English Channel

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Satellite view of the English Channel

The English Channel is the sea separating Europe from Great Britain; France lies all along its southern shore. It washes the whole southern shore of Great Britain and alone amongst the sea passages of these isles it is popularly known just as "the Channel".

It is a busy sea; the busiest sea lanes in the world are here, by which the trade of the nations passes through the narrow seas. No ship from any land of Northern Europe may pass into the Ocean unless it enters the English Channel, or braves the wild seas of the far north. Across the Channel are several ferry routes, and beneath it runs the Channel Tunnel.

The English Channel is an arm of the Atlantic Ocean, broad at its western end and narrowing to just 21 miles at the Straits of Dover, between Kent and Artois, beyond which Straits is the North Sea. The French name of the Channel is La Manche ("the Sleeve") in reference to its shape. The Romans knew it as the Mare Britannicum ("the British Sea").

The Channel is about 350 miles long and varies in width from 150 miles at its widest in the west to 21 miles in the Strait of Dover. It is the smallest of the shallow seas around the continental shelf of Europe, covering an area of some 29,000 square miles.[1]


French map of the Channel

The name "English Channel" has been widely used since the early 18th century, possibly originating from the designation "Engelse Kanaal" in Dutch sea maps from the 16th century onwards. It has also been known as the "British Channel".[2][3]

Before the name "English Channel" became popularised, it was known as the British Sea or British Ocean; William Camden used both. The Channel was called the "Oceanus Britannicus" by the 2nd-century geographer Ptolemy. The same name is used on an Italian map of about 1450, which gives the alternative name of "canalites Anglie", which is possibly the first recorded use of the "Channel" designation.[4]

The French name "(la) Manche" has been in use since at least the 17th century.[1] The name means "The Sleeve", apparently in reference to the Channel's sleeve-like shape. Interestingly, a similar-looking name exists in the British Isles: the Minch, the channel dividing the Inner Hebrides from the Outer Hebrides. This name is said to derive from the Gaelic word meaning "channel",[5] albeit that the Gaelic names for the Minch show no trace of it.


Map of the English Channel

The International Hydrographic Organization, as ever ready with a definition for the indefinable, defines the limits of the English Channel as follows:[6]

On the West. A line joining Isle Vierge (48°38'23"N 4°34'13"W) to Lands End (50°04'N 5°43'W).
On the East. The Southwestern limit of the North Sea.

The IHO defines the southwestern limit of the North Sea as "a line joining the Walde Lighthouse (France, 1°55'E) and Leathercoat Point (Kent, 51°10'N)".[6] Leathercoat Point is at the north end of St Margaret's Bay, Kent.

The Channel is relatively shallow as seas go, with an average depth of about 66 fathoms at its widest part, reducing to a depth of about 25 fathoms between Dover and Calais. From there eastwards the adjoining North Sea continues to become shallower to about 14 fathoms in the "Broad Fourteens" where it lies over the watershed of the former land bridge between East Anglia and the Low Countries. The Channel reaches a maximum depth of 98 fathoms in the submerged valley of Hurds Deep, 30 miles west-northwest of Guernsey.[7]

There are several major islands in the Channel, the most notable being the Isle of Wight off the coast of Great Britain (in Hampshire), and the Channel Islands, British Crown dependencies off the coast of Normandy.

The coastline, particularly on the French shore, is deeply indented and has several small islands close to the coastline belonging to the French. The Cotentin Peninsula of Normandy juts out into the Channel

Isle of Wight creates a small parallel channel known as the Solent in British waters.

The Channel is of geologically recent origins, having been dry land for most of the Pleistocene period. It is thought to have been created between 450,000 and 180,000 years ago by two catastrophic glacial lake outburst floods caused by the breaching of the Weald–Artois anticline, a ridge that held back a large proglacial lake in the Doggerland region, now submerged under the North Sea. The flood would have lasted for several months, releasing as much as one million cubic yards of water a second. The flood carved a large bedrock-floored valley down the length of the Channel, leaving behind streamlined islands and longitudinal erosional grooves characteristic of catastrophic "megaflood" events. It destroyed the isthmus that connected Europe to Britain, although Doggerland would have emerged to create a land bridge across the southern North Sea intermittently at later times after periods of glaciation resulted in lower sea levels.[8]

Shipping forecast areas

For the Shipping Forecast, the Channel is divided into the following areas, from the west:

Against infection and the hand of war

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
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,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

William Shakespeare's Richard II (Act II, Scene 1)

The Channel has been the key natural defence for Britain, halting invading armies while in conjunction with control of the North Sea allowing Britain to blockade the continent. The most significant failed invasion threats came when the Dutch and Belgian ports were held by a major continental power, for example from the Spanish Armada in 1588, Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars, and Nazi Germany during World War II.

The Channel is that silver strip of sea which severs merry England from the tardy realms of Europe.[9]

Successful invasions have been few, but include the Roman conquest of Britain and the Norman Conquest in 1066

Invasion southward is another matter. The concentration of excellent harbours in the Western Channel on Britain's south coast made possible the largest invasion of all time, the Normandy landings in June 1944.

Channel naval battles include the Battle of Goodwin Sands (1652), the Battle of Portland (1653), the Battle of La Hougue (1692) and the engagement between USS Kearsarge and CSS Alabama (1864).


Before the end of the Devensian glaciation (the most recent ice age) around 10,000 years ago, the British Isles were part of Europe. During this period the North Sea and almost all of the British Isles were covered with ice. The sea level was about 400 feet lower than it is today, and the channel was an expanse of low-lying tundra, through which passed a mighty river: the River Thames with the Rhine as a tributary, flowing together towards the Atlantic to the west. As the ice sheet melted, a large freshwater lake formed in the southern part of what is now the North Sea. As the meltwater could still not escape to the north (as the northern North Sea was still frozen) the outflow channel from the lake entered the Atlantic Ocean in the region of Dover and Calais.

In more peaceful times the Channel served as a link joining shared cultures and political structures, particularly the huge Angevin Empire from 1135 to 1217. For nearly a thousand years, the Channel also provided a link between the peoples and languages of Cornwall and Brittany. Brittany was founded by Britons who fled Cornwall and Devon after English Saxon encroachment and the cultural links long remained across the sea.

In February 1684 (New style), ice formed on the sea in a belt 3 miles wide off the coast of Kent and 2 miles wide on the French side.[10][11]

Route to the British Isles

Diodorus Siculus]] and Pliny both suggest trade between the Gaulish tribes of Armorica and Iron Age Britain flourished. In 55 BC Julius Caesar invaded, claiming that the Britons had aided the Veneti against him the previous year. He came again in greater force in 54 BC, but Britain was not brought under Roman power until completion of the invasion by Claudius in 43 AD. A brisk and regular trade began between ports in Roman Gaul and those in Britain. This traffic continued until the end of Roman rule in Britain in 410 AD, after which the ancestral English, the Anglo-Saxons, crossing the North Sea to Britain, left traces less clear in the historical record.

Norsemen and Normans

The Hermitage of St Helier, Jersey

The Viking Age began in raids in the North Sea in 793, but before too long the Norse and Danes entered the English Channel. The Royal Navy was founded to fight the Norse longships, and battles in the English Channel are recorded.

The fiefdom of Normandy was created on the southern shore of the English Channel for the Viking leader Ganga Hrolf (Rollo), in consideration of his withdrawing from Paris. The name "Normandy" means "Land of the Norsemen". The wild battle-eagerness of the Norse and the sophisticated organisation and weaponry of mediaeval Europe created the Normans who crossed the Channel in 1066; the last successful invasion of Britain.

The Norman kings united both shores of the Channel until 1215, when Normandy was lost. Nevertheless, England retained the Channel Islands. Later ages saw further cross-channel war; the Hundred Years War was fought, ultimately in vain, to assert a claim by the English kings to the French throne.

British naval supremacy

From the reign of Elizabeth I, English foreign policy concentrated on preventing invasion across the Channel by ensuring no major European power controlled the potential Dutch and Flemish invasion ports. Her climb to the pre-eminent sea power of the world began in 1588 as the attempted invasion of the Spanish Armada was defeated by the combination of outstanding naval tactics by the English under command of Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham with Sir Francis Drake second in command, and the following stormy weather. Over the centuries the Royal Navy slowly grew to be the most powerful in the world.[12]

The building of the British Empire was possible only because the Royal Navy exercised unquestioned control over the seas around Europe, especially the Channel and the North Sea. During the Seven Years' War, France attempted to launch an invasion of Britain. To achieve this France needed to gain control of the Channel for several weeks, but was thwarted following the British naval victory at the Battle of Quiberon Bay in 1759.

Another significant challenge to British domination of the seas came during the Napoleonic Wars. The Battle of Trafalgar was an enagement fought to forestall a French and Spanish combined fleet intending to enter the Channel to aid an invasion: off the coast of Spain on that day Admiral Horatio Nelson annihilated the combined French and Spanish fleet, ending Napoleon's plans for a cross-Channel invasion and securing British dominance of the seas for over a century.

First World War

The exceptional strategic importance of the Channel as a tool for blockade was recognised by the First Sea Lord Admiral Fisher in the years before the First World War. "Five keys lock up the world! Singapore, the Cape, Alexandria, Gibraltar, Dover."[13] However on 25 July 1909 Louis Blériot successfully made the first Channel crossing from Calais to Dover in an aeroplane. Blériot's crossing signalled the end of the Channel as a barrier-moat for England against foreign enemies.

When the Great War broke out, the German army attempted to capture Channel ports, but a determined and bloody effort keep the Bosche from advancing to the Straits of Dover.

Because they could not match the British Grand Fleet, the Germans developed submarine warfare. The Dover Patrol was set up just before war started to escort cross-Channel troopships and to prevent submarines from accessing the Channel, thereby obliging them to travel to the Atlantic by the much longer route around Caithness. The Battle of Passchendaele in 1917 was fought to reduce the threat by capturing the submarine bases on the Belgian coast, though it was the introduction of convoys and not capture of the bases that averted defeat. In April 1918 the Dover Patrol carried out the famous Zeebrugge Raid against the U-boat bases.

The naval blockade effected by way of the Channel and North Sea was one of the decisive factors in the German defeat in 1918.[14]

Second World War

During the Second World War, naval activity in the European theatre was primarily in the Atlantic, but aeroplanes attacked across the sea and fought in the skies above it. The narrow waters were too dangerous for major warships, but British coastal supply routes were maintained by the fierce protection co-ordinated from Dover.

Dieppe was the site of a bloody raid by Canadian and British armed forces. Lessons were learned which were turned to good use on 6 June 1944: the allied forces were unleashed on Nazi-occupied Europe in Operation Overlord,which was the biggest seaborne invasion in history.

German fortifications at Les Landes, Jersey

The Channel Islands were the only part of the Commonwealth occupied by Germany. It was a harsh occupation, from 1940 to 1945, and a dark period in the islands' history. Even after liberation of France, the Germans clung on in the islands, an isolated pocket, and refused to surrender until the capitulation of Germany in May 1945.

Channel Tunnel

A Channel Tunnel was first proposed in the early 19th century. After a number of failed starts, the tunnel was finally completed in 1994

The Channel Tunnel connects the United Kingdom and France by rail, any scheduled rail services through the tunnel run from London to Paris and to Brussels. Cars are also be carried on "Euroshuttle" trains between Folkestone and Calais.

Swimming the Channel

The first observed and unassisted swim across the English Channel was on 24–25 August 1875, when Captain Matthew Webb made the swim across the Strait of Dover from Kent to France. He took 21 hours 45 minutes. This began the sport of Channel swimming.

In 1927, at a time when fewer than ten swimmers had managed to emulate the feat and many dubious claims were being made, the Channel Swimming Association (CSA) was founded to authenticate and ratify swimmers' claims to have swum the Channel and to verify crossing times. The CSA was dissolved in 1999 and was succeeded by two separate organisations: CSA (Ltd) and the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (CSPF). Both observe and authenticate cross-Channel swims in the Strait of Dover. The Channel Crossing Association was set up at about this time to cater for unorthodox crossings.

The team with the most number of Channel swims to its credit is the International Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team, with 35 crossings by 25 members (by 2005).[15]

By the end of 2005, 811 people had completed 1,185 verified crossings under the rules of the CSA, the CSA (Ltd), the CSPF and Butlins. The number of swims conducted under and ratified by the Channel Swimming Association to 2005 was 982 by 665 people. This includes 24 two-way crossings and three three-way crossings. The number of ratified swims to 2004 was 948 by 675 people (456 men, 214 women). There have been 16 two-way crossings (9 by men and 7 by women). There have been three three-way crossings (2 by men and 1 by a woman). The fastest verified swim of the Channel was by the Bulgarian Petar Stoychev on 24 August 2007, in 6 hours 57 minutes 50 seconds.

However, the Strait of Dover is the busiest stretch of water in the world and is governed by International Law and regulations about "unorthodox crossings". The swim is not encouraged.

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about English Channel)


  1. 1.0 1.1 "English Channel." Encyclopædia Britannica 2007.
  2. "Jonathan Potter: Map : The British Channel". Jpmaps.co.uk. http://www.jpmaps.co.uk/map/id.22553. Retrieved 2010-04-27. 
  3. "A chart of the British Channel, Jefferys, Thomas, 1787". Davidrumsey.com. 1999-02-22. http://www.davidrumsey.com/maps6489.html. Retrieved 2010-04-27. 
  4. "Map Of Great Britain, Ca. 1450", Collect Britain
  5. Room A. Placenames of the world: origins and meanings, p 6.
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Limits of Oceans and Seas, 3rd edition + corrections". International Hydrographic Organization. 1971. pp. 42 [corrections to page 13] and 6. http://www.iho-ohi.net/iho_pubs/standard/S-23/S23_1953.pdf. Retrieved 25 September 2010. 
  7. "English Channel." The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia including Atlas. 2005.
  8. Professor Bryony Coles. "The Doggerland project". University of Exeter. http://humanities.exeter.ac.uk/archaeology/research/projects/title,89282,en.html. Retrieved 3 January 2011. 
  9. "Church and State Review", 1 April 1863
  10. Hermann Flohn and Roberto Fantechi: The Climate of Europe, past, present, and future, 1984, ISBN 90-277-1745-1, p.46]
  11. PastPresented,info: The Great Frost of 1683-4
  12. britishbattles.com (2007). "The Spanish Armada: Sir Francis Drake". http://www.britishbattles.com/spanish-war/spanish-armada.htm. Retrieved 2007-07-24. 
  13. Geoffrey Miller. The Millstone: Chapter 2. http://www.manorhouse.clara.net/book3/chapter2.htm. Retrieved 2008-11-01.  quoting Fisher, Naval Necessities I, p. 219
  14. "His Imperial German Majesty's U-boats in WWI: 6. Finale". uboat.net. http://uboat.net/history/wwi/part6.htm. Retrieved 2009-09-13. 
  15. "Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team Channel Swim List". http://www.srichinmoyraces.org/channel/channel_swimmers/channel_swimmers_list. Retrieved 2008-11-01.