By Pete Wolstencroft
I left my home in Blackpool in 1984. I had a backpack in which to carry my meagre belongings, an open mind and no real plan. I was 25 years old. As with so many young men before me, I was seeking to escape a job of stultifying boredom. I had reached the heady heights of branch manager in a national chain of sport shops. I hated it.
I meandered through the south of France, crossed the border into Spain and ended up on the Costa del Sol. With rapidly dwindling reserves of cash, I heard a constant mantra: “There is always work in Gib.”
Naturally, I made my way to La Línea, where I was surprised to find that British citizens were not allowed to cross the land border to Gibraltar. This meant I had to book passage on the old Mons Calpe in order to spend the night in Tangier, before stepping ashore on the Rock.
“There was just one problem. I was terrified of heights.”
I trudged the alleyways and avenues in a vain attempt to find work. Footsore and thirsty, I went for a drink in the Angry Friar. Here I fell into conversation with a bloke who was working on the refurbishment of the number one dry dock. He assured me that if I turned up bright and early on Monday morning and asked for a job, my eagerness would be rewarded.
And so it was. I am a big bloke – six feet two inches tall and heavily built, but here I was the runt of the litter. Where did they get these people? It was like some sort of land of the giants. I had never seen anything like it in my life. I was taken on as a scaffolder’s labourer. I was delighted to get a job, or as my new colleagues called it: a bend. There was just one problem. I was terrified of heights.
But given the choice between vertigo and starvation, I chose the former and somehow developed a head for heights. Such was the strenuous nature of the work that I had little time to really appreciate my surroundings. My first three months were spent desperately trying to achieve the stamina and fortitude my new role required.
I found accommodation on Eastern Beach – a tiny, one-bedroom, studio apartment, in which there was barely room to swing a cat. And talk about noisy neighbours. On my first night I was woken up by an apocalyptic roar, that could only have been the end of the world or a colossal earthquake. It turned out to be the routine takeoff of a military jet. Such was my state of exhaustion that I soon fell back into a deep sleep and within a few days, my subconscious had filed these comings and goings away in some safe corner of my mind.
“I was woken up by an apocalyptic roar, that could only have been the end of the world”
It was a surprise to me that Spanish was spoken everywhere. But it was more of a surprise to some of my colleagues to find out that I spoke the language, although I took a little while to reveal that fact!
Though my flat was small, it was only one minute from the beach. A swim after work revitalised me and gave me the energy to socialise. And there was no shortage of places to have a refreshing drink with my new-found friends. The Three Roses, whose landlord was a giant of a man and where I (briefly) made it onto the pool team, the Star Bar, which was popular with those involved in a trade that was, well, let’s just leave it as informal. And last, but by no means least, The Angry Friar, the de facto after work social club for those in the construction business.
I was struck by a certain ambivalence towards Spain: the language was almost universally spoken, bars and restaurants offered tapas and food that was unmistakably Spanish, but if the topic of Spain ever came up, the mood often took a turn for the worse.
Hundreds of Spanish workers crossed the border every day to ply their various trades, but most of them did not stay to socialise after work. Similar numbers of Moroccans featured among the work force, but the overwhelming majority of these lodged in government-run hostels. Their Muslim faith prevented them from sharing a beer with us. Although I know for a fact that those who were less than enthusiastic adherents to some of the tenets of that religion were a frequent sight in the bars of La Línea.
And there was history around every corner. Reading some of the headstones in the Trafalgar Cemetery had me in tears when I saw the ages at which some of these young powder monkeys had met their demise. The three dry docks, which eventually became so familiar to me, were marvels of engineering. Six months into my four-year sojourn, I had changed jobs and worked as a rigger on the commercial ship repair yard, and then worked on some construction jobs here and there. My working life was now full of capstans, caissons and bollards: things that I thought might have ended in the days of Charles Dickens.
In my last six months in Gibraltar a further adventure awaited me. I got a job working deep inside the bowels of the rock itself, this time as a pipe fitter’s mate with Taylor Woodrow. I don’t know if it is true that there are as many miles of road within the rock as there are on its outside, but I can testify that what was once Gib Al Tariq is a fascinating honeycomb full of old hospitals and munitions dumps.
I had never planned to end up in Gibraltar and I stayed much longer than I intended. The Rock changed me in many ways. I grew physically stronger and more confident. Without those four years I would not have a fund of stories on which to rely when the conversation flags and I would not have had the inspiration to find my eventual trade as a freelance writer.