One party elected to explore St. Michael’s Cave with almost tragic consequences. For a peculiarly long subaltern of Rifles succeeded in becoming jambed [sic] in “Clincher Hole”. In his case, it was not owing to extra width of shoulders or depth of chest as in that of the British bluejackets who had been unable to pass through it, and I imagine his sticking was more of the nature of a fish-bone across the gullet type. Anyway he became fixed, to the consternation of those below him who thus saw their retreat cut off. The tale goes that at one time it was under consideration to sacrifice him for the good of the majority and remove him piecemeal. Happily, he was eventually dragged out.
Our by-now customary trip to the Mediterranean in search of late winter sunshine took us to Gibraltar this year, in early March. We flew into Malaga and drove down the coast. While everyone has been rather hypnotized, of late, by the slow-motion train crash Brexit has created on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, no-one seems to have been paying much attention to the UK’s other land border with the EU—between Gibraltar and Spain. Relationships there have never been particularly cordial at the best of times, and we decided that we’d like to make the journey before Brexit made things any worse.
We travelled through balmy Costa del Sol sunshine, and arrived to a warm evening in Gibraltar—and that was the last glimpse of sun we had. A levanter wind established itself for the duration of our stay, establishing a cap of cloud on the Rock, and pushing chilly easterly winds down Gibraltar’s side streets.
Here’s a nice time-lapse video of the levanter cloud in action, as seen from the Spanish town of La Línea de la Concepción, just north of the Gibraltar border. The town of Gibraltar sits west of the rock, under the cloud, while all around is bathed in sunshine:
So we had brought British weather with us. Pretty much everything else British was already there. Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory, its Britishness intensified by something of a siege mentality, generated by … well, several sieges. So Gibraltar is characterized by a unique mixture of British institutions (fish and chip shops, red telephone boxes) and massive fortifications. You can’t travel far without encountering some huge curtain wall, or a row of shops and pubs built into the casemates of a bastion, or a war memorial, or just a stonking great gun.
The Spanish are not happy with the British presence on Gibraltar, and one does rather take their point. And although the Rock has been of serious strategic importance to the UK as recently as the Second World War, times change. If it were just a matter of handing over a few square kilometres of arid peninsula to Spain, Her Majesty’s Government would have done the deed decades ago. But the Gibraltarians keep voting to be British—once in a referendum in 1967, and again in 2002. The first referendum returned the sort of result you otherwise encounter only during Central Asian presidential elections—99.6% in favour of staying under British sovereignty. In 2002, support slumped to a mere 99.0%. These results are so important to the Gibraltarians they even commemorate them on their coinage.
In Gibraltar, paradoxically, it’s impossible to get lost, but very easy to go astray. Since the whole territory occupies only seven square kilometres, and has a monstrous rock in the middle that is never out of sight unless you’re actually underground (of which, more later), it’s easy to stay orientated. But because the road system winds endlessly around and through centuries-old fortifications, it’s surprisingly easy to find yourself on the opposite side of a wall from your destination.
Above the town of Gibraltar sits the upper part of the Rock. You can get there by cable-car, or by taxi, or you can walk (the Rock is only 426m high). We walked once—that’s quite exciting, because you share narrow, steeply sloping roads with Gibraltarian drivers, some of whom drive like they’re angry and park like they’re blind.
The roads haven’t changed much in the 30 years since the opening sequence of The Living Daylights was filmed, and the driving techniques are remarkably similar:
We divided our time equally between wandering the streets of the town and exploring the upper Rock. In town there are shops, pavement cafés, a very nice little museum and pleasant park, and a load of history all around you.
The Alameda Botanical Gardens even houses a small zoo (with large, pleasant enclosures), which is stocked with birds and animals that had originally been brought in by smugglers attempting to get exotic pets into Europe.
On the upper Rock there’s even more history, most notably the 50-odd kilometres of tunnel that have been dug through the limestone by the British military, from the eighteenth century to the Cold War. Some of these are now off-limits because they’re dangerous; some are off-limits because they house the computers of Gibraltar’s on-line gambling industry; and some are off-limits for “security reasons”. But you can wander freely through the extended museum exhibit of the Great Siege Tunnels, which were burrowed behind the north face of the Rock to create cannon emplacements that peer down on the Spanish border.
And you can take a guided tour of some of the Second World War tunnels, which in their heyday constituted an entire underground town, with its own hospitals, generators and water supply. Both sets of tunnels are dotted with uniformed mannequins, which in the dim lighting produce a strikingly atmospheric effect.
And then there are the natural caves. St Michael’s Cave and its offshoots were once a source of the sort of adventure described at the head of this post, but the main cavity of St Michael’s is nowadays a concert hall, spectacularly festooned with stalactites and curtains of limestone (and, it has to be said, illuminated with slowly shifting coloured lights reminiscent of a naff 1970s night-club).
And there are the monkeys—the so-called “Barbary apes” are actually Barbary macaques. They’re pretty well habituated to humans, and will certainly climb a person to have a rummage in their rucksack if they can smell food—but otherwise they just go about their own business under trying circumstances, with a sort of weary insouciance I found rather endearing.
On our last day, we walked around the north face of the Rock to visit a couple of Gibraltar’s tiny sandy beaches on the east coast. Paradoxically, the east coast seemed to be sheltered from the east wind—the air was being forced up and over the steep face of the Rock, leaving a little pocket of calm tucked under the windward cliffs, but with surf pounding in off the Mediterranean that would have done credit to a North Atlantic gale.
And then home. A twenty-minute delay with Spanish border checks at seven in the morning confirmed the horror stories we’d heard from Gibraltarians about hours of waiting at peak times (so much for the “free movement of goods and people” that’s supposed to happen at EU borders), and then the sun came up and we had clear skies and sunshine all the way back to Malaga.