BY CHRISTINE CLIFTON-PSAILA
Perched majestically some 40 meters above sea level, Parsons Lodge is a familiar landmark. Lesser known perhaps is its rich and varied history. For many years the site’s iron gates have remained firmly closed to the public but now guided tours have given this well-preserved Victorian coastal battery a new lease of life. So, what was its military role and were its strategically placed guns ever fired in anger?
Answering these and a myriad of other questions is the knowledgeable and affable Phil Smith, the Gibraltar National Museum’s senior tour guide. It’s in no small measure thanks to his tireless efforts that Parson’s Lodge is today so well maintained.
Its name was first recorded in 1761, yet its origins remain unknown. What has been clearly established is its former strategic importance straddled between Rosia Bay to the north and Camp Bay to it south. Both were vulnerable areas with a real threat of an amphibious invasion during WW2.
Were its strategically placed guns ever fired in anger?
As we wind our way up to the Battery’s first level, we’re treated to a bird’s eye view over Rosia Bay, with its shimmering blue waters below. It had never occurred to me that this is Gibraltar’s only natural harbour steeped as it is in history. We may never know if Lord Nelson’s body was ever really brought ashore, but his ship HMS Victory did take shelter in its water on 28th October 1805. Interesting to note, only in May this year British conservation workers, by chance, discovered a 127-year-old farthing which had been place under the Victory’s mast for good luck (not so for some). The coin tradition is believed to date back to Roman times and continues to this day.
As our tour continues, we pass the spot where powerful coastal lights once scanned the horizon in search of approaching enemy craft. So powerful were they that the light emitted was equivalent to 200 million candles burning at once.
Working our way through more vegetation and negotiating some steep steps we arrive at the former ammunition and gunpowder stores within the Battery itself. This comprises an interesting labyrinth of dark passages leading from a central walkway, which we are able to peer into with torch in hand. Back in the day, stringent precautions were taken to avoid any accidental detonations which could have proven disastrous. The use of ‘spark-free’ copper, the wearing of rope shoes and the lightening of magazines through glass-fronted openings were also deployed.
Re-emerging back into broad daylight, we are rewarded with an uninterrupted and very different perspective of the southern rock face. It’s also the perfect vantage point to study the walls which runs from Parsons Lodge to Buena Vista. These originally Moorish defensive walls are now protected by the Heritage Trust Act.
The light emitted was equivalent to 200 million candles burning at once.
At the highest point of Parsons Lodge sits an 18 ton gun positioned towards the Strait of Gibraltar. Over time weaponry evolved and refined from cannon and gunpowder to coastal defence machine guns. It was during various WW2 air raids that these, together with anti-tank guns and rocket launchers, were fired. At the height of its military importance the Battery had 3 10-inch rifled muzzle-loading guns that guarded the approach to Rosia Bay. These guns were capable of firing a 400-pound (180kg) shell over two and a half miles. The Battery was used during both world wars.
Parsons Lodge certainly proved its worth in the defence of the Rock in bygone times. The military abandoned the Battery in the 1950’s, but today it’s not entirely deserted. Close to the entrance on its lowest level lies a small building housing the Gibraltar Museums field centre, which provides accommodation for visiting scientists undertaking research.
During our tour I do not recall our guide sharing any stories of hauntings, but as darkness descends, I wonder if any of those researchers as the sole residents (at the site) may have a story or two to share of strange happenings in the dead of night…
For more information on tours, email: [email protected] or call Victory Tours on 54086059.