In 2017 I had the distinct privilege of visiting the Northern Defences with Victor Hermida who kindly invited us on a site visit at the end of his lecture on them at the University of Gibraltar. I had been everywhere in the Upper Rock in my youth; my mother had grown up in Limerick and was all in favour of the outdoor life. My father’s warnings not to go to the Northern Defences – or ‘the jungle’ as it was/is also known – were only heeded because it sounded like there was nothing worth seeing there. Oh if only I had known better, I would not have waited 53 years for my first visit! Of course a significant cleaning up has been carried out by dedicated individuals/voluntary societies with the support of HMGOG to make it what it is today, and that was certainly money well spent. I decided that ISOLAS LLP should invite its clients to enjoy this experience this time in the excellent company of both Victor Hermida and also Carl Viagas, who has been behind the restoration of so many important heritage sites in Gibraltar.
Having endured fourteen sieges since Gibraltar was first settled in the 11th century, the Moors, the Spanish, and the British have built successive layers of fortifications and defences including walls, bastions, casemates, gun batteries, magazines, tunnels and galleries. Field Marshal Sir John Chapple, a former Governor, describes Gibraltar as being “probably the most fought over and most densely fortified place in Europe, and probably, therefore, in the world”. The densest military fortifications are in the area where historically Gibraltar was under the greatest threat – at the northern end facing the isthmus with Spain, comprising of the only land access to Gibraltar was via a sandy isthmus, only three metres (9.8 feet) above sea level, most of which is now occupied by the Spanish town of La Línea de la Concepción. The heights of the Rock formed a natural barrier to movement, and its rocky ledges provided natural platforms for gun batteries. The sheer cliffs on the north side of the Rock block access from that direction.
Over the centuries, Gibraltar’s successive occupants, Moors, Spaniards and the British built an increasingly complex set of fortifications around, on top of and incorporating the Rock’s natural features. The North Front Defences, still following the course laid out by the Moors in the 11th century, are still substantially intact. A significant portion of the original Spanish and Moorish walls can still be seen from the Grand Battery. Pedestrians can still walk over the wooden drawbridge over the North Front ditch to pass through the Landport Gate into the city. The Moorish Tower of Homage continues to stand above the Grand Battery on the lower slopes of the Rock.
The Northern Defences are perhaps the best illustration of this, and because of their very location. They comprise of the King’s Lines, Queen’s Lines and Prince’s Lines. They have been described by John Harris of the Royal Institute of British Architects as being “capable of providing one of the great architectural experiences in the western world … the atmosphere of the Great Siege is vivid and evocative in the extreme.” I could not agree more.
The most substantial development of these fortifications took place during the British occupation of Gibraltar by the British from 1704. The first serious improvements made by the British involved the marshy area in front of the Landport Gate being flooded and turned into what became known as “the Inundation”, a pear-shaped body of brackish water blocked with palisades, underwater ditches and other hidden obstacles to prevent passage. The Northern Defences around the Grand Battery and the Landport were also strengthened. More batteries and bastions were constructed on the North Front, all the way up to the summit of the Rock. A series of galleries with embrasures for guns at intervals, overlooking the isthmus, were built which could be used to bombard the enemy lines. By 1790 over 4,000 feet (1,200 m) of tunnels had been excavated, providing bombproof communications routes between the various lines and batteries on the North Front of the Rock.
During the Second World War, numerous anti-aircraft positions/defences were built in this area, including bunkers and pillboxes, many on top of the existing fortifications, and searchlights installed. A lot of these are still evident in the Northern Defences, and as they themselves now form part of the military heritage, have been left in place
Landport Front defences then and now
The preservation of Gibraltar’s military fortifications, and of its rich architectural military heritage, is of the essence to our identity as Gibraltarians. The Northern Defences best exemplify this. Since Gibraltar’s capture in 1704 by a combined Anglo-Dutch force, the British have jealously guarded Gibraltar because of its strategic value, leaving over 300 years of British military history embedded in this Rock of ours. Just ask any Royal Marine or Royal Engineers. Preserving that rich military heritage should be of paramount importance, leaving aside the important social amenities of having another open space/leisure area open to us-and free of traffic, and for that matter, any parking issues!
BY MARK ISOLA