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Light at the end of the chunnel

It can foster language, geography and environmental skills but, above all, the Channel tunnel is a miracle of modern engineering, says Nicki Household.

Nothing is particularly astonishing when you've grown up with it, so to most modern schoolchildren the Channel tunnel is a well-known way of getting to France rather than a mind-boggling feat of engineering. Sadly, there is now no exhibition on the English side of the tunnel to show how extraordinary that feat is.

While the tunnel was being built there was still an exhibition on this side of the Channel but, unaccountably, when the tunnel opened, the exhibition closed. However, there is a very goodone at Eurotunnel's Centre d'Affaires (conference centre) in Calais and British schools are welcome there.

The most graphic exhibit is a layered model in a perspex case, showing seagulls flying above boats on the surface of the sea, the 60-metre depth to the seabed and, 40 metres below that, the tunnel with a train going through it. This conveys with startling clarity just where the tunnel is and how very far below the seabed you are when you're going through it.

Other exhibits include construction models, illustrated bilingual information panels and a panoramic tower with views over the whole 700-hectare terminal site, which is five times larger than its English equivalent.

Tailor-made seminars and workshops can be arranged both on the French side or, if you're not going to France, at Eurotunnel's administration building near the Folkestone terminal. On either side, you can also see a 30-minute film, Good Morning England, in French with English sub-titles, on the history of the Channel tunnel, showing its construction, operation and maintenance.

The idea of a tunnel under the English Channel was first proposed in 1802. Albert Mathieu, a French mining engineer, drew up plans for a two-tier tunnel: the higher level, lit by oil lamps and ventilated through shafts protruding above the water, would be a paved thoroughfare for stage coaches, with the lower level collecting the waste and seepage from the upper level. Napoleon considered it seriously. Other schemes followed, and the first attempt at excavation began in 1880, when the Beaumont and English boring machines dug partial tunnels on both sides of the Channel. This plan was scuppered by a distinguished old soldier, Major-General Sir Garnet Wolseley, who persuaded the nation that it would increase the risk of invasion.

In 1973, construction began on a design similar to Eurotunnel, but this was abandoned for financial reasons. But the idea just wouldn't go away, and in 1985 the British and French governments invited private bids for a cross-Channel fixed link without public funding. Four projects were considered, including a pound;6 billion bridge, and in 1986 Eurotunnel's proposal for twin rail tunnels, with a third service tunnel running between them, got the go-ahead.

The work began on December 1 1987, and the tunnel finally opened in May 1994, having cost nearly twice as much as the original pound;2.8 billion estimate.

School trips to the Folkestone site are tailored to individual teacher's needs. Visits can include a coach tour of the terminal, a look at the installations, infrastructure and rolling stock, a walk to the top of the escarpment to get a view of the terminal, tunnel entrance and (on a clear day) France itself. It also includes a visit to Samphire Hoe, 73 acres of new land at the foot of Shakespeare Cliff (between Folkestone and Dover where the tunnel goes under the sea), which was created from 5 million cubic metres of chalk marl from under the seabed and which is now a nature reserve.

Curriculum-related workshops can be arranged for pupils of all ages, covering topics such as the environmental impact of the tunnel, an examination of geography, travel and tourism, leisure, marketing, language studies, engineering and business studies. These may include Powerpoint computer presentations, with live pictures from the private Eurotunnel website.

Small groups of up to 10 pupils can visit the call centre and listen on headphones to one of the 100 bi- or tri-lingual advisers answering queries and taking bookings. Here they discover that very good social skills, as well as language and computer knowledge, are necessary to succeed in this kind of work.

"It helps if teachers can be as specific as possible about what they want to get out of their visit, because I create the day around them," explains Sarah Craig, Eurotunnel's education business manager. If a workshop is to take place in France, Ms Craig accompanies the coach on the shuttle.

This will be the fourth year that Carolyn Beake, geography teacher at St Helen's School in Middlesex, has taken a group of 90 Year 7s to the exhibition in Calais. While travelling on the coach and shuttle, the girls fill in worksheets in French and English and, on arrival, eat their packed lunches in the grounds of the Exhibition Centre. They then tour the exhibition and attend a short workshop on the impact of Eurotunnel on business, tourism and the environment. Finally, they get a chance to practise their French during a shopping survey at a Euromarche, before catching the shuttle back to Folkestone.

"Initially we planned just a day in Folkestone," says Mrs Beake, "but then we realised it would be fun, and more informative, to go to France. The girls enjoy it tremendously and of course it supports the French curriculum as well as national curriculum requirements for economic, environmental and citizenship awareness. The really good thing is that you tell Eurotunnel what you want and you get it."

Eurotunnel Education ServiceCheriton Parc, Folkestone, Kent CT19 4QS. Tel: 01303 288700.Email: Open: 9am-5.30pm Mon-Fri.Costs: From pound;2.50 per person for a basic tour of the terminal. The all-in cost of the St Helen's School trip to Calais was pound;22 per pupil. Teacher training days are also provided and cost pound;45 per person. Standard educational packs available free of charge to visitors. Packs can be tailored to individual needs.Education officer: David Lyne-Gordon.

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