Lunch is served beneath the waves: 700 guests sit down to scallops and cheese in the Channel tunnel

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IT WAS a genuinely unique occasion. No one is ever going to allow a lunch for 700 people to be held in the Chunnel again, as it was yesterday in one of the crossover points, the vast undersea caves where trains can cross under the English Channel.

It was also an absurd occasion, a gesture of defiance against grey reality to celebrate in a brutalist cavern, its concrete relieved only by the overhead wires and some insiduous red and blue lighting.

But it was also moving. Although French and English guests were segregated, it was an extaordinary experience to shake hands and exchange greetings with French friends under the sea a dozen miles away from the English coast.

Above all, it was a personal gesture by the permanently embattled Sir Alastair Morton, chairman of Eurotunnel, who had approved all the 250 English guests personally. They were not outwardly impressive: bankers, lawyers, engineers, the men and women who had turned a 150-year-old idea into reality. There were even a handful of journalists, a breed whose scepticism has enraged Sir Alastair over the years.

The guest list was headed by the former French prime minister Pierre Mauroy and Baroness Thatcher, who had made the agreement leading to the Chunnel 10 long years ago.

La Dame de Fer was in cracking form. 'The Chunnel,' she declared, 'will have a far greater effect than any of the pieces of paper we have signed these past few years.'

The lunch was only one of a series of such occasions. Contractors recalled how they had rushed through the Chunnel at 100 miles an hour last December; Lady Morton recalled how she had walked 31 miles on foot last weekend on 'Le Walk.'

The Euro tunnellers themselves were already busy on future events. Next week Luciano Pavarotti will visit the site to christen the locomotive named after him. On May 6, the Queen and President Mitterrand will attend the grand opening to inaugurate the Chunnel.

Of course, like everything connected with any project as complex as the Chunnel there were glitches. We changed from train to coach, to another train, which edged into the tunnel as if afraid that it might crash into the dining room.

This was a triumph of French improvisation. The catering train arrived eight hours late on account of a little local difficulty with the power supply. Putting a temporary floor and a carpet over the rails took longer than anyone had anticipated. The caterers had three hours to set and lay the tables.

In the end, the food made it all worthwhile. Scallops were followed by fish and wild mushroom stew, washed down by what the menu called 'a young 1989 Claret.' Lunch was rounded off with English and French cheeses and cake.

The idea was based on the dinner given by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his father, Marc, on the 10 November 1827 in the tunnel they were building under the Thames - an occasion recalled by an actor dressed as the young Brunel.

The precedent was an unfortunate one: the Thames project was suspended through lack of money soon after the meal and not completed for another 16 years. But then, cynics should be reminded that most major projects run well over time and cost.

Yesterday, a veteran Japanese engineer recalled how the rail tunnel he worked on between two Japanese islands had taken 30 years to finish. He also put his finger on the point behind these exercises. They are not mere public relations ego trips but are designed to soften up the Brits, to get them to accept the whole idea that we are no longer an island.

'In their deep minds,' said the engineer, 'the English don't want to be connected with the continent.'

(Photograph omitted)