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A look back as the Channel Tunnel in Folkstone marks its 25th anniversary

By Chris Britcher

Earlier this month, the Channel Tunnel marked its 25th anniversary.

An undoubted success story (unless you were in the cross-Channel ferry industry) its impact, and connecting high-speed rail link, has had a major impact on the county.

We take a look at some of the little-known facts about what has been dubbed one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World.

Jubilant tunnel workers after the breakthrough under the Channel in 1990
Jubilant tunnel workers after the breakthrough under the Channel in 1990

Two hundred years in the making

The Channel Tunnel as we know it today was far from the first attempt to bridge the sea between our nearest continental neighbours.

In fact, work started on two attempts over recent centuries - most recently in the 1970s.

But it was back in 1802 when Napoleon Bonaparte, during a period when invasion wasn't on his mind, thought a tunnel would provide an ideal trading route.

Plans by French mining engineer Albert Mathieu-Favier were drawn up which would have seen a tunnel with room for horse-drawn carriages, with huge chimneys rising from the ground and above the waves to act as ventilation.

Workings for the first Channel Tunnel project in the 1880s at what is now Samphire Hoe
Workings for the first Channel Tunnel project in the 1880s at what is now Samphire Hoe

A few years later, however, and the then French emperor scrapped the plans as relations waned.

Some 50 years later, Bonaparte's nephew, Napoleon III and Queen Victoria gave approval to a train tunnel under the sea.

Work actually started in 1878 with some two kilometres drilled by the time work was halted in 1883 due to security concerns of the military.

The tunnel on the English side was near what is now Samphire Hoe and can still be seen today.

Work of the Channel Tunnel site in 1988, showing the lagoons to be filled with excavated spoil to create Samphire Hoe
Work of the Channel Tunnel site in 1988, showing the lagoons to be filled with excavated spoil to create Samphire Hoe

Post war, the Channel Tunnel Study Group was established in 1957 to look again at the issue and in 1973 drilling began on both sides of the Channel.

But, two years later, and with just 400 metres bored in Kent, then PM Harold Wilson called time due to the costs involved.

It was not until 1987 that work began on the completed link, which opened in 1994.

Launch party

If you drive towards Folkestone on the M20, just before you reach the Channel Tunnel/Cheriton turn off, on the right hand side, is the Motis Business Centre.

But in the years leading up to the historical first crossing by the Queen to meet then-French president Francois Mitterand, it was better known as the Eurotunnel Exhibition Centre and a once popular tourist attraction.

The tower which still stands allowed visitors to peer across the once green fields as one of the world's biggest engineering projects unfolded before them.

The Queen and then Lord Lieutenant of Kent, Robin Leigh-Pemberton, a the official opening of the Channel Tunnel in May 1994 - then-PM John Major can be seen in the background
The Queen and then Lord Lieutenant of Kent, Robin Leigh-Pemberton, a the official opening of the Channel Tunnel in May 1994 - then-PM John Major can be seen in the background

In the week during which the Queen made that first crossing, it held a special celebration event which included a performance of an anthem for the inaugural crossing, When Flags Fly Together - penned by none other than Mike Batt.

He was the man better known as being behind The Wombles' pop hits and later discovering songstress Katie Melua. He attended the event.

Songs of Praise also recorded a programme during the celebrations, while another famous face was Herbie Flowers - the bass player on Lou Reed's classic Walk on the Wild Side - who worked with young musicians as part of the celebrations.

Strange but true.

Samphire Hoe

While parts of Kent were buried beneath train tracks and sidings, one area did emerge, quite literally from the sea.

Samphire Hoe, beneath Shakespeare Cliff, between Dover and Folkestone, was created by the spoil from the huge drilling machines which bored under the ground to create the tunnel.

Selected from 60 sites being considered, large lagoons were constructed and work platforms created.

Since work concluded on the tunnel, it has been converted into a popular nature area.

Samphire Hoe starting to take shape during the construction period
Samphire Hoe starting to take shape during the construction period

Rail or road?

For those of us with long memories, the debate at the time of the link being drawn up was over whether it should be a rail link, as it is today, or one for cars to drive themselves through.

Margaret Thatcher, the PM who agreed to a privately-funded tunnel, was apparently keen for a road tunnel rather than a rail link - but eventually backed down on safety grounds.

However, for years there has been speculation of another crossing being built - including a somewhat ambitious bridge suggested last year by Boris Johnson.

Eurotunnel chiefs say they are always open to discussions, but with plenty of capacity on the existing line still available, it seems likely this prospect will be some decades away.

Chris Froome pictured as he became the first person to cycle through the Channel Tunnel in 2015. Picture: SWNS
Chris Froome pictured as he became the first person to cycle through the Channel Tunnel in 2015. Picture: SWNS

It is technically possible to drive through the tunnel, though.

Just don't expect to be able to do so unless you work for Eurotunnel.

Its service tunnel allows for maintenance vehicles and has even seen Tour de France star Chris Froome cycle through it, world champion John Surtees drive through it, and the Children in Need rickshaw challenge pedal through it.

Digging through dinosaurs

During the construction period, enough earth was dug to create the 25 mile tunnel, the longest undersea tunnel in the world by the way, to fill Wembley Stadium seven times over.

And had you rummaged through the tonnes of material dug up there would be some interesting finds to be had.

Workers dug through chalk marl which dated back to the Cretaceous period - an era when dinosaurs walked the earth.

The chalk is made up of small fossils and has a high clay content which makes it impervious to water.

Inside the Channel Tunnel during construction
Inside the Channel Tunnel during construction

The tunnel itself is, at its lowest point, some 250ft below sea level.

It was dangerous work at times too. Ten people died, out of the 13,000 involved in its construction, eight of whom were British.

Not surprisingly, it took some serious equipment to drill through the ground. In total, some 11 boring machines were used, boasting a combined weight of some 12,000 tonnes.

One of the machines, after work was complete, was put on display at the Eurotunnel Exhibition Centre.

The entrance to the Channel Tunnel at Cheriton in 1990 - four years before it opened
The entrance to the Channel Tunnel at Cheriton in 1990 - four years before it opened

In 2004, with the centre closed, Eurotunnel put the enormous machine on eBay where it was bought by Thanet scrap metal dealers Reclamet for £39,000.

The 580-tonne monster was broken up for scrap with the money raised from the auction going to charity.

Another remains on display at the French terminal in Coquelles while one more remains under the sea-bed having been too large to extract.

Instead it was simply drilled into the earth and paved over.

The huge drill formerly outside of the Eurotunnel Exhibition Centre which was snapped up for £39,000 by Thanet firm Reclamet
The huge drill formerly outside of the Eurotunnel Exhibition Centre which was snapped up for £39,000 by Thanet firm Reclamet

Linking with London

While the tunnel and the associated rail link has certainly brought a host of benefits to the county - perhaps most significantly the speed at which travellers can now reach London courtesy of HS1, built in order to provide a seamless speedy link between Paris and London - many will remember the disruption the rail route bought to so much of the county.

The route was much discussed and when the eventual path chosen, a large number of properties were served compulsory purchase orders.

Protests were a regular sight around the county and for towns such as Ashford the impact was hard - with the town centre cinema demolished to make way for a car park for the new international station.

Eurotunnel marks its 25th anniversary this month
Eurotunnel marks its 25th anniversary this month

The uncertainty surrounded the original route also saw some farcical situations.

A housing estate off the Blue Bell Hill, between Maidstone and Chatham, built in the 1980s was bought up by British Rail (BR) when it was on the initial proposed route.

But when this was thought ruled out, BR started selling the properties.

But when the final route was confirmed it was just 300 metres from the homes. BR refused to buy them back leaving residents fuming.

Read more: All the latest news from Folkestone

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