 motorway, and Coquelles, connecting to the A16 motorway.  Work commenced in 1988, and at the peak of construction 15,000 people were employed.  On 1 December 1990, an Englishman, Graham Fagg, and a Frenchman, Phillippe Cozette, broke through from either side of the service tunnel, with the media watching.  A BBC television commentator called Graham Fagg the first man to cross the Channel by land for 8,000 years! 

It was officially opened, one year later than originally planned, on 6 May 1994, by Queen Elizabeth II and President Mitterrand.  That year the American Society of Civil Engineers selected the tunnel as  one of the seven modern Wonders of the World (along with the Empire State Building, the Toronto TV tower, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Panama Canal, the Itaipú Dam, and, by a quirk of fate, the Delta and Zuiderzee reclamation works in North Holland).  An engineering triumph, but the Chunnel was also a symbol, an umbilical cord ensuring Britain and France remained closely connected. No, not an umbilical cord, more like an elastic band, tense at times, often allowing quite a distance to develop, but always pulling the two countries back together, and never allowing them to be entirely free of one another.

What is this strange relationship between the two?  Years ago, I was given a book of photographs, portraits from everyday scenes, capturing people in various parts of Europe.  Here in one was a group of men, all wearing berets, on a barge by the side of a river, a plate with bread and cheese between them.  Another showed a couple of men, in dark suits, white shirts and dark ties, walking down the street, each with a black, furled umbrella and a dark, official looking briefcase.  So typically French, the first group, so typically English those two city gents.  I laughed.  Then I read the brief blurb under the pictures.  The first was of Englishmen on a barge in the Midlands.  The second was of two Frenchmen, going to work in Paris.  I’d been tricked!  The book of photographs was a play on stereotypes, on how we make assumptions, from beer drinkers with large steins (who weren’t Germans) to freckled, fair-skinned, red-haired young women (who were Sicilians).

In their twangy, elastic relationship, the French and English constantly play on stereotypes about each other.  For years I believed that the cyclists seen on country roads travelling to local markets with strings of onions were actually odious Frenchmen, seeking to steal fresh faced English girls, swapping them for clumps of garlic.  I knew about the French.  They ate frogs and horsemeat (and, actually, they did).  They bought their bread in long, tough sticks (the bread I ate was tough, but that was because the boulangère near where I stayed with my parents in Paris gave me free baguettes from the previous day’s baking).  In my mind they were dangerous, deceitful, and sexual predators.  Over on our side, the French knew we boiled out vegetables to destruction, and at the same time we were stiff and proper, lacking romantic feelings, in fact unable to admit to any kind of emotion.

I could continue with this litany of well-known ‘truths’.  It was much later in life I realised two things about these strange perceptions.  The first was that many of the stereotypes did have an element of truth.  The British were proud of the stiff upper lip, and suffered badly cooked vegetables with a strange, stoic pride.  On their side, egged on by formal British visitors, the French played up their relaxed, sexy and rather flamboyant behaviour.  On either side, slight exaggerations were adopted to ensure the other could be seen as quite different.  In fact, we needed each to conform to the stereotype, as it suited an underlying sense of ‘us and them’.  Meeting French people who weren’t ‘really French’ was quite disconcerting, and to see them wolfing down fish and chips was, well, sacré bleu, it wasn’t right.

The game of enhancing the stereotypes, as well as some real differences, served another  purpose.  Like brothers or sisters in a large, unruly family, we loved and hated each other, as well as teasing ceaselessly.  Stuck at one end of Europe, we shared so much history.  At the far end of conquests and migrations, both countries were at a stopping point.  De Gaulle might have said “Aprés moi, La Deluge”, but he could have said ‘Aprés L’Angleterre and La France, L’Océan”.  We were at the end of the line, both countries with nowhere else to go.  Loving, teasing and exaggerating, our attitudes spoke to a symbiotic relationship.  We needed and still need each other.  However, we also needed distance.  The relationship between the two countries worked because there was that gap, the English Channel, La Manche.  Shops and planes could travel across the gap, but there it was, some 20 miles of permanent separation.  The Channel Tunnel upset that, ‘chunnelling’ all sorts of worries and suspicions.  Images of refugees in Calais, planning to swarm through the tunnel, are still used to build up tension and fear in Britain.  They can’t be stopped;  they can just walk in!

A recent television fiction captured this well.  ‘The Tunnel’ began with a body found at the precise point where the two countries met, in the middle of the service tunnel, beneath the sea.  A body lay across the dividing line, and, to the viewers’ horror, it quickly became apparent the body was in two parts, cut in two, on half in England, and the other in France.  That set up a wonderful detective story, between a French and an English detective, forever unable to quite breach their emotional and intellectual gaps.  The television series embodied stereotypes, but revealed a truth:  once separated, France and Britain are forever reconnected.