Life at the end of the tunnel

21st November 1997 at 00:00
How do you get rid of five million cubic metres of excavated rock? Chris Fautley finds out

You are a civil engineer on a major construction project that will create nine million cubic metres of spoil. You are given the job of finding a way to dispose of it. A colleague suggests dumping some on the coast, creating new land that could be used for recreational purposes. Discuss the implications of such action."

It could be a question straight from an A-level paper. But there's nothing hypothetical about it. This was the scenario facing Channel Tunnel developers Eurotunnel.

Samphire Hoe, or the Shakespeare Cliff construction site as it was formerly known, is a 75-acre blister of land on the Channel coast between Folkestone and Dover. Enclosed within a sea wall of 220,000m3 of concrete, it was created from five million of the 8.75 million cubic metres of chalk marl dug to create the Channel Tunnel.

The Hoe, officially opened in July as "a place for informal recreation", is a unique resource, being both man-made and virgin land.

Students examining our impact on the environment will find the Hoe a fertile source of material. It's also worth considering that access is through a tunnel cut out of the 130-metre chalk cliffs as part of the aborted 1974 tunnel project, that in 1843 railway engineers blew up a million tons of the cliff to make way for the Dover to Folkestone railway, and that it is the site of a failed Victorian coal mine.

For A-level students, the Hoe is pure manna. Geoff Coombe, geography subject officer at the Associated Examining Board, says: "This type of site lends itself to many areas of geography." He cites the possibilities for studying coastal processes, energy and life, how plants colonise new areas and the impact of tourism.

Nick Lapthorn is a geography tutor at the Field Studies Council. The council does not use Samphire Hoe, but Mr Lapthorn says the site "has huge potential", and could be integrated into any course.

The wide scope for research is confirmed by Matthew Shepherd, ranger and project officer for the Hoe. "Many of the older students have been looking at the vegetation," he says. "They are particularly interested in the diversity of species."

Others have measured slope angles and topography - the site has been carefully landscaped, has three ponds and is 28m above sea level at its highest point. And the sea wall affords a unique view of the cliffs and adjacent wave-cut platform from a spot which, a decade ago, was 10m under water. Man-made it may be, but even now the forces of nature are at work, with superb examples of rills by the western sea wall.

And anecdotal evidence suggests the Hoe, trapped between the cliffs and the Channel, may even be developing a micro-climate, says Mr Shepherd.

Samphire Hoe is owned by Eurotunnel Developments and administered on its behalf by the White Cliffs Countryside Project. Sarah Craig, Eurotunnel's education business manager, has been taking school parties there since 1995 - long before it opened to the public. "We had about 80 last year," she says, "from primary to teacher training."

Diana Page, head of geography at nearby Spring Grove Prep School, Wye, has visited twice with key stage 2 children. She has found it helpful for environmental geography. Her pupils investigated how the landscape had changed, and Euro-tunnel's role in rebuilding it.

"This is a significant phenomenon that has had a dramatic effect on our landscape - and it's right on our doorstep. We looked at how it was laid out, the plants, the ponds and animals," she says, adding that she will be returning again.

Nor is it just local schools that benefit. Trevor Dook, headteacher of Prestwood County Middle School, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, learned of the site through a colleague in Dover. He has twice taken parties of 11 and 12-year-olds and hopes to return next year when the plant life is even more developed.

"We looked at man's interaction with the environment and spent time discussing the site's origins and purpose," he says. "Standing on a new piece of England was enough to spur their interest."

So there it is - a little piece of England, (and probably a bit of France too) - a site with something for all ages, and which has as its greatest attribute the potential for original research. As Mr Coombe says: "We always encourage our candidates to show as much initiative as possible. Up-to-date and relevant case studies are a breath of fresh air for an examiner."

Access is freely available, with no booking required. Guided tours by arrangement only. For further details contact the ranger on 01304 225649, or for a guide leaflet send a 9"x5" SAE to: White Cliffs Countryside Project, Countryside Management Centre, Castle Hill, Folkestone, Kent CT19 4AJ.

Field Studies Council, Juniper Hall Field Centre, Dorking, Surrey RH5 6DA. Tel: 01306 883849

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