NEWINGTON, England — It was Britain's arch-enemy, Napoleon Bonaparte, who first suggested linking the island nation to France and the rest of Europe with a tunnel under the English Channel.
That was 185 years ago, and although the idea has never died, support for it has been undermined time and again by British suspicions about Continental intentions and British fears of seeing their insular character diluted. From atop the white cliffs of Dover, France may be a mere 22 miles across the Strait of Dover--so close that on a clear day, it is possible to read the time on the town-hall clock of Calais with a telescope--but for the British, the emotional distance has historically been far greater.
"It is a kind of earthy feeling that an island is an island and should not be violated," explained Barbara Castle, shortly after she, as transport minister, helped to persuade the Labor government of the day to cancel the last tunnel effort in 1975.
But that was 12 years ago, and attitudes as well as economic realities have changed significantly in Britain. The country's once-tenuous relationship with the European Communities has become an unquestioned fact of political life and the traditional British notion of traveling to or from Europe as if it were some distant place has also gradually faded.
It is against this backdrop that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher became convinced that a channel tunnel offers a revitalized British economy enormous opportunities. Now she has pushed the 185-year-old idea to the edge of reality.
Preliminary Work Started
Preliminary construction for two 31 mile-long railroad tunnels under the Strait of Dover has already started near Calais, the French end of the link. And the first of six tunnel-boring machines is scheduled to arrive this month near Folkstone, eight miles west of Dover, the English end of the tunnel.
Last month, the Anglo-French construction consortium known as Eurotunnel finalized $8 billion in loans and stand-by credits with a group of international banks for the biggest single chunk of the privately financed channel tunnel expected to cost more than $11 billion.
The European Investment Bank has loaned the consortium $1.6 billion.
Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterrand formally ratified a treaty providing the constitutional basis for the tunnel in June. "It is the greatest civil engineering project in Europe," Thatcher declared at the time.
If she and other channel tunnel backers have their way, by 1993, freight and passengers, including their family cars, will cross under the English Channel at 70 m.p.h. on air-conditioned shuttle trains leaving every 10 minutes; through trains will also operate between major British and Continental cities.
Designers claim that upgraded, high-speed rail lines linking London and Paris through the tunnel will reduce the Paris-London surface travel time from an unpredictable, sometimes sea-sickening seven hours to just three, about as long as the trip now takes by air, if travel time to and from airports is included.
Travel time between London and Brussels would be reduced to less than three hours, the designers say.
Under the present construction timetable, boring the twin 24-foot diameter railroad tunnels and a 15-foot diameter service tunnel will take about 30 months. Building terminals and other work will extend the project to the end of 1992.
While treaties for a channel tunnel have been signed before and even construction started on two previous occasions, there is a sense that this time, the tunnel will go through.
"There's a belief that it really is finally going to come about," noted Michael Bonavia, who directed the 1973-75 tunnel effort and has written a book on the idea's history.
Certainly, hurdles remain.
The $8-billion bank financing is conditional on the success of a $1.2-billion public offering on the London stock market. That offering already has been rescheduled from July to November because the market was judged to be unreceptive. A $330-million share offering floated last October succeeded only after the Bank of England exerted pressure on institutions to participate.
Although public resistance to the tunnel has diminished, the idea still sits uneasily among many Britons.
In this picturesque Kent village, whose 900-year-old church will abut the perimeter fence of the tunnel's entrance complex, the potential economic windfall of such a large development is outweighed by distaste for the idea and for the destruction of a peaceful landscape.
A quarter of the village's 100-odd families have already moved away and many of those who remain display posters with slogans like, "No Fixed Link" and "Keep Britain an Island."
Some national figures, such as former Transport Minister Castle, remain opposed to a tunnel.
Castle, now a member of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, said in a recent interview, "We'll feel less of an island. I'm a cosmopolitan but I'm against that."