A year after we moved to Ashford, I decided to tackle our garden – 2 minutes from the town centre. It had changed little since the house was built in 1906. There had been an Edwardian summer house in the right hand corner, but it was throughly rotten and had to be dismantled. The removal of this tall structure, slightly elevated (originally designed so that you could look towards the North Downs – before development took off and buildings obscured the view), left a large, bare patch. It was soon occupied by the chickens, but I also wanted a green boundary, not just the unappealing wooden fence. Landscapers came with their mini-digger one wet, boggy, November day and dug a trench, ready to plant a beech hedge. The digger unearthed many interesting things that had lain there, perhaps for a hundred years: bits of jade-green-patterned broken plate, tile, a hinge. My boys got out their previously-little-used metal detectors, eager for treasure. Then, every child’s dream: they struck gold!
Or, 5 centimes, to be precise. We have Euros now: 5 centimes meant nothing to them. But it was a shiny rose-gold colour once they’d cleaned it up. They were triumphant. It was a lovely moment.
These are dreadful photographs, I know, but I’ve just wasted the best part of an hour getting any kind of photograph that looked like a head on a coin! Around the top is printed “Napoleon III – Empereur” and at the bottom is the date: 1856. What on earth was a French “Victorian” coin doing in earth, in our garden? Who was Napoleon III?
The family who built our house were called the Headley’s, a prominent Ashford Quaker business family. I shall write more on them in another post. But before this house, they built the house next door. It’s quite possible they already owned the land upon which our house stands. So perhaps they had travelled to France on business at some point, returned, and inadvertently dropped the coin in their garden? That might answer my first question, but it was researching Napoleon III that made me appreciate the links between the Napoleon family and Ashford’s heritage as the home of an international station.
In 1802, French mining engineer, Albert Mathieu designed a two-level tunnel. The upper level would be a paved thoroughfare for horse-drawn stagecoaches; the lower level would collect seepage water. Napoleon Bonaparte (ie, the first Napoleon!) was very interested in these plans (as well he might have been, given his battles with Britain). In 1803, not to be out-done, an Englishman, Henry Mottray, proposed a submerged tunnel, made up of assembled metal sections. However, both these plans were subject to technical problems.
In the mid-19th century, Thome de Gamond, a French mining engineer, spent 30 years working on the fixed link project. On three occasions, he dived without a suit more than 30 metres to the Channel sea bed. In 1855, he finalised his project and proposed a route for the undersea link from cap Gris-Nez to East Wear Bay (between Folkestone and Dover). In 1856 (the very year from which our coin dates), he submitted the proposal to Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte), who was a childhood friend. It was well received, both by the French and the British. Nevertheless, Lord Palmerston is reported to have exclaimed:
“What? You wish to make us contribute towards a scheme, the purpose of which is to reduce the distance we already find too short!”
The first attempt at tunnel excavations began in 1880, when the ‘Beaumont & English’ tunnel boring machine dug limited undersea tunnels on both sides of the Channel. The project was scuppered by Sir Garnet Wolseley*, who set British public opinion against the tunnel by claiming that it would increase the risk of invasion. On 12th August 1882, after 1,883 metres had been dug on the British side and 1,669 metres on the French side, the work was halted.
During the 1950s, diplomatic negotiations on the tunnel project began again. But it was not until 30 years’ later, on 29th July 1987, that Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterand ratified the Fixed Link Treaty, paving the way for the Channel Tunnel to become a reality.
The completed project was opened by Queen Elizabeth II and French President François Mitterrand on 6 May 1994. It was the encouragement of the various Napoleon Emperors that had helped the project to ‘travel’ in the first place. And Ashford International is a station that many Europeans know as the first place in the United Kingdom that they reach, once they’ve emerged from the English Channel.
In the end, Napoleon III himself decided he preferred Kent….He had entered into a war against an Imperialist Prussia and was captured at the Battle of Sedan. When eventually released by Chancellor Otto von Bismark, Napoleon went into exile in England, settling at Camden Place, a large three-storey country house in the village of Chislehurst, Kent, where Queen Victoria visited him.
* Wolesley served as Commander-in-Chief of the Forces from 1895 to 1900. His reputation for efficiency led to the late 19th century English phrase “everything’s all Sir Garnet”, meaning “all is in order.”