English Channel

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: General Geography

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

The English Channel (French: La Manche ( IPA: [mɑ̃ʃ]), "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. 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. During the period of ancient Roman hegemony the channel was known in Latin as the Oceanus Britannicus and up until around 1549 it was known as the British Sea.

The channel is relatively shallow, with an average depth of about 120 m at its widest part, reducing to about 45 m between Dover and Calais. From there eastwards the sea continues to shallow to about 26 m in the Broad Fourteens where it lies over the watershed of the former land bridge between East Anglia and the Low Countries. The Channel Islands lie in the channel, close to the French side. The Isles of Scilly in the United Kingdom 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.


Map of the English Channel
Map of the English Channel

Before the end of the Devensian glaciation (the most recent ice age) around 10,000 years ago, the British Isles were part of continental Europe. During this period the North Sea and almost all of the British Isles were covered with ice. The sea level was about 120 m lower than it is today, and the channel was an expanse of low-lying tundra, through which passed a river which drained the Rhine and Thames 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.

At some point around 6500 BC, catastrophic erosion swept away the chalk to create the English Channel, leaving the iconic white cliffs of Dover. Wave action on the soft, chalk cliffs widened the Channel further, a process which continues today.


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.

William Shakespeare, Richard II (Act II, Scene 2)

The channel has been a key natural defence for Britain, allowing the nation to intervene but rarely be dangerously threatened in European conflicts, mostly notable in the fight against Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars, and Nazi Germany during the World War II. Nevertheless, the channel has been the scene of many invasions and attempted invasions, including the Roman conquest of Britain, the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Spanish Armada in 1588, and the Normandy landings in 1944. The channel has been the scene of many naval battles, including 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).

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

Crossing and Trade

View over the English Channel, Strait of Dover: The 'White Cliffs of Dover' seen from Cap Gris-Nez (France)
View over the English Channel, Strait of Dover: The ' White Cliffs of Dover' seen from Cap Gris-Nez (France)

World's Busiest Seaway

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 the busiest seaway in the world, accounting for a large share of global maritime trade (some sources place this at 20% or more).


Cross-channel trade has been a significant factor for societies on both sides of the Channel from prehistoric times, and a number of important seaports and ferry locations have developed in both England (Dover, Southampton, Plymouth, Weymouth, Portsmouth, Poole, Newhaven) and France ( Calais, Caen ( Ouistreham), Dieppe, Le Havre, Cherbourg-Octeville, Roscoff, Saint Malo).


Important ferry routes are:

  • Dover-Calais
  • Newhaven-Dieppe
  • Portsmouth-Caen (Ouistreham)
  • Portsmouth-Cherbourg
  • Portsmouth-Le Havre
  • Poole-Saint Malo
  • Weymouth-Saint Malo
  • Plymouth-Roscoff

Channel Tunnel

Nowadays, many travellers cross beneath the English Channel using the Channel Tunnel. This engineering feat, first proposed in the early 19th century and finally realised in 1994, connects the UK and France by rail. It is now routine to travel between Paris, Brussels and London on the Eurostar train.


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 seaside tourism that has shaped resorts around the world. Short trips across the channel for leisure purposes are often referred to as Channel Hopping.

Notable channel crossings

Date Crossing Participant(s) Notes
7 January 1785 First crossing by air
(in balloon, from Dover to Calais)
Jean-Pierre Blanchard (France)
John Jeffries (U.S.)
15 June 1785 First air crash
(in combination hydrogen/ hot-air balloon)
Pilâtre de Rozier (France)
Pierre Romain (France)
Attempted crossing similar to Blanchard/Jeffries
25 August 1875 First person to swim the channel
(Dover to Calais, 21 hrs, 45 min)
Matthew Webb (UK) Attempted crossing on 12 August the same year;
forced to abandon swim due to strong winds/rough sea conditions
27 March 1899 First radio transmission across the Channel
(from ( Wimereux to South Foreland Lighthouse)
Guglielmo Marconi (Italy)
25 July 1909 First person to cross the channel in a heavier-than-air aircraft (the Blériot XI)
(Calais to Dover, 37 minutes)
Louis Blériot (France) Encouraged by £1000 prize being offered by the Daily Mail for first successful flight across the channel
23 August 1910 First aircraft flight with passengers John Bevins Moisant (U.S.) Passengers were mechanic Albert Fileux and Moisant's cat.
12 June 1979 First human-powered aircraft to fly over the channel
(in 70-pound (32-kg) Gossamer Albatross)
Bryan Allen (U.S.) Won a £100,000 Kremer Prize; Allen pedaled for three hours
1997 First vessel to complete a solar-powered crossing using photovoltaic cells. SB Collinda
14 June 2004 New record time for crossing in amphibious vehicle
(the Gibbs Aquada, two-seater open-top sports car)
Richard Branson (UK) Completed crossing in 100 min 06 sec. Broke record by about six hours.
26 July 2006 New record time for crossing in hydrofoil car
(the Rinspeed Splash, two-seater open-top sports car)
Frank M. Rinderknecht (SUI) Completed crossing in 194 min ( link with photos)

By boat

William Murdoch's The Caledonia became the first steamboat to carry out a cross-channel crossing.

The Mountbatten class hovercraft entered commercial service in August 1968 initially operated between Dover and Boulogne but later craft also made the Ramsgate ( Pegwell Bay) to Calais route. The journey time, Dover to Boulogne, was roughly 35 minutes, with six trips a day at peak times. The fastest crossing was made in 1995 at just 22 minutes.

The youngest recorded sailors to cross the channel by boat are Hugo Sunnucks and Guy Harrison aged 15 (formular 18 catamaran). They completed in 4 hours 15 mins in August 2006.

By swimming

The Sport of Channel Swimming traces its origins to the latter part of the 19th century when Captain Matthew Webb made the first observed and unassisted swim across the Strait of Dover swimming from England to France on 24 August– 25 August 1875 in 21 hours and 45 minutes.

In 1927 (at a time when less than ten swimmers had managed to emulate the feat and a number of dubious claims were being made), the Channel Swimming Association (the CSA) was founded to authenticate and ratify swimmers' claims to have swum the English Channel and to verify crossing times. The CSA was dissolved in 1999 and succeeded by two separate organisations: The CSA (Ltd) and the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (CSPF) ( website). Both organisations are registered with the international governing body for swimming Federation Internationale de Natation Amateur (FINA) ( website) and observe and authenticate Cross-Channel Swims in the Strait of Dover.

Although the swimming rules and regulations of the two organisations are virtually identical, the CSA has not always been prepared to recognise swims conducted under the auspices of the larger and more popular CSPF.

A comprehensive list of all registered and verified solo swims is available from http://home.btconnect.com/critchlow/ChannelSwimDatabase.htm

A comprehensive list of all registered and verified solo and relay swims is available from http://www.doverlife.co.uk/channelswimming

For a list of Channel Swimming Association Records for swims registered only under the rules of the Channel Swimming Association and verified by that body, go to [www.channelswimmingassociation.com www.channelswimmingassociation.com]

  • On 24 August– 25 August 1875 Capt. Matthew Webb made the first crossing of the English Channel from England to France.
  • On 12 August 1923 Enrico Tiraboschi made the first crossing of the English Channel from France to England.
  • On 6 August 1926, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the Channel, breaking the men's record of the time by two hours.
  • On 24 November 1927, Mercedes Gleitze, the first British lady, swims across wearing a Rolex Oyster.
  • 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.
  • The oldest verified male swimmer to cross is American George Brunstad, who was aged 70 years and 4 days when he crossed on 27 August and 28 August 2004, taking 15 hours 59 min.
  • The oldest male swimmer to cross under the rules of the Channel Swimming Association is Australian Clifford Batt, who was aged 67 years and 240 days when he crossed on 19 August 1987, taking 18 hours 37 minutes.
  • The fastest ever verified swim of the channel was by Christof Wandratsch in 2005. He crossed the channel in 7 hours 3 minutes and 52 seconds.
  • The fastest verified female channel swimmer is Yvetta Hlaváčová in 2006. She crossed the channel in 7 hours 25 minutes and 15 seconds.
  • The fastest swim of the channel made under Channel Swimming Association rules is by Chad Hundeby of the USA on 27 September 1994. He crossed the channel in 7 hours 17 minutes.
  • The titles "King" and "Queen" of the Channel, held by those with the most successful crossings, are taken seriously by the swimming community and there has been some controversy over the refusal by some to recognise others' swims.
  • The undisputed "Queen of the Channel" is Alison Streeter MBE with 43 crossings including one 3-way and three 2-way swims.
  • The "King of the Channel" title is held by Kevin Murphy with 34 crossings, including three doubles.
  • The Channel Swimming Association’s title of “King of the Channel” awarded to the male swimmer who has made the most number of crossings the English Channel as authenticated by the CSA, is held by Michael Read with 33 crossings.
  • The Channel Swimming Association’s title of “Queen of the Channel” awarded to the female swimmer who has made the most number of crossings the English Channel as authenticated by the CSA is held by Alison Streeter MBE with 39 crossings.
  • Other swimming crossings include: Vicki Keith (first butterfly swim crossing); Florence Chadwick (first woman to swim the Channel in both directions); Montserrat Tresserras (first woman to swim the Channel in both directions, as verified by the Channel Swimming Association); Marilyn Bell (youngest person up to 1955); Amelia Gade Corson (first mother and second woman); Mercedes Gleitze (first Englishwoman, 7 October 1927); Brojen Das, the first Asian ( 23 August 1958); Comedians who have swum the channel Doon Mackichan, and David Walliams BBC report.

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).

By the end of 2005, 811 individuals have completing 1185 verified crossings under the rules of the CSA, the CSA (Ltd), the CSPF and Butlins.

The total number of swims conducted under and ratified by the Channel Swimming Association to 2005: 982 successful crossings by 665 people. This includes twenty-four 2-way crossings and three 3-way crossings.

Total number of ratified swims to 2004: 948 successful crossings by 675 people (456 by men and 214 by women). There have been sixteen 2-way crossings (9 by men and 7 by women). There have been three 3-way crossings (2 by men and 1 by a woman). (It is unclear whether this last set of data is comprehensive or CSA-only.)

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