Visit: 5th November 2016
The UK got a new World Heritage Site this year, not on the mainland but a thousand miles south, in the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar. I have for some time wanted to visit one of those few remaining outposts of empire that remain under the sovereignty of the UK, so was glad to have a good reason for travelling to one.
The first highlight of a trip to Gibraltar is the arrival. Despite the area of the territory being only 2.4 square kilometres, they have managed to squeeze an airport into its northernmost point, right next to the border with Spain. The runway is bisected by Winston Churchill Avenue, which is the only road connecting Gibraltar to mainland Iberia. It is basically a grander version of a level crossing – instead of traffic waiting for a passing train it waits for an aeroplane. Given the short distance from the terminal to the centre of town, we walked across the runway both there and back.
Gorham’s Cave Complex is notable for being the last site in the world thought to have been home to Neanderthals. An engraving found there has been put at more than 39,000 years old. It is not ‘cave art’ in the traditional sense, but is thought to be some sort of ancient symbol, perhaps signifying an important intersection in the cave complex.
Unfortunately most of the actual caves included in this inscription are inaccessible to the general public. The museum offers occasional guided tours, but only for groups of a large enough size. We were only two, so had to make do with the only caves that are open to the public – Goat’s Hair Twin Caves. These caves are just the sort of places cartoon cavemen are depicted living.
The way to get to the caves is via a footpath called the Mediterranean Steps, which is also in the WHS core zone. This is a really memorable route down the steep side of the Rock. The top of the steps are not for the faint-hearted, as this picture should demonstrate.
We were joined at the top by two of the territory’s Barbary macaques. The famous monkeys of Gibraltar are the only wild apes in Europe, and it is said that if they ever leave then the British will lose control.
The Spaniards would certainly welcome that, since it is well known that they covet the peninsular that was taken from them by the Dutch and then transferred to the British in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht.
You can clearly make out Africa from the top, the Strait of Gibraltar being only 7.7 nautical miles across at its narrowest point. The strategically vital position of Gibraltar itself is the reason it has long been fought over by regional powers. Whoever controls the Rock can cut off access to the Mediterranean, as the Brits did successfully in both world wars, when they bored miles of tunnels into it in order to fortify it further. Its steep sides make it exceptionally difficult to take from its holders.
The next day was a Sunday. Our flight home was in the evening, so we spent the day in town, where all the shops were closed. The first sight was the Moorish Castle, which is a fortified tower dating back to the days when North African Muslims controlled the Iberian peninsular. They built a wall up the slopes of the rock to keep out attackers coming at them from the land.
Also interesting is Gibraltar’s cathedral, which is very different in its design to its mostly Gothic counterparts back in the British Isles such as Canterbury and Durham.
The Gibraltarians issue their own Sterling bank notes, but are generally happy to embrace designs familiar to visitors from back home. I liked the incongruity of seeing red phone and post boxes next to palm trees.
The locals consider themselves as British as fish and chips. In a 2002 referendum the Labour government mystifyingly decided to offer the people a referendum on the idea of the UK sharing sovereignty with Spain. The result was a resounding ‘no’, with 98.8% of voters rejecting the idea. That is only marginally less patriotic than the faithful Falkland Islanders, of whom in 2013 99.8% voted to remain British subjects (the number of votes cast against was 3).
I hope to return to Gibraltar again soon, perhaps as part of a group taking a guided tour of the caves proper. The place is dripping with history and is woven with a sense of faded glory. Plus it is socially acceptable there, unlike in the rest of Mainland Europe, to have a Full English breakfast in the sun.