diamond geezer

 Monday, May 06, 2019

The Channel Tunnel was officially opened 25 years old today, on 6th May 1994, when the Queen and President Mitterand travelled through it (twice) by train. Freight services began in June. Passenger services didn't kick off until November. I've chosen to celebrate by taking a walk along the North Downs above the Eurotunnel Folkestone Terminal.

The North Downs provide an impressive backdrop to the town of Folkestone, but it isn't easy to reach the ridgetop from there on foot. Very few roads cut the line of the escarpment, and the handful of connecting footpaths tend to be very steep, highly circuitous or both. But the trek and subsequent ascent are well worth it for the opportunity to stride along the uppermost heights and stare down at the enormous chunk of infrastructure that helps connect us to the continent.

Eurotunnel Folkestone Terminal is huge, the same acreage as Hyde Park and well over a mile in length. It was contrived to fit into an area of mostly farmland at the foot of the North Downs, separated by the newly-extended M20 motorway from the suburb of Cheriton. At the western end is all the gubbins required for checking in and customs, and the remainder of the space is mostly parallel platforms for the embarkation and disembarkation of vehicles plus the roads to get them in and out.

The best views are to be found to the west of Cheriton Hill, where you can look down from sixty metres up and watch the entire operational charade unfold beneath you. Vehicles drive in from junction 11a of the M20 and complete all administrative hurdles in and around the terminal building. Here they're shuffled into queues of lorries and not-lorries, each with a separate signalled queue, from which regular bursts of traffic file ahead to the appropriate departure platform.

Meanwhile very long le Shuttle trains emerge from the Chunnel and wheel round underneath the terminal to arrive at these platforms facing France-wards. Off come the cars, trucks, buses and lorries via a separate comb of ramps and feeder roads, and then the fresh traffic takes its place, driving up to fill the containers or carriages or whatever the grey boxes are officially called. One-way prices range from £30 for a daytrip to over £200 for complete flexibility.

From aboard a Eurostar it looks like your train is diving deep into the hillside, but this illusion is easily disproved from a viewpoint immediately above the tunnel portal. This Downland spur is the site of Folkestone Castle, known locally as Caesar's Camp, a humpy earthwork currently bedecked with thousands of cowslips. From up here it's clear that trains merely duck beneath an artificial surface a couple of hundred metres before the hill, then continue to descend so as not to reappear on the other side.

The North Downs Way weaves round a barely visible, and currently empty, reservoir before catching up with the view above Eurotunnel's main intake substation. It passes over the top of the iconic Folkestone White Horse, a chalk figure dating back only to 2003, but which has been adopted by the local borough as its logo. It edges round a pillbox. It's brightened by numerous bright blue stalks of what I think is viper's bugloss. And it's pretty much flat, which is a relief after all the hassle of getting up here.

One line of trees leading off from the foot of the escarpment towards the edge of the secure zone is all that's left of the country lane leading to the hamlet of Danton Pinch. This cluster of half a dozen homes, plus a farmhouse, were the only residential properties destroyed when the Eurotunnel terminal was built. Their collective sacrifice, now buried beneath the departure queue, has allowed quarter of a century of ferry-free freight and vehicle transfer between Britain and mainland Europe.

The best place to find out more is a small museum in Peene, one of the two villages not quite smothered by the terminal complex. The Elham Valley Line Trust Countryside Centre & Railway Museum has an excellent collection of Chunnel memorabilia, including an enormous working model built by the architects before the tunnel was built to demonstrate how the entire operation would operate. Passenger and freight trains rattle around the circuit, emerging from (and disappearing into) the tunnel portal at regular intervals. It must be at least ten metres long. It's quite the layout.

Other exhibits include cutaway models of trains and tunnel sections, commemorative souvenirs and a video with jaunty 90s backing music showing how the whole thing was built. A lot of the material came from the original Channel Tunnel Visitor Centre, back when that was a thing. But the museum really exists to celebrate its own local disused railway which used to run along the Elham Valley between Folkestone and Canterbury. It provides a proper snapshot of a minor line closed in 1947, and used during WW2 to store a massive 'railway gun' designed (but never used) to fire upon invading German troops.

There's also a signal box to operate, and a short 7¼" gauge railway to ride - twice round the lake, and see if you can spot Chewbacca hiding in the pergola. In a really nice touch, the fence behind the platform was sourced from the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony where it was used in the opening scene to contain a flock of sheep. The staff were a lot of fun. Entrance is £3.50, weekends and bank holidays only. A Countryside & Craft Centre (plus tearoom) can be found nextdoor. And how fitting that one end of the disused railway now lies buried beneath the country's most important railway connection, 25 years on.

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