Saturday, March 20, 2010

On the top of the Rock

Gibraltar offers many opportunities to observe the interaction between nature and history. The very top of the Rock, 426 metres directly above sea level, is a very special place in this regard. I took the opportunity of a visit that we had organised to a very special place to take some photographs.

Gibraltar has over 30 miles (over 60 kilometres) of tunnel, some excavated in the 18th Century but most of it during the Second World War. A veritable city was dug into the Rock. But it was only a few years ago that some very special and secret tunnels were found. They are so sensitive to disturbance that we have kept them closed to the public and we only organise two or three visits per year. Yesterday was one such day.

The point about these secret tunnels is that they were excavated within another set of tunnels. Very few people were aware of their existence and it all seemed a myth until they were rediscovered over 50 years after the end of the Second World War.

The plan was that, should the Nazis overrun Gibraltar, six men would brick themselves inside these tunnels from where they would spy on movements outside and report back to London. Silence and stealth were essential as the potential enemy would be marching past along tunnels literally inches away!

The floors, unlike any other tunnel, had floors lined with cork tiles (above) so that any noise from walking was buffered. Every eventuality was catered for. Rain water collected from the limestone was stored in a hidden tank. When I first went in, after it had been closed for over 50 years, the tank still held water and the tap, like yesterday (below), still worked!

We found the remains of a bicycle, with a leather chain to minimise sound, that would provide for exercise while generating electricity and help ventilate the tunnels.

The air was circulated through a shaft (below right)  from the exterior and a copper cable within a sheath (below left) was put out onto the cliff at night to transmit information.

This section of the tunnel led east onto the cliff face. From the slit ships in the Mediterranean could be observed. The stairs doubled on themselves with a second tunnel leading west (below) from where the Bay of Gibraltar could be observed.

The location was crucial. Being at the very top of the Rock, observation points that looked west and east could be situated within the same complex. In the end the tunnels were not needed but remained sealed, and eventually forgotten, during the cold war.

On the outside are the huge 9.2 inch guns that could hit targets on the North African coast, 21 kilometres away, of the Strait of Gibraltar. The channel could be effectively closed from here.

Today, the cliffs are part of a huge Yellow-legged Gull colony but before the Second World War Bonelli's Eagles and Egyptian Vultures nested here. Disturbance drove them away.

Beatiful rock-dwelling wild flowers are now out and include the endemic Gibraltar Candytuft Iberis gibraltarica (above) and the Giant Squill Scilla peruviana (below)

Giant Squill (above ) and White Mignonette Reseda alba (below)

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