The English Channel - The World's Busiest Waterway

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Facts about the English Channel, facts about the Channel Tunnel, naval conflicts in the English Channel, towns along the English Channel coast, landmarks along the English Channel, names of the English Channel in foreign languages, old names of the Engl

The English Channel is a 350 mile long arm of the Atlantic Ocean that covers an area of 29,000 square miles,and is from 21 miles -between Dover and Calais - and 150 miles - between Lyme Bay and St Malo - wide,  situated between the south coast of the United Kingdom and the north coast of France.

This body of water is classified as the world's busiest waterway, which is surprising when you consider it is just 390 feet deep and full of drifting sandbanks and the carcasses of hundreds of shipwrecks.

Most days the channel sees over 500 ships of all types - cargo, passenger, cruiseship, fishing boat, oil tanker, military, naval, coastguard and ferry - passing through it's waters, as well as several daily and weekly ferry crossings from it's main port at Dover, which is situated on the narrowest point of the channel, between Dover and Calais.

This number isn't even taking into account the many private yachts, pleasure craft, tour boats, dredgers, other small working vessels and small commercial and private fishing boats that also clog up it's waters on both sides of it's shores on a daily basis.

The channel also links the two countries of France and England by way of the 31 mile long Channel Tunnel, situated between the English town of Folkestone in Kent and the French town of Coquelles at Pas - de - Calais, which carries 17 trains a day ferrying more passengers and freight under the waterway. 

The channel has been known by many names throughout it's history.

The first known name,which was coined by Roman geographer Ptolomy ( AD90 - AD168 ) during the second century was the Canalites Anglie.

Since then the channel has been called Oceanus Brittanicus by the Romans, Mor Breizh by the Normans and The British Sea by medeival Britons.


                The White Cliffs of Dover.

It is also called by many different names by other European nations, including, La Manche in French, Engelse Kanaal in Dutch, Armelkanal in German, El canal de la mancha in Spanish and Mor Udd  in Welsh. 



The International Hydrographic Organisation define the English Channel as the smallest sea in Europe with it's most southerly outer limit being situated at the point of the French Isle of Ushant, it's most northerly limit at the point of the British Isles of Scilly, it's most westerly point at the confluence with the Celtic Sea and it's most easterly limit at the southern most limit of the North Sea.  

The channel is covered by the 4 British shipping areas of Plymouth, Portland, Wight and Dover. 

Major bodies of water which flow into the channel include the Rivers Seine, Somme and Scheldt from France and the Rivers Avon, Dart and Ouse and The Solent - the strait that seperates England from the Isle of Wight -  from England.

The coastline of the channel on both sides is a highly populated area with the towns, cities and coastal resorts of Brighton, Bournemouth, Dover, Portsmouth, Southampton, Plymouth, Exeter and Weymouth on the English side and the towns, cities and coastal resorts of Boulogne, Caen, Cherbourg, Dieppe, Le Havre, St Malo and Roscoff on the French side.

The channel's largest island is the Isle of Wight off England's Hampshire coast, the channel is also home to the island group of the Channel Islands and several small French islands.

The Straits of Dover is home to the Confederation of Cinque Ports, important, historical ports in seafaring towns situated on the narrowest strip of the channel, which was established in 1155 in order to provide ships for services to the King. Today the confederation holds only a ceremonial significance, although the towns still go by the name of Cinque Ports -  which is Norman for five ports. These five port towns are Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich.

The most prominent towns along the channel coast are the naval ports of Southampton and Portsmouth, the holiday resorts of Brighton and Bournemouth and the port towns of Dover and Folkestone in England and the major port towns of Calais, Dunkerque and Le Havre, the resort towns of Cherbourg and Dieppe and the historical towns of Caen, La Touquet and St Malo on the French side. 



Since 1994, the two countries have been linked by way of the Channel Tunnel, a 31 mile long, 250 feet deep, rail tunnel, that links the English town of Folkestone in Kent to the French town of Coquelles in Pas - de - Calais.

The tunnel, which was six years in the building from 1988 - 1994, has two rail tracks and one service tunnel, which carries high speed trains travelling at 186 miles an hour, from the London rail station at St Pancras International to the Parisienne station of Gare Du Nord, a journey time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Seventeen train journeys a day pass through the tunnel, which between them carry passengers, freight and vehicles from the British Isles to the rest of Europe and beyond or vice versa. 


The coastal waters of the channel have been the site of several naval conflicts over the years, including battles between Britain and the Spanish Armada, Britain and France during the Napoleonic wars and Britain and Germany during World War II.

Famous invasions of Britain from the English Channel were by the Romans in 55 BC, the Vikings in 851 BC and the Normans in 1066.

Famous historical, naval battles include the Battle of Goodwin Sands in 1652, the Battle of Portland in 1653 and the Battle of  La Hougue in 1692.

A more recent battle was fought by two US Confederate war ships, when the USS Kearsarge sunk the USS Alabama at the Battle of Cherbourg in June of 1864.

Famous English Channel World War II exploits have included the early days of the The Battle of Britain in the Summer of 1940 and the Normandy Landings in June 1944, the world's largest amphibious invasion.

Today, the only battles between England and France concerning the English Channel, are the daily battles fought against illegal aliens, drugs and contraband being smuggled into the U.K. 


                           St Michael's Mount.

Leisure pursuits across the channel include the annual Cowes Week yachting event on the Isle of Wight, attempts at cross channel swimming, boating trips, coastal fishing, Continental shopping trips and British booze cruises ( a trip across to mainland Europe so as the British can buy cheap alcohol and tobacco ).

Iconic landmarks along both coasts include Cornwall's Saint Michael's Mount, Dorset's Jurassic Coast, Portsmouth's Spinnaker Tower and Kent's White Cliffs of Dover on the English side and the picturesque beaches and fishing villages along the Brittany and Normandy coastline and Calais - the nearest point in Europe to the British Isles - on the French side.

Being the site of so much traffic that has run aground, sank or caused oil or toxic spillages, the waters of the channel are considerably polluted, leading to grave concerns by environmentalists.

Despite this though, the channel does have some plentiful stocks of fish and shellfish, particularly on it's eastern limits and around the waters of the Channel islands and the Cornish coast ,although seal colonies in the channel are rare, but not unheard of.

The sea bed is also littered with 267 documented shipwrecks and the strong Atlantic and North Sea tides send large sandbanks careering around the waterway's seabed, making the channel a most challenging stretch of water for shipping.

Because of this, the International Maritime Organisation at Dover has a sophisticated, radar controlled, traffic seperation system, which carefully monitors not only the traffic, but the movement of sandbanks as well as keeping a watchful eye on all the private crafts that sail upon it's waters every day.


                         The Brittany coastline. 

Accounts of shipping disasters in the English Channel -  



 All Images courtesy of Fanny, ChrisO, Jean - Marie Hullot and Clem Rutter, wikimedia commons.


Abdel-moniem El-Shorbagy
Posted on Jun 8, 2011
James R. Coffey
Posted on Apr 12, 2011
Jerry Walch
Posted on Apr 12, 2011