Pin any Geography teacher into a corner and they will tell you Britain is a group of islands – which means we are surrounded by sea, of course, and that defines our integrity as a race: ‘This precious jewel set in a silver sea’ etcetera. Except it doesn’t. Our island race is constantly compromised, and the problem is the sea, which isn’t wide enough.

Specifically I refer to the English Channel, which guards our southern shore: in one place it is only 22 miles wide. I mean, that isn’t a sea, is it? It’s a channel, or, in the familiar, a ditch. In places the River Amazon is over 6 miles wide, so that makes less than 4 Amazons’ widths between us and France.

Uncomfortable.

Proximity aside, there’s something about the English Channel. Cosmetically unattractive (cold, rough, rather bad-tempered) it draws out the expeditionary spirit. Everyone wants to cross it, even if they have no conceivable reason. Caesar tried, and no matter how loudly we Brits voiced our objections, he tried again; this against the Channel gales with ships that were powered by oars and sails that couldn’t tack.

In 1785 Blanchard and Jeffries crossed it in a hydrogen balloon. They landed in a tree, which should have put them off, but didn’t. January, it was, and they even had to throw off most of their clothes to save weight. Can you picture a moustachioed Frenchman and an American falling out of a snow-laden tree in their underpants? Zut alors!

Soon people started swimming across.

A sailor did it first, floating on top of a bale of straw: why, I ask you? Why?
Then there was Captain Webb in 1875, the world and his wife since. In 1961 Antonio Abertondo swam from England to France, but disliked the French so much he swam straight back again, and did the whole thing, there and back, in 43 hours .

These days the swimming thing’s gone off the boil a bit, but in the 1960s and 1970s you couldn’t move on the beach at Dover for a thin straggling line of goose-grease smothered intrepids – housewives from Oldham, bank clerks from Surrey, all doing their bit ‘for charity’. Their times have improved, too. Captain Webb took nearly 23 hours, whereas today’s man-in-the-street time for the crossing seems to average around 14 hours.

Louis_Bleriot

Back in 1909 Louis Bleriot flew across in his monoplane; the first heavier-than-air craft to do so, in a flight that took around 36 minutes.

Someone else did more or less the same flight, last Friday, a little more slowly. Didier Esteyne flew solo from Lydd, in Kent, to Calais, the opposite way to Bleriot, in about 40 minutes. 106 years after the French inventor and aviation pioneer this may seem unremarkable, if I were to neglect to include the information that his plane, the two-seat Airbus E-Fan, was entirely powered by electricity.

It is a little longer, 112 years, since the Wright Flyer made its first teetering steps at Kitty Hawk. Few can have foreseen in that frail agglomeration of wood and string the great jets which have taken over modern travel; yet Alcock and Brown were making their first flight across the Atlantic within 20years and within 50 years we were transporting passengers halfway around the world using jet engines. From the Wright Brothers to the De Havilland Comet: from 37 miles per hour to 490. Evolution has been rapid.450px-BEA_de_Havilland_DH-106_Comet_4B_Berlin

Another electrically-powered, and solar energy fuelled ‘plane, ‘Solar Impulse’ is resting in Hawaii today, waiting to take the next step on its round-the-world flight. Watching the video footage of its improbably gawky frame as it is helped into the air, its wings held up by poles in the hands of two supporters sprinting alongside it and a frantic cycle rider beneath its tail I cannot help thinking of the Wright Flyer’s first tentative steps. As a writer with an interest in Science Fiction these achievements, one mighty and one small, are honing and altering my vision of a future where the oceans may be crossed without leaving behind a trail of black smoke: they induce a picture of a slower, more stately version of civilization; one in which, perhaps, our kind can reap some rewards from our centuries of chasing after those two impostors, power and growth.

It will not happen in my time, perhaps not in the time of my sons, but of their children, and those who come after them. It is, for me, a first gleaming beacon of hope in a dark sky: something we can achieve in our world which causes zero damage. I would love to be here to travel the skies fifty years after Solar Impulse – maybe some of you will.

8 Comments

  1. I don’t think I’ll ever add ‘swim across the English Channel’ to my bucket list, so there’s one less person for the channel to support, but it would be fascinating to see a solar fueled plane. Though I’m not sure I want to be one of the early adopters to use it. Not until it’s established a very good safety record. 😉

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    1. Believe it or not, there is now a record for swimming the Channel three times without stopping! It completely defies reason. As for those ‘planes, I agree early adopters don’t have a high life expectancy – but personally I’m unlikely to be tested.

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  2. I doubt that I will be around to see that first solar-powered flight either….then again, looking back on many of the scientific and technological achievements realized in the last century, I sometimes feel that were on a rocket blast into the future.

    I’m not much for flying as it is, so I think I’ll stay safely grounded…but I wouldn’t mind tipping my head back and shielding my eyes to see that spectacular flight in the sky.

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    1. I don’t mind flying – its the landing part I have trouble with. I have this vision of huge solar powered dirigibles that enable us to live almost entirely in the air, only docking occasionally like Captain Nemo to take on supplies. But then, I have been drinking a lot of this green-colored tea lately…

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  3. I never thought of the channel as a ditch, but love this nomenture; and only six times the width of the Amazon is an astonishing statistic. As a child I hated that crossing with the seas for ever moving along the long funnel between Norway and Land’s end. The very thought of a solar powered plane is still as alien to me as the thought of swimming Dover to Calais and I am a swimmer! However, I agree that it is a great concept and applaud the pioneers who embrace the challenge thereby, perhaps, making it a foreseeable future possibility for the less intrepid..

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    1. I have great hopes for it, I really do. I am not a swimmer, and I assure you that if I was, the Channel would be the last place I would choose to swim. Some day I am certain solar powered airliners will be as accepted as the Boeing is today. And it may be in less, much less, than fifty years; but alas, still not soon enough…

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  4. I, too, Frederick, hope for a future where we bridge the gaps between worlds cleanly and peacefully. I was born in 1955, grew up on the 1960’s space missions and the Roddenberry dreams of Star Trek. Maybe we’ll both be alive when we begin the slow process of becoming Martians. Here’s to hoping we’re good Martians.

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    1. I’m sure we will be, after all, Mars is a big enough planet. There can be no excuse for aggression, competition, any of those ugly words and emotions. I shall practice becoming a solitary Martian henceforward. ‘This crater ain’t .big enough for both of us!’

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