You’ve Never Seen The English Channel Like This

When I was a travel writer commissioned to write about specific places, my heart would sink when they were about the south coast of England.

This is of course a disgraceful statement, and everyone should condemn me for making it. I’m clearly an idiot. Why so narrow-minded? What’s wrong with southern England? Is this about that famous north/south rivalry, Mike, since you’re originally from Yorkshire?

I can’t even defend myself properly here. That sinking feeling was made of pure ignorance – of how gorgeous the English coast is, of the scenic beauty of the South Downs, the thrumming excitement of London, the ancient, monument-scattered landscape of Salisbury Plain, the White Cliffs of Dover – all these things deserve places in any Best of England (and also Best Of Europe) lineup. 

Then there’s France less than 30 miles away, bursting with colour and heady with some of the finest vineyards and richest food in Europe. Anyone touring this part of the world, as Wheel & Anchor will be doing next year, will have the grandest of times, no question. 

Lyon, France is known for its food and wine
Lyon, France is known for its food and wine

But what I used to think was, “huh, well – it’s all a bit too safe-feeling for my liking, you know?” I didn’t want warm, bucolic comfort: I wanted rugged mountains, roaring seas, horrible weather and the rest of it. (I told you I was an idiot.) 

My stereotype assumption was that the land around the English Channel, the coastlines of England and France and the islands dotted between, were as predictably uneventful and unchanging as the quiet, sleepy part of Yorkshire I grew up in. Yes, it was all childhood projection. You got me.

But in thinking this, I’d forgotten the first rule of travel writing, and also of the sciences – that everything, and therefore everywhere, becomes utterly fascinating if you look at it hard enough.

So I put my sniffy prejudices aside and did some reading – and that’s how I learned that around 425,000 years ago, the island of Great Britain was wrenched away from Europe by a series of floods so violent that they could part continents.

Really? Round here? Sure, that kind of thing may have happened in lively places like the Mediterranean (you may remember this story I wrote last year), but – the English Channel?!?

Here I’m indebted to Professor Lewis Dartnell, whose superb book Origins tipped me off about the Dover megaflood for the first time:

“Half a million years ago, Britain was not an island. It was still part of continental Europe, physically connected to France – like conjoined twins – by an isthmus running between Dover and Calais. The land bridge was a continuation of the hump-shaped geological structure known as the Weald-Artois anticline that stretches from south-east England to north France, formed of layers of rock buckled upwards in the same tectonic upheaval that created the Alps when Africa slammed into Eurasia.

The land bridge between England and France was eroded away to sever this connection, and this seems to have occurred in a sudden, catastrophic event. Sonar maps of the English Channel distinctly reveal an unusually straight and wide valley on the seafloor, containing streamlined islands and long, kilometer-wide eroded grooves – clear signs of a huge flood of water coursing over the ground.”

The English Channel
The English Channel

The bathymetry data collected and studied by marine geophysicist Jenny Collier of Imperial College and colleagues was published here in 2015, and showed 36 underwater “islands” formed of bedrock – the harder stuff left exposed once the softer surrounding material had been scoured away.

This supported an earlier study by Sanjeev Gupta of Imperial College London showing the marks left on the sea floor by a sustained torrent of water, in much the same fashion as those left on the floor of the Gibraltar Strait by the proposed Zanclean flood.

Dartnell continues:

“During the ice age around 425,000 years ago (five ice ages before the most recent glaciation) a vast lake of water became trapped between the Scottish and Scandinavian ice sheets and the 30-kilometre-wide ridge of rock then still linking England and France. This lake was filled with meltwater from the ice sheets as well as discharge from rivers like the Thames and Rhine…”

“And with no outlet to escape through, the water rose and rose, until inevitably it began to spill over the top of the land bridge. These colossal waterfalls scooped out massive plunge pools on the channel floor and gouged backwards through the barrier until this natural dam collapsed. 

The entire lake emptied itself in a catastrophic megaflood, widening the gaping breach in the barrier and carving the landforms on the floor of the Channel we can see with sonar today.

This first megaflood 425,000 years ago is thought to have been followed by a second event around 200,000 years ago, and between them they wore away what is now the Strait of Dover, leaving the white cliffs as the stumps of the former isthmus.”

Gupta’s team estimated the flood was pumping 1 million cubic metres of water per second – for months. That’s roughly a hundred times the Mississippi river today, and a thousand times the normal flow of the Rhine. 

(I’d consider that completely insane, if I didn’t remember that the Zanclean Megaflood was a hundred times more powerful still. Nevertheless: whew.)

The Sunrise over the English Channel
The Sunrise over the English Channel

Was anyone around to see this monster of an event? Possibly! There are footprints of early hominids in modern-day Norfolk, England, dating back 900,000 years (Homo Sapiens would take another 600,000 years to arrive, as far as we know). But they, like every other living creature, must have retreated from the advancing glaciers of each ice age to seek out more habitable lands further south, only to return (as a species, I mean) when the world’s climate warmed again.

So that’s what you’d see from the coast, if the waters of the Channel boiled away before your eyes. You’d see the remnants of an ancient chain of waterfalls on a scale dwarfing anything visible today. That’s what our Channel Tunnel trains whisk us under when we go to France, and that’s what our trusty, stalwart ferries sail over…

And then you’d have to imagine the chalk under your feet stretching forward from the cliff edge into thin air, 110 metres above the now-placid sea, and forming a ridge of land that runs almost to the horizon, towards the distant smudge of shadow that marks the French coast…and then imagine it all being torn away in front of your eyes, until you were suddenly standing on an island.

So that’s me taught a firm lesson. Look back far enough, and this relaxing, tranquil coastline becomes pure heart-stopping drama. 

As we say round these parts – “gosh.”

Join Wheel & Anchor in 2024 for a vibrant adventure (currently in development) that will take you to Paris in the Springtime to see her classic French Gardens, to Orléans and the Loire Valley along the Route des Iris for more stunning colours, and culminate in London for the Chelsea Flower Show, the world’s top floral and gardening exhibition! Sign up to the pre-release list here.

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