The English Channel 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. In French it is called La Manche ("the sleeve"). It is about 350 miles long and at its widest is 240 km (150 miles). The narrowest point is only 34 km (21 miles), from Dover to Cape Gris-Nez.

The Channel has been extremely significant for the defence of Britain, a fact that is referred to in William Shakespeare's play Richard II:

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 may well have had more successful careers.

Table of contents
1 Formation of the Channel
2 The Channel Tunnel
3 Notable Channel crossings
4 See also

Formation of the Channel

Before the end of the last ice age, around 10 000 years ago, the British Isles was part of the continent of Europe.

As the ice sheet melted, a large fresh-water lake formed in the southern part of what is now the North Sea. The outlow channel from the lake entered the Atlantic Ocean in the region of Dover and Calais.

At some point, 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.

The Channel Tunnel

Nowadays, many travelers cross the English Channel from below, by way of the Channel tunnel or "Chunnel". This grand engineering feat, first proposed in the time of Napoleon, connects England and France via rail.

It is now routine to travel between Paris and London on the Eurostar train.

Notable Channel crossings

On January 7, 1785 Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries traveled from Dover, England to Calais, France 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. On August 6, 1926, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to accomplish this feat, breaking the men's record of the time by two hours.

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

In 1979, a 75-pound airplane 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 pedaled for 3 hours to accomplish this feat.

On July 31, 2003, Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner, wearing high-tech carbon wings, jumped out of a plane 30,000 feet above Dover, England, freefalled over the Channel, and opened his parachute above Calais, France.

See also