Gibraltar Museum



Sands, Breccias and the Isthmus


The following article has been extracted from the 1999 book ‘Gibraltar at the end of the Millennium: A Portrait of a Changing Land’ by Clive and Geraldine Finlayson.


When General George Augustus Elliott, Governor of Gibraltar, planned the sortie in November 1781 during the Great Siege of Gibraltar, he secretly arranged for the troops to gather in the “red sands”.  From there they marched across the town of Gibraltar, crossed the Forbes’s Barrier and attacked the Spanish batteries on the sandy isthmus. In Elliott’s day the red sands were restricted to an area south of Southport Gates, covering much of today’s Alameda Botanic Gardens south towards Witham’s Road. They had once been so prominent that when Ibn-Batouta, the great North African traveller, visited Gibraltar in the 14th century he defined the Rock in three components, that is the Jebel (the Rock itself), the Medinat (the city) and the adjacent Turbah Al-Hamra (red sands or red mound). In his day the city was confined to the area of the castle, the Villa Vieja, and the atarazanas that we have described in the previous chapter. South of the atarazanas a town developed in Muslim times as the population grew. Ibn Marzuq described how the white of the houses contrasted against the red of the sands. It is not surprising, given the Arabic name of these sands that, on changing to Christian hands at the end of the 15th century the district should continue to be called La Turba. In a similar manner the name La Barcina would seem to have a derivation from the Arabic Dar-al-sinaha, that is House of the Arsenal (or Galley House).


Portillo, in his description of Gibraltar between 1610 and 1622, noted that the red sands were south of the city and that they started by the wall built by the engineer Juan Baptista Calvi in 1552, that is Charles V Wall, and reached the “huertas de arboledas”, probably the vineyards area, a distance of seven old stadia (about 1.4 km). James in 1771 already realised that the red sands had extended much further north than Southport Gates, commenting how he had observed these underground in several places right up to Landport when a series of holes had been dug when seeking new sources of water. We have found red sands underground in all our urban excavations although their volume has been significantly reduced close to Grand Casemates Square. This suggests that between Casemates and somewhere south of the Alameda Gardens there had originally been a massive series of sand dunes, red in colour, tapering towards either end to form the red mound described by Ibn-Batouta. The Reverend John White, military chaplain in Gibraltar from 1756 to 1772, described the area south of Southport Gates like this:

“Immediately without the ditch of the Southern Gate lies a vast bank of red sand, which fill the whole space between the rock and the ramparts for near half a mile. A great part of the northern end of this sandbank has been levelled for a parade, and the lower part next the ramparts has of late years been gradually levelled and covered with rubbish from the town and public works. Midway along these sands from North to South are constructed the Princess of Wales’ lines; so that no more remains in its original loose fluctuating state than what lied between those lines and the foot of the rock. Underneath these red sands, below the Princess of Wales’ lines, is constructed the aqueduct that supplies the garrison with water of a most admirable excellence and purity. This work was originally made by the Moors, but has been extended and improved by the English. It is not supplied by any spring. The masonry that forms the conduit is no more than a kind of retaining wall, running underground parallel to the rampart, to intercept the rain water which is caught on the side of the hill and filtrated through this deep bed of sand. The Ditch itself without Southport, contains a rich good mould, which is improved by manuring and is converted into a very profitable garden by some industrious Genoese.”


Portillo tells us that the red sands were good for building and later James comments how this red sand was used with lime in construction. This tradition appears to have its origins with the Muslims, as it is a characteristic of all of the buildings from this, and also from the later Spanish period, that we have excavated. It is only natural that the early builders of Gibraltar should have used the raw materials readily available to them and it, independently, must have contributed towards maintaining a certain aesthetic integrity between the constructions and the land. Even in 1748 there were only 1,500 houses and Poole described how the buildings in the town were generally low with few houses above a single storey high. They were built of stone with Spanish-tiled roofs. We lost this harmony a long time ago when we began to import raw materials, introduce alien colours and, of course, build disproportionately along the vertical axis. The streets were narrow and pebbled, of the kind excavated in Casemates (Chapter 3). Poole described the town like this:

“The town chiefly consists of one street, of about a mile in length, extending from what is called Southport Gate to Waterport Gate. It is shut by four gates, Waterport, Landport, Southport, and New Mole Gate. Out of this long street run several short ones, of different names; one of which, called Irish-Street, is of ill fame; near to which is the Navy Office, Parade, and the White Cloisters, in the way to the Spanish Church, which is pretty large, and now used for divine worship by the Roman Catholics of this place, who daily resort there for that purpose.”


The origin of these red sands is an enigma. A clue may come from another source. The soil on the Upper Rock is in places even today of a very reddish nature, perhaps high in iron although that remains to be determined. It is likely that this has been the situation throughout the Pleistocene and that much of this soil would have been washed down during violent flash floods.  We have historical testimony of such sudden floodings even recently but these phenomena must have been commonplace before any kind of drainage scheme was introduced. Here is an extract from the Gibraltar Directory of 1912 as an example:

“24th November, 1875.  – Early this morning a most destructive flood occurred. The rain which commenced yesterday fell heavily and continuously throughout the day; as the evening wore on, the storm seemed to be on the increase, and at 1 a.m. it culminated in a perfect cataract of rain. Over six inches fell during the 24 hours. There was scarcely a road or a street which had not suffered more or less. The greatest damage was done at Castle Road, in the neighbourhood of the New Church. In the South the roads in the neighbourhood of the South Barracks were torn up almost as deeply as those in town. Providential escapes from drowning took place in several of the Soldiers’ Quarters, especially at Jumpers’ and Orange Bastions, where the water reached a height of 8 feet. Several of the occupants had to swim for their lives and many others had to be hauled up by ropes. At Catalan Bay the torrents from the Rock brought down tons of loose stones and earth. Nearly all the houses were flooded and in some instances the rooms were swept empty and their contents carried out to sea. A man and his wife who occupied the lodge at the entrance to St. Bernard’s College were killed by the fall of the house.”


Even today, despite the many transformations to which the Rock has been subjected, we can detect the signs of former river channels and gullies on the western slopes and the term gully (e.g. Palace Gully) is still used in some of the street names of the old town.


This, in itself, is not enough to explain a massive, largely unvegetated, sand dune at the base of the Rock although its original extent does mirror the Rock itself, that is from the Landport area (coinciding with the northern peak of the Rock) to the Witham’s area (coinciding with the southern extreme of the west-facing slopes). We are therefore of the view that the formation of the red sands at the western base of the Rock was caused by material derived from the Upper Rock and certainly not from any event extraneous to it. This is in contrast to the situation on the east side which we will describe later in this chapter but we should recall here that we noted in Chapter 1 how the western side of the Rock sloped more deeply into the Bay than the eastern side did into the Mediterranean so that a source of wind-blown sand from the west, a side which would have always been more protected from strong winds, is far less likely. This is not to say, however, that the wind played no action at all. Once deposited these sands would have been moved around the narrow confines of the base of the Rock by wind and water, especially as no vegetation of any consequence appears to have grown on them although Portillo says that many herbs grew there.


When Francis Carter took a party of friends to the Upper Rock from the town, recorded in his Journey from Gibraltar to Málaga (published in 1777 and covering the period 1771-72) he remarked on how walking over the red sands, which were then very conspicuous, had fatigued the company. To the south of these red sands, also on the base of the Rock, there is evidence of another kind.  Already in the early 17th century, Portillo described the following:

“A little further, close to the cave which they call of the Abades, there are some rocks which have stuck and incorporated within human bones, and so embedded that they scare because with great difficulty they detach from the rock with the point of a dagger. These rocks are not carved as tombstones, but instead, in my view, conform with the opinion of some philosophers who afirm that rocks grow and envelop the bones, and with the length and passage of time embrace them so that they become one. It also seems, from the size and proportions of these bones and in not being buried, that they must be from the time of the Universal Flood, because there is no doubt that this mountain was covered by water as all others were, leaving here dead people.”


The naturalists of the 18th century, and certainly those of the 19th, noticed the fossil-bearing red strata in some parts of the Rock. These fossil-rich Breccias were particularly noticeable in the area of Rosia Bay and much of this was removed during the 18th century as the cliffs were scarped to prevent amphibious assaults from the Spaniards. Some of the material was collected or recorded and there are some remnants visible even today. The breccias of the Rock became famous in the scientific community of the 18th and 19th centuries and aided significantly in the strengthening of ideas of organic evolution. John White provides a first class description:

“Not far from hence, on the S.W. side of Rosia Bay, was discovered, in the year 1769, a huge mass of petrifications of a very singular kind. The workmen who were employed in scarping the face of the rock to render it less accessible, after having wrought, by mining, through about ten feet of solid limestone came to a vast congeries of bones, blended and consolidated together in a confused manner with limestone of various sorts, freestone, spars, selenites, stalactites and calcareous crystallizations and incrustations. This curious assemblage of animal and fossil substances incorporated together extended to the space of ten or twelve feet every way in front; vast quantities of it were blown off in the prosecution of the work, and much more remains in the body of the rock. All of it has the appearance of having been thus blended in a fluid state; the bones are so universally equally intermixed that the smallest fragment cannot be found but what has a proportion of bones, the inner surfaces and the very pores of which are frequently found incrusted with glittering concretions. These bones lie jumbled across each other in the utmost confusion, retaining their original texture and colour when separated from the calcareous substances wherewith they are cemented together. There is no room to imagine that any of these are human bones, they all seem, on examination, to be those of sheep, or goats, or both.”


These breccias were probably formed during the middle Pleistocene, judging from the fauna contained within, and therefore rather earlier than the deposits at sites such as Gorham’s Cave that we described in Chapter 1. The fauna includes an extinct species of Rabbit named Prolagus calpensis by Forsyth Major in 1905. The process of formation of the breccias was through flash flooding. Torrential rains would have flowed down gullies on the southern and south-western slopes of Gibraltar and carried with them masses of red soil, along with stones and the remains of animals. These breccias are rich, therefore, in land snails and in mammal fossils and give us an idea of the fauna of this ancient Rock. As the material flowed towards the sea it followed lines of least resistance, often filtering into fissures and cracks within the Rock and clogging them up with sediment.  The next set of rains would push more material downstream and move the earlier sediments along. Drier periods would have permitted the settling of this material which, in time, became compacted and hardened to form the breccia.


Here we make an aside to talk about a man who was responsible for the discovery and excavation of the richest of the breccia caves on the Rock in the 1860s – he was Captain Joseph Frederick Brome and the cave in question was Genista I. Brome’s investigations were so thorough that they prompted scientists of the calibre of Hugh Falconer and George Busk, secretaries of the Royal Society and the Linnean Society respectively, to visit Gibraltar in search of the breccias. Brome took up the appointment of Governor of the Military Prison on Windmill Hill, an ancient wave-cut platform at the southern end of Gibraltar where a system of fissure caves, known as the Genista Caves, is situated.  The largest and most important is Genista I which was discovered by Brome. He used convict labour to excavate this deep fissure which yielded large quantities of bone some of which are thought to be the oldest so far found in Gibraltar. The fauna included Brown Bear, Wild Cat, Lynx, Leopard, Spotted Hyaena, Horse, Narrow-nosed Rhinoceros, Wild Boar, Red Deer, Aurochs and Ibex.


The exploration of the caves commenced as a result of a decision taken in 1862 to enlarge the boundaries of the military prison and to construct for its use a large water tank. According to George Busk (1868):

“Within the enclosed space (for the water tank), and close to the south-east angle, an excavation was made for the proposed tank. This excavation led to the discovery of the first and most important of the series of caves on the Windmill Hill Plateau, which it is to be hoped will be known to all time by the name which has been given to them, in allusion and in honour of their discoverer and explorer.”


Busk was humorously referring to Genista as the Latin name of the Broom, a Mediterranean shrub, clearly a play of words with Brome!


Brome obtained the Secretary of State’s approval, at his suggestion, to employ prisoners on the new works and their construction and he kept a close supervision over what was going on. He clearly had great vision and intuition when it came to caves. He described the first time he found the fissure which was to lead to the discovery of Genista I like this:


“On removing the earth from this space, which varied from two to four feet in depth, an irregular surface of compact limestone presented itself; in which the only fissure visible was an open vertical one about six feet long and five inches wide, between two large blocks of limestone; the disturbed state and the peculiar position of these masses appeared to me, with the fissure, to be remarkable, and I drew the attention of Lieutenant Buckle, RE, in charge of the works, to them, who observed that ‘it was merely one of those fissures in which the Rock of Gibraltar abounded.’ Labour was directed to quarry out the limestone to the required depth for the tank, and, about the end of February, after blasting out a proportion of solid rock at a depth of nine feet from the original surface, a few bones were found in the bottom of a small fissure, under some dark mould; they were lying without order in all directions, and mostly fractured.

Having been led to suspect, at a very early stage of the operations, that the open vertical fissure already mentioned was connected either with a larger one below, or a cavern, I watched the excavations as they progressed near this spot with considerable interest, and on April 23 (St. George’s Day), while excavating for the foundation of the south wall, the prisoners came upon a rock, which had evidently once formed part of a cave; it was covered with stalactites and conglomerate; near this spot a boar’s tusk was found, and a few fragments of pottery, land and marine shells, etc. The prisoners were provided with baskets, and I directed them to collect carefully every specimen, however small, for my inspection, and this was most diligently attended to under the superintendence of the prison officers.”


He was a thorough researcher and gained the respect of the scientists of the day with whom he corresponded.  Busk, for example, wrote thus:

“Fortunately when the excavations on Windmill Hill were commenced, an accomplished and distinguished officer, fully alive to the importance of science, was in command of the fortress; and it was equally fortunate that the subsequent explorations were carried out by an observer so able, energetic and vigilant as Captain Frederick Brome, at that time Governor of the Prison…These operations, which were unremittingly continued from April 1863 to December 1868, have of necessity required an amount of labour, and involved sometimes a degree of responsibility which it is not very easy to over-estimate. But this labour and responsibility have been ungrudgingly and most disinterestedly given and incurred by Captain Brome, who, with the aid of prisoners and their warders under his command, has in those five years conducted with surprising success an amount of difficult exploration never before equalled, and made collections in the public interest of unrivalled value.”


Brome sent most of the material collected to scientists in England, a typical procedure at that time so that very little of the material recovered by him is in the Gibraltar Museum. The main collections are in the Natural History Museum in London. Brome eventually lost his commission, ironically for using convict labour in his excavations, and returned to England where the scientists who respected him and his work created a fund to support him in his hour of need. No doubt Brome had upset someone in the military hierarchy by having become popular among the scientific community. As with many examples right through to today, the poor Brome was marginalised. It is, however, his name and not those of the small-minded people around him that we remember and honour.


The fate of Genista I Cave is as tragic a Brome’s dismissal. In 1895-96 a large magazine was built directly over the cave. Major E.  R.  Collins, cave explorer, was probably the last person to enter a relatively intact Genista I between 1893 and 1895 as the works for this magazine commenced. True to tradition, he collected numerous bones which he retained in his personal collection. By the time the Abbé Henri Breuil the famous French palaeontologist visited the site in 1919, it was completely inaccessible. A record of the Museum Committee of 18 October 1961, states the view of that body that Genista I was of great historical importance and that there was a need to arrange for its exploration when the Detention Barracks at Windmill Hill were demolished. A Gibraltar Cave Research Group report of November 1961 stated that:

“...the walls of the magazine were completely lined, thus making it impossible to find a way down and that it was probable that spoil had been tipped down the rest of the cave.”


The Detention Barracks were demolished in 1962 and work started to construct a military motor transport yard which was completed in 1965. A stone tablet placed close to the entrance of Genista I in 1896 remains but the entrance to the cave is long gone. The lack of foresight which led to Brome’s dismissal persisted one hundred years later! In September 1998 we visited some tunnels under Windmill Hill with Andy Currant and members of the Gibraltar Caving Group. We saw brecciated fissures which must have been a part of the Genista I system. Alas, we have lost one of our most important caves!


It is not difficult to see how, in areas where deposition of red soil took place on the surface, instead of underground as in Genista I, the material would have gradually been broken down to form red sand. This could explain why at the base of the Rock in the west we had sand dunes, and in the south-west and in other smaller areas where there were caves and fissures we ended up with breccias. The situation in the west differs very significantly from that in the north and east. The distinction is drawn for us very clearly by Portillo who describes the “white sands” north of Landport.  The transition between white and red sands was most clearly visible to us when we excavated the Gate of the Barcina (Chapter 3). Here we were in the contact point between these white sands, which must have stretched southwards forming the original beach, and the northern end of the red sands and they were clearly visible with the red sand overlying the white sand.  It is quite probable too that towards the south, where the red sands reached their maximum depth, even the beaches were of red sand.  Ayala describes a small bay, close to where the dry docks are now situated, as the Bahía Colorada or the Red Bay.


The isthmus which links the Rock with mainland Spain is, in geographical terms, a tombolo. The term defines a process which we can describe as follows.  At some point in the past, probably around five thousand years ago, Gibraltar was probably separated from the mainland by a shallow stretch of sea which joined the Mediterranean with the Bay.  Prevailing currents from north-east to south-west then began to drift sand towards the Rock from the Guadiaro area, creating a series of beaches and gradually a sand spit which coiled round the Spanish hinterland. This longshore drift continued southwards, depositing more sand until the mass of the Rock acted as a barrier which prevented further drift, thus forming the tombolo. The sands of the isthmus were dated by Javier Lario of the Universidad Complutense in Madrid as part of his doctoral thesis. He found that the sands on the northern end of the isthmus were the oldest, in keeping with the hypothesis that they were deposited first, and were dated at around three thousand years ago. The sands in the south, closest to the Rock, were much younger and generally did not exceed one thousand years.  So the isthmus as we know it is a recent phenomenon and may not have existed in its final form when Tarik landed on the Rock in 711 AD! Many of the old authors mentioned the presence of many marine shells on the sands of the isthmus and cited this as evidence that this was formerly a seabed.  You can still see these sands exposed, and many of these shells, in small areas on the Spanish side of the isthmus. The shells would have been left there by receding seas in the intervening stages of the formation of the tombolo.


The latter stages of the natural process, which continued until the Prince of Hesse-Darmstadt landed on the isthmus on the 4th August 1704, involved the accumulation of sand on the eastern side of the isthmus as east winds piled it up. In fact Ayala, writing in 1782, describes the eastern side of the isthmus being of higher elevation than the west for this reason although much of it was flat and rarely higher than five feet above sea level. Prior to the Anglo-Dutch landings the isthmus was only slightly transformed into areas for cultivation by the local population of Gibraltar. These cultivations included vineyards but there was a lot of natural ground in which many wild herbs flourished. The ground was marshy and partly flooded in the wet season. Portillo talks of the “marismas de esta ciudad”, that is the swamps of this city.


The marshes and small lakes were the natural consequence of the process of formation of the isthmus. Initially some of the areas immediately near the sea would have formed coastal lagoons as the sand spit progressed, such as you might find today in the deltas of the Ebro or the Rhone, although on a smaller scale. The progressive sedimentation that occurred created the marsh with small lakes where the freshwater table was close to the surface. John White described the process:

“It is likewise obvious that the Isthmus is daily gaining ground, especially on the West, which is a very level shoal coast. This is owing in part to the natural increase of vegetation, and partly by human industry and cultivation whereby the loose sand is retained and confined, and gradually converted into a solid and permanent soil. The Eastern Coast, indeed, seems incapable of suffering any improvement being a bed of hungry shelly sand, with very deep water within a short distance of low-water mark. But the Bay is perpetually adding to the shore fresh supplies of sea-weed and refuse of various kinds. The gardens also, and huts set up by fishermen all contribute to augment the surface and to keep back part of what is daily thrown up by the tides. Much sound ground has also been gained to the Isthmus of late years by the addition of rubbish from the large and extensive works that have been carried on in the garrison. A spacious piece of ground at the north end of the Inundation has been many years laid out and improved for a meadow, and produces excellent crops of hay. Beyond this, on the west shore, is erected a little town of huts by our Portuguese and Catalan fishermen (see Chapter 2); and near them several large tracts have long been occupied for gardens by Genoese, Catalans and other inhabitants of the town. These gardens before the last war with Spain were in a very flourishing condition. They were screened to the north and east by a thick plantation of reeds, (Arundo donax), which afforded an impenetrable shelter against those inclement winds. And as those winds continually drove the loose sand into those fences, the banks whereon they grew were thereby perpetually increased and grown to a considerable height exclusive of the reeds that grew on them. But on the declaration of the Spanish War, all these fences were, by order of the Governor levelled with the ground, lest they should afford covert for the enemy; and all the vines, fig-trees and other fruit trees were cut down and nothing suffered to remain of taller growth than common garden plants. Since that period the old gardens have again been improving and new ones inclosed; all of which add to the ornament and increase of the Isthmus notwithstanding the precarious tenure whereon they are held so near the fortifications of a garrisoned town. All these gardens are well supplied with water by means of that simple and excellent machine the Persian Wheel.”


In many ways the isthmus of the 16th century must have mimicked the greater sand-based environment of Neanderthal times (Chapter 1).


Shortly after the Anglo-Dutch storming and capture of Gibraltar in 1704 dramatic changes began to transform the isthmus. The piece of land linking the Rock to the Spanish mainland became the front line for the Spaniards who were attempting to re-take the Rock. Batteries were placed on this ground facing the Rock and the area saw much activity.  The British also strengthened their side.  The cliffs facing north and west were scarped (see Chapter 1) and one of the larger shallow lakes was dredged and enlarged and given a permanent connection with the Bay of Gibraltar.  It came to be known as the Inundation or the Laguna. A monstrous accumulation of concrete shaped in 1960s-style now injures the beauty of this former landscape and adds further insult by claiming its name.


The reason for expanding the lake was clearly military. This was the only weak point from which the Rock could be attacked.  John White, once again, provides a first hand description:


“The only narrow pass that Nature has left practicable from the Isthmus is defended by the old Mole, Grand Battery and Moorish Castle in front and by the King’s and Prince’s Lines and Moorish Castle in flank. And to add to the difficulty of approach the space between the Lines and the Bay, which was formerly a kind of swamp or morass is now cleared out and sunk below the level of the high-water mark, and converted into a fine body of water, called the Inundation which is filled occasionally by a sluice from the sea at high tides and confined by a strong dam of masonry. By these means the only entrance left by land is reduced to two very narrow paths, one of which is the Dam of the Inundation, and the other lies between the eastern margin of the Inundation and the foot of the rock, below the lines.”


By the mid-19th century the lake was not without its problems as we hear from Kelaart:

“The lagoon, now turned into a kind of moat, called the ‘inundation’, contains large quantities of sea-weed; the removal of which is almost the constant occupation of several men, as its accumulation rapidly increases, and it is very liable to putrefy, the water in this reservoir being a mix of rain and sea-water.”


In 1998 we excavated a 19th century wall by the Forbes’ Barrier. It was in the form of a small pier, which we concluded was, used the transportation of rocks from Forbes’ Quarry to the coast (see Chapter 1). Within a metre of the surface we found a dark and richly organic soil, the old floor of the marsh which had been dredged to form the Inundation!


The Inundation was also the first large step in the process which led to the gradual but progressive loss of the natural environment of the isthmus. The incessant poundings which the isthmus received from both sides during post-1704 siege, the six-month old 13th siege of 1727, and the three-and-a-half-year old Great Siege (1779-83) and the continuous military presence and disturbance must have substantially degraded the area. Worse was to come in time of peace as it gave both sides the opportunity to develop the land. The town of La Línea grew where once there had been dunes and lakes. On the Gibraltar side the isthmus continued to serve an agricultural function, the orchards here supplying fresh fruit and vegetables to the Garrison. Kelaart (1856) described the isthmus as resembling:

“ ...a little sandy desert, in many parts of which are seen large assemblages of gregarious shells similar to those now in existence in the bay.”


During the 19th century the area took on recreational functions although detachments of the military were encamped there in tents during epidemics. There was also the burial ground (Chapter 7). A racecourse was a major attraction to the population along with public gardens, the Victoria Gardens, which were a major feature in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. Kelaart gives a wonderful description of the racecourse in the mid-19th century:

“The greater part of the sandy isthmus belonging to the garrison is covered with good turf, on which, during race-weeks, may be seen some fine specimens of Andalusian horses. The race-course is at this time a very animated scene: here are found the Spaniards, in their national costume; and to afford a little variety a race is run by horses ridden by their Spanish masters, not dressed as jockeys but in their native garbs. On a late occasion, even the commandant of the Spanish lines was seen taking an active part in the emulative spirit of his countrymen. The scene is rendered still more interesting by the presence of well-dressed Spanish women, in their graceful mantillas, seated on gaile painted Spanish calecas. The race-stand, though small, contains also a choice collection of Spanish and English ladies and gentlemen, taking evidently a very animated interest in the exciting pleasures of the turf.  The cricket-matches also go off on these grounds. Upon the whole, without this part of the isthmus, the rock of Gibraltar would afford to the inhabitants but a very small space for recreation and healthful exercise. What indeed would Gibraltar be to the larger number of gentlemen of this garrison, if they had neither races, hunting nor cricketing?”


By 1932 a small landing strip for aircraft had been marked across the centre of the racecourse. It was to mark the advent of one of the most dramatic overhauls which this part of Gibraltar has ever suffered. By 1941 work had started at an accelerated pace for the construction of a runway in preparation for Operation Torch, the North African landings. Rock was quarried on a large scale from the talus slopes at the base of the North Face of the Rock, between the two Neanderthal discovery sites of Devil’s Tower and Forbes’s Quarry. No doubt there are Neanderthal artefacts and the bones of many Pleistocene animals now buried under the runway!  Spoil from the tunnelling that was proceeding in many parts of the Rock was also tipped here (see Chapter 5). The meadows where cows once grazed, the flooded fields where Snipe and other wading birds foraged during their migratory movements, even the playing fields where officers and men of the Garrison played cricket in the summer sun all had to give way in the interest of war.


Despite all these negative impacts it was still possible, even in the 1960s, to cross a stretch of meadows and dunes which flooded in the winter and which held grazing cows complete with parasite-picking Cattle Egrets between the border and the Spanish Customs Post, then at the entrance to La Línea. The closure of the border in 1969, the urbanisation of the Spanish side of the isthmus with the growth of La Línea and the “landscaping” of the remaining natural area into a park virtually completed the sad story of the piece of land which at times joined and at other times separated Gibraltar and Spain. Ironically, it was the re-opening of the border in 1985 and the preparation of areas for dealing with traffic movements which removed what little was left of natural vegetation. There is practically nothing worth talking about today. As you queue to enter Gibraltar you can see on your right as you turn the corner to face the Rock a small patch of green which has a few pockets of reedmace, a true relic of the once marshland. On the eastern side, as you turn towards La Atunara on leaving Gibraltar you see some litter-strewn patches of natural coastal vegetation although even that is now also being buried and flattened. The eastern seaboard has also suffered transformation.  The once long extension of these sands towards the Rock, Eastern Beach, is now intersected by groynes of unknown function. The natural sequence of beach to dunes was lost when the promenade and road were constructed there many years before. On the bayside, successive reclamations have pushed the coastline out towards the Bay. Glacis Estate, Bayside and the marinas are all where Poseidon once ruled.



The sea did have the upper hand on the eastern coastline, between Eastern Beach and Europa Point.  The climatic amelioration of ten thousand years ago took care of that as we saw in Chapter 2. During the 18th century much of the eastern side would overflow during spring tides when they coincided with an easterly gale and, even now, the lower houses of Catalan Bay suffer from such a fate some years. In Chapter 1 we described the ascent to Ibex Cave, up the watercatchments. These catchments were erected in 1909 as an extension to smaller rainwater collection areas which had been prepared at the end of the 19th century on the Upper Rock (see Chapter 6). They were prepared on a slope of continuously shifting sand which reached from the base of the cliff right down to the sea, because at that time there was no road where Sir Herbert Miles Road is now positioned. To succeed in anchoring the sheets of corrugated metal, wooden frames were fixed into the sand and the sheets attached onto the wood. The system worked and maintained the population with an, albeit unpredictable, freshwater supply until the development of desalination plants in the 1980s removed the dependence on rainwater. These catchments have since been removed and the sands which were under the sheets reseeded with natural vegetation. The method used in reseeding is more effective than nature ever was herself and the green appearance of the sand slopes in the spring now is unparalleled.


The sand slope represents one of nature’s grand achievements, being a prehistoric sand dune. The sand which you see here lacks the red component of the sands on the west. They are yellow, windblown sands. In fact they are the sands that once formed part of the vast sandy plain of the late Pleistocene where the Neanderthals hunted (Chapter 1). The east winds of prehistory regularly blew sand westwards and this accumulated against the east cliffs of the Rock. From time to time rock collapses added boulders to the dune so that the formation today is a composite of rock falls and wind-blown sands. These sands were constantly shifting right up to the erection of the sheets.  John White describes this side and the efforts to make it inaccessible:

“The Eastern side of the hill consists of an immense sloping bank of whitish sand interspersed with huge fragments of rock, and reaching from the sea nearly to the summit of the rock in some parts not far from the Signal House, and the Middle-hill Guards.  These parts were formerly accessible, which made it necessary to keep constant guards there, as well to prevent desertions from within as a surprise from without. Of late years, much labour has been bestowed in making all these parts more abrupt and difficult, yet it is still necessary to watch them, as there are always some hardy adventurers who will wantonly risk their lives down these perilous cliffs, either in attempting to desert or in search of flowers.”


They served to maintain a regular supply of sand on the beaches of the eastern side, especially Sandy Bay (the Little Bay of James) particularly when the sea removed material from the beach. This dynamic nature meant that little vegetation of any significant height could grow on the dune with any permanence as many pre-catchment photographs clearly demonstrate.


The areas of Catalan and Sandy Bay are well known for their propensity to receive rocks and landslides from above. Undoubtedly, the problems which these areas face have been largely due to human intervention. Already at the end of last century significant transformations took place on this side. Three quarries were opened up to provide materials for the construction of the dockyard which commenced in 1894 (Chapter 5). The scars of these quarries are there for all to see.  The southernmost quarry was Monkey’s Quarry and it was situated at the southern end of Sandy Bay.  The bare limestone face here, behind where the old oil tanks were situated, reveals the hand of Man. The other two quarries were in the area of Catalan Bay, a large one behind the village itself and another to the north, known as the Puente Basura Quarry. In order to transport the quarried materials, before the east-west tunnel was excavated, a railway was installed which transported the rock to Bayside from where it was taken the rest of the way in barges.


The naturalist William Willoughby Cole Verner relates an interesting episode when in 1874 he attempted to reach the cliffs above the area which we now know as Governor’s Beach (where Gorham’s and Vanguard Caves are situated). He had to do so via Catalan Bay as the approach from Europa Point was practically impossible (see also Chapter 2). His narrative clearly shows how inaccessible the whole of this area was in those pre-dockyard days:

“…I proceeded to Catalan Bay. Here we lunched with the Detachment officer and afterwards started on our expedition. After a most fatiguing struggle across the great slopes of shifting sand we reached the first serious obstacle, a low cliff.”

Kelaart (1856) describes it like this:

“The approach to Catalan bay is, after leaving the garrison, by a road on the left of the bay-side guard; this road runs round the base of the northern side of the rock, having the neutral ground before it, and it terminates in a bridle-path, about a quarter of a mile from Catalan bay; this pathway is rather dangerous, from the nature of the sandy soil, and a deep precipice overhanging the sea on the left side of the road; danger is always to be apprehended from the rolling down of loose fragments of the rock, a casualty to which the little village is also liable…

Having gained the little fishing village, one might rest here a while, and see the fishermen drawing in their nets, and no doubt their contents will also be interesting to the naturalist. After this little variety he must be prepared to walk through nearly ankle-deep sand, in order to reach the small sandy bay beyond the village…”

We can cover the same distance by car in under five minutes today!


Sandy Bay and Governor’s Beach at the south-eastern end of Gibraltar for a long time presented the appearance of being composed of little sand and many rounded stones. We recall being able to walk from Bennett’s Cave, past Gorham’s and Vanguard Caves and being able to wade into Boat Hoist Cave as recently as the 1970s. This is impossible today, as there is practically no beach there at all.  A study of the pre-1960 maps, supported by photographs and paintings, shows that the present situation was the natural one that prevailed prior to this period. There never was a beach at Governor’s Beach in historical times. So what caused the sudden appearance of a beach there in the late 1960s. We know that there was considerable tunnelling in that area at the time. A look at the seaward slopes by the Hole-in-the-Wall even now shows that they are covered in quantities of loose stones. Our conclusion is that the spoil from the tunnels was hoisted over the sides of the cliffs and accumulated below to, temporarily, form the beach. The spoil from the northern side of the tunnel known as AROW Street would have ended up near Sandy Bay. So the once sandy Bay lost its sand supply from the dunes above when the catchments were erected in 1909 and any small remnant supply was stopped when Sir Herbert Miles Road was constructed. To confuse matters further the addition of tunnel spoil gave it the appearance of a stony Bay!


Gibraltar has therefore been surrounded by sands of different characteristics. These gave the Gibraltar its character and were useful in providing fertile soil for the growing of necessary vegetables and fruit and in construction. They therefore contributed to the demise of the natural environments which they had generated. There is a photograph of the isthmus which for us summarises the many paradoxes of living in a Garrison and the effects of population pressure on the landscape. It is a photograph taken before the demolition of the Devil’s Tower in 1940. It shows the North Face of the Rock in the background. In the foreground soldiers are playing a game of cricket in a sandy field with natural coastal vegetation. Behind lies the 16th century Devil’s Tower which was demolished, as it was a military hazard during the Second World War. It was the last complete medieval round tower left of the many that once protected Gibraltar. They are the subject of the next chapter.