FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Up on the rock

Posted in Gibraltar by folkestonejack on July 1, 2018

The biggest draws on the tourist itinerary in Gibraltar are all up on the rock itself, which can be accessed on foot, by cable car or through one of the many taxi tours on offer around town. I wasn’t really sure how much time would be needed to cover everything, but in the end we spent the best part of two days following the footpaths and exploring the sights.

On our first day we took the cable car up to the top and slowly made our way down, having validated our all attractions ticket for a second day. The next day we walked up Engineer Road to access the rock, then walked across the top and down again via the Moorish Castle. It was good to have a generous serving of time to explore the sights in a leisurely fashion – we could see plenty of folk being herded about in a hurry, leaving little time to appreciate the wonders in front of them.

1. Great Siege Tunnels

The Great Siege Tunnels are a real oddity. I’ve been to many historic castles and forts before, but never been in such a well developed system of tunnel defences with cleverly adapted weaponry (such as the depressing carriages developed by Lt. Koehler to allow cannons to function effectively while angled downwards). The unusual defensive needs of the rock led to other key developments in artillery that are still with us today, such as shells that explode in mid-air (developed in Gibraltar by Henry Shrapnel in 1787) and star shells (flares) to illuminate an enemy approaching in darkness (developed in Gibraltar by Captain Witham).

St George’s Hall

The more I wandered, the more I began to understand the scale of achievement in delivering this man made marvel, particularly upon entering St George’s Hall, the gallery carved out of the notch that was large enough to allow the installation of a battery of seven guns with a superb 180 degree arc of fire.

Don’t just take my word for it. The Duc de Crillon, leader of the French forces in the Great Siege of 1779-83, was invited to visit the fortifications inside the rock at the conclusion of hostilities. Once inside the Duc was astonished by the magnitude of the tunnels that had thwarted his forces, remarking that they were “worthy of the romans”.

The tunnels were extended in World War 2 and it was really striking to see just how rough the walls of the tunnels from this era were compared to the sections closest to the entrance. The number of visitors really reduced in this section as their tour timings didn’t give them enough time to walk too far into the tunnel system. It’s worth saying that as interesting as this stretch is, it really gives no sense of the tunneling carried out in the 1940s. For that, you need to visit another part of the system…

2. World War 2 Tunnels

In the build up to our trip I wasn’t sure whether to make a visit to the World War 2 tunnels having read mixed reports of the experience (many of which were sufficiently confusing that I couldn’t tell whether they had actually visited or had just gotten themselves mixed up with the Great Siege Tunnels). In the end I booked a place on a tour and was very glad that I had.

The system of tunnels blasted out of the rock in World War 2 feels completely different to the narrow tunnel system carved out in the 18th century. Even the 1940s extension of the 18th century siege tunnel system roughly echoes the earlier tunnels, whereas the tunnels that you get to see on a walk into the rock from the tourist entrance to the WW2 tunnels are often much larger and quite different in character(especially with features like blast walls and door frames designed to help prevent the spread of chemicals through the complex).

World War 2 Tunnels

Unlike the Siege tunnels, our visit to the WW2 tunnels was guided. We were all given audio guides but our tour leader supplemented this with many other fascinating stories, often drawing upon his own recent experience of service with the military in Gibraltar. The walking tour was really terrific with so much to see and take in.

The route through the tunnels gave us sight of a reconstructed hospital ward in a former storage area (designed to look like a Nissen hut with fake window frames and curtains to give the impression that patients are outside the rock to assist their psychological recovery); a vehicle repair bay; a cavern once used as a nightclub; the fissure running through the rock; a crossroads in the rock known as ‘Clapham Junction’; a store unloading point; a WRAF shelter; an emergency staircase cleverly designed with steps of differing heights to slow the progress of any intruders and Jock’s Balcony with a view over the airport.

It is striking to think that we saw only a fraction of the 54 km of pedestrian, road and truck tunnels running through the rock. Indeed, the routes through the rock are far more extensive than you would find on the outside. It is said that you can get virtually anywhere in Gibraltar via the many exits, if you have access, but much of the system is shrouded in secrecy and very secure. Even those working in the armed forces are only likely to be aware of the tunnels and facilities that they need to know about.

3. St Michael’s Cave

The caves in the rock have been attracting visitors since Roman times and it’s not hard to see the continuing appeal. On entering the cave system you are immediately drawn into the wow factor of the largest, the cathedral cave, which has been in use as an auditorium for music gigs and the like since the 1960s. However, the more you explore the system the more wonders you discover. It is by far the most spectacular cave system that I have ever seen.

Staircase between caves

The cave system has been used for a variety of purposes over the years, including a stronghold, an emergency hospital and as an ammunition store. It is perhaps not surprising that its long history of use has seen the caves suffer, such as the damage to Leonora’s cave from smoke grenades and CS gas during exercises by the armed forces and fire service. Conversely, it was the blasting of an alternative exit in the 1940s that revealed the further wonders of the Lower St Michael’s Cave (only accessible by the public today through organised tours).

I’ve seen a few reviews suggesting that this can be skipped as there are better cave systems elsewhere. If that is indeed the case, I look forward to seeing them as this was absolutely spectacular in my books!

4. O’Hara’s Battery

A walk along the top of the rock offers a sequence of high vantage points that include the Douglas lookout, the relatively new Skywalk and O’Haras Battery. The last of these, an active battery from 1899 to 1976, is by far the most interesting from a historical perspective.

The view from O’Hara’s Battery looking back towards Lord Aireys Battery

O’Hara’s battery gets its name from Lieutenant Governor George O’Hara, whose name was remembered in the history of the rock for all the wrong reasons. This was all sown to O’Hara’s right idea of constructing a tower at the highest point on the rock to give his men sight of the comings and goings from the Spanish port of Cadiz 60km away. The tower, constructed between 1787 and 1791, did nothing of the sort and became known as O’Hara’s Folly (rather than it’s official name of St George’s Tower).

The tower was said to have been demolished in 1888 following a direct shot from a Royal Navy warship, successfully winning a bet that they could hit it by making some careful changes to the elevation of their guns. O’Hara’s Battery was built in its place and remained in use until 1976 when its 9.2 inch gun was fired for the last time during a training exercise.

Today, the restored battery is open to the public and presents a well documented story of its history and that of its near neighbour, Lord Aireys Battery. After looking around the engine room you can take a short tunnel carved through the rock up to the gun. The views are terrific.

5. Moorish Castle

The Moorish Castle makes a fascinating change from the British fortifications across the rock. The ‘Tower of Homage’ is a remarkable sight to see when you consider how many sieges and battles it has survived. It has clearly gone through many phases of repair and re-building but it still shows scars from the siege of 1333, lime whitewash from the 16th century and modern reconstructions from the 1970s!

The interior is relatively plain, with the exception of the beautiful ceiling of the Christian Chapel. It too has been adapted over the years and is thought to have started life as a prayer room in the Islamic period of ownership.

If you are checking out the Moorish Castle don’t forget to take a look inside the Military Heritage Centre and City under Siege exhibitions nearby.

The ceiling of the Prayer room/Chapel in the Moorish Castle

In our two days visit our walks across the rock covered plenty but did not include the steps up the Charles V Wall, the vertigo-inducing Mediterranean steps or the Windsor Suspension Bridge, nor did we make it to the Apes Den. Besides that, there were plenty of batteries scattered across the top that we didn’t reach, such as Spur Battery and Devil’s Gap Battery. In short, there is plenty of walking to be done on the rock if that is your fancy!

Our trip did not coincide with any cruise ship visits, so the rock was relatively quiet and there were no queues to use the cable car. I am sure that the dynamics of a visit to the rock change substantially when thousands of additional visitors are added to the mix. The markings for queuing down the street for the cable car hinted at the impact that cruise ship visitors has and I have heard plenty of tales from family and friends about hour long waits to get in a cable car.

I thought I would find the monkeys to be more disturbing than they proved to be. On the whole they kept to themselves, though they clearly couldn’t resist opportunities to go for a ride, leaping onto the wing mirrors of passing taxis to get a joyride up the rock. The advice about not carrying carrier bags. which the monkeys associate with food, turned out to be spot on.

Our two days of sightseeing on the rock complete, we set off down the castle stairs and on to Casemates Square where we enjoyed a drink at the Lord Nelson. After collecting our bags from the hotel all that remained was to make the short journey back across the runway and watch the sun setting over the rock as we waited for our flight home.


Exploring Gibraltar

Posted in Gibraltar by folkestonejack on June 29, 2018

Although the most talked about sights in Gibraltar are up on the rock, there is plenty to see at ground level. On our first day we traveled the length of Gibraltar on foot and by bus (all day hoppa fares are very reasonably priced at £2.50 for adults) to see as much as we could. It helps that the territory is only 4 square miles in its entirety and only 3.10 miles from one end to the other.

The Rock Hotel, built in 1932 and still going strong

Our starting point was the Hotel Rock, a 1930s landmark in its own right which has played its part in many episodes in the history of the territory. I could quite happily have whiled away many a hour sat on the terrace just watching ships come and go from the Bay of Gibraltar. It is located in a quiet part of town, overlooking the Botanic Gardens, but still only a ten minute walk from the bustle of Main Street. These are the highlights of our exploration, in the order that we covered them:

1. Trafalgar Cemetery

The small, beautifully tended, Trafalgar cemetery sits against the lower stretch of the Charles V defensive wall by the referendum gates. It was laid out in 1798 and referred to as South Ditch Cemetery, but in time acquired its more poignant name.

You might expect to find the place filled with the graves of men from the Battle of Trafalgar, but in fact there are only two – Lieutenant William Forster (20) from HMS Colossus and Captain Thomas Norman (35) from HMS Mars. Most of the burials from the battle took place at sea, while those who died from their wounds in the naval hospital were buried in another cemetery. In 1932 some of the tombstones of these men were brought here and set into the wall.

Grave of Lieutenant William Forster in Trafalgar Cemetery

A wander around the cemetery brings to light too many heartbreaking early deaths, mostly from the epidemics of fever that raged in Gibraltar in the early nineteenth century but also from other naval battles in the area. One grave contained two men who had been killed by the same shot on 23rd November 1810 while directing the howitzer boats in an attack on the enemy’s flotilla in Cadiz Bay. Their fellow officers from the station had the stone erected as a tribute of respect to two who were the brightest ornaments of their corps.

2. King’s Chapel

The King’s Chapel dates back to the Spanish era, having been established by the Franciscan order in 1560, but was taken over for the British Crown in 1704. Located next to the Convent, the official residence of the Governor of Gibraltar, this was the only church in which C of E services were held until the opening of the new Garrison Church (now known as the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity) in 1833.

It is quite something that the chapel is still standing after enduring an incredible cycle of wreck and repair through the many sieges of the eighteenth century and the devastation wrought by the explosion of the ammunition ship RFA Bedenham on 27th April 1951.

Stained glass image of King George VI in the King’s Chapel

It might not look like much from the street frontage but step inside and you can only marvel at the beautiful interior, regimental flags and military memorials. There are quite a mix of memorials, ranging from simple tablets remembering regimental dead to grand monuments for past governors. A marvelous stained glass window in the north transept depicts King George VI in the robes of the Order of the Garter.

The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity and the Cathedral of Saint Mary the Crowned are also well worth a stop as you head down Main Street.

3. Garrison Library

The Gibraltar Garrison Library was founded in 1793 by Captain Drinkwater, an inspired act to help encourage his fellow officers take up more wholesome activities than those on offer in other parts of the town. The success of the venture led to the construction of today’s library in 1804 and went on to provide a model for other garrison libraries around the empire. It’s another great survivor – I can’t imagine that there are many similar institutions still around (if any) and certainly not with collections as intact as here.

It’s a beautifully maintained space that thrives under the care of a small but dedicated team. Most importantly, it is a working library rather than a historic monument. Our tour guide, Chris, pointed out a recent donation that was being sorted for classification. I liked the display of historic artifacts from the library, such as an hourglass used to determine how long an officer could spend reading The Times before having to relinquish it.

The library holds an important research collection of material on the history of Gibraltar, including the complete run of the Gibraltar Chronicle from its inception in 1801. I can highly recommend the guided tours (weekly on Fridays at 11am) to get a little insight into this institution, though I will admit that, as a librarian, it is rare to find a library that doesn’t fascinate me in some way!

4. Gibraltar Museum

The small but delightful Gibraltar museum, offers some quite unexpected attractions in its eclectic collection. The most startling of these is an egyptian mummy and its wooden sarcophagus that had been found floating in the bay, debris from a ship wrecked whilst en route from Egypt to Europe.

The remains of a Moorish bath house in the basement, a terrific 1865 model of Gibraltar that fills an entire room and a charming collection of handmade plane and ship models were other highlights. I really hadn’t anticipated being quite so captivated by this place. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

5. Europa Point

A short hop on the number 2 bus took us out to Europa Point, the southernmost point of Gibraltar, with views across the Strait of Gibraltar to North Africa. Strange as it is to say, this was the busiest spot that we visited in the territory with a steady stream of tour party coaches coming and going throughout our short stay.

It doesn’t take too long to wander around the area with views of the Europa Point Lighthouse (1841), the Ibrahim-al-Ibrahim Mosque, the Sikorski memorial and Harding’s Battery. The Shrine of Our Lady of Europe is also located nearby.

The lighthouse at Europa Point

At the time of our visit the first stages of construction for the new Europa sports facility were well under way while a nearby apartment block was nearing completion. The new sports complex will eventually provide a multipurpose sports hall, a smaller sports hall and large playing field which will be the home of Gibraltar’s Rugby Football Union, Cricket Association, Squash Association and Darts Association.

The plans appear to have taken account of concerns raised in response to an earlier design. The new buildings will not obscure the view of Harding’s battery and a second world war bunker on the site, currently standing in isolation, will be incorporated within the finished building.

6. 100 Ton gun

The last stop of the day brought us to the Napier of Magdala Battery to see the 100 ton gun, a massive weapon in its its day that took three hours notice to build up sufficient pressure to move. One for the slower moving targets!

Only two guns of this type survive survive (the other is at Fort Rinella in Malta) out of the four originally manufactured by Armstrong Whitworth. The active lifespan of the gun on Gibraltar was incredibly short – just 13 years. The original gun was installed in 1883 but by 1906 was considered obsolete.

The gun on display today was originally installed at Victoria Battery but was moved to Napier of Magdala Battery after the first 100 ton gun was wrecked during firing practice in 1898. Apparently locals were given a day’s notice of test firings with a recommendation to keep windows open and remove fragile objects from shelves.

The 100 ton gun at Gibraltar’s Napier of Magdala Battery

The modest admission price (£3 for an adult) gains you entry to the battery, the interior chambers (one offering a view of the hydraulic lift from the magazine) and the gun itself. It doesn’t take long to go round but it’s well worth a look.

Once we had completed our visit we headed back to our hotel, taking in a pleasant shortcut through the Alameda Botanic Gardens. A lovely end to a wonderful, if hot and tiring, day. I must admit that I was very pleasantly surprised by our first day – Gibraltar has far surpassed my expectations and proved to be every bit as fascinating as I’d hoped before we have even made it up, or inside, the rock.


Touch down in Gibraltar

Posted in Gibraltar by folkestonejack on June 28, 2018

In my travels around Europe I have visited a couple of places that have laid claim to be the title of Gibraltar of the North (the fortress of Luxembourg and Suomenlinna in Finland) but had never actually made it to Gibraltar itself. Time to put this right…

A British Airways A319 arrives at Gibraltar airport

The trip started well, with an on-time flight and smooth landing at Gibraltar Airport. It’s not the busiest airport you will ever see – our flight was one of only five timetabled to arrive that day. However, it is one of the more interesting with an approach from way out in the Mediterranean Sea, steadily descending to a runway positioned between the rock and the border with Spain.

It is an impressive runway, stretching out across the isthmus and into the Bay of Gibraltar on land reclaimed during World War II using material blasted out during tunneling inside the rock. It is both a military airfield (RAF Gibraltar) and a commercial airport, handling around half a million passengers per year. Facilities have been upgraded in recent years with a spacious new terminal that offers one of the most scenic airport terraces anywhere.

Traffic queues build up while waiting for a British Airways flight to clear the runway

Our arrival meant a disruption to the daily life of the local population – the main road from the border to the centre of town crosses the runway. About 10-15 minutes before a flight arrives the barriers come down (not dissimilar to a level crossing on the railway) stopping cars and pedestrians from walking across. Sweeping vehicles go out to check and clean up the runway ahead of the inbound flight.

As soon as a flight has landed and taxied back to its stand the road re-opens. It’s quite strange seeing the queue of waiting traffic as you land and that spectacle looks just as impressive from the ground as up on the rock at one of the many vantage points. All of that is expected to change in early 2019 with the completion of a four lane tunnel at the eastern end of the runway.

The new tunnel would see traffic take a one and a half mile diversion from the border, around the runway and back to the roundabout on Winston Churchill Avenue by the Cross of Sacrifice. It’s not surprising to hear that pedestrians are less keen to substitute this for their 150 metre walk across the runway. The Ministry of Defence is understandably keen to stop people walking across but there have been suggestions that the current arrangement might remain.

A view of the runway, terminal building, border post and the Spanish town of La Línea de la Concepción

Although the set-up is unusual, this is not the only runway with a road across it. In 2007 my travels took me on a road across the Swiss air base at Meiringen but that had considerably less road traffic and many more cows! I gather that there is also an airport runway with a railway line crossing it (at Gisborne, New Zealand) which sounds even more curious.

Up on the rock there are plenty of vantage points to watch commercial flights operated by British Airways, Easyjet and Royal Air Maroc come and go from Gibraltar, though it is hard to beat the terrace next to the Great Siege Tunnels. On our trip we were also lucky enough to see a Royal Air Force Airbus A400M-180 (ZM408) follow one of the commercial flights out.