A tiny place with a huge history: ideal for my novel

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

Gi­bral­tar is bizarre. I’m not sure I’ve been any­where quite like it. If ever there was a cor­ner of a for­eign field that is for­ever Eng­land, this is it. Stuck on the edge of Spain and strad­dling the Mediter­ranean and the At­lantic, it was ceded to the Bri­tish in 1713 and the Span­ish have wanted it back ever since. It’s a tiny place with a huge history – and, as Brexit looms, a very un­cer­tain fu­ture.

I went there to visit a high-se­cu­rity prison used by the Bri­tish se­cret ser­vice to de­tain some of the most dan­ger­ous crim­i­nals in the world. I should add that it doesn’t ex­ist. I in­vented it for my next Alex Rider novel and re­alised I had no idea what Gi­bral­tar was like. Af­ter Alex es­caped, where would he hide out? In a tapas bar or a fish and chip shop? Be­hind a palm tree or a red bus?

Some­times I have to feel a place as well as see it on Google Earth – so I booked a flight, grabbed a pen and note­book and went.

The buses were in­deed red, as were the tele­phone boxes. I was stay­ing just a few min­utes from the air­port at Ocean Vil­lage which, with its wooden bridges and canals, has a pleas­ant but slightly Dis­ney­land feel. I set out at once along Main Street, the main shop­ping thor­ough­fare on the other side of Land­port, a dark tun­nel that worms its way through the outer for­ti­fi­ca­tions. On this side of the wall, the shops – in­clud­ing a Dorothy Perkins, a Mother­care and, in­evitably, a Marks & Spencer – felt about 30 years out of date and the is­land’s only book­shop was a true shocker with hardly any books at all.

There were one or two hand­some build­ings along Main Street – the gov­ern­ment of­fices and the Cathe­dral of St Mary the Crowned – but the gen­eral vibe was that of Folke­stone or the Isle of Wight, with too many signs boast­ing “Bri­tish Fish and Chips” and pubs called the Horse­shoe and the An­gry Friar. I hur­ried on. The true glory of Gi­bral­tar is the Rock and this is what I had come to see. I took the ca­ble car for the six-minute jour­ney to the top but was dis­ap­pointed by the dank, dark tourist cen­tre with its flak­ing peb­bledash walls and faint smell of urine. With more than 12mil­lion vis­i­tors a year, you would have thought Gi­bral­tar could do bet­ter.

But once I be­gan to ex­plore, I found my­self en­thralled both by the nat­u­ral beauty of the Rock and its history. At one end you have the Great Siege Tun­nels built at the time of Nel­son in 1782 and just be­low them the fas­ci­nat­ing Sec­ond World War tun­nels, which stretch for 25 miles with only a small sec­tion open to the pub­lic. Dou­ble back and you have the glass view­ing plat­form called the Sky­walk (opened by Mark Hamill, aka Luke Sky­walker). On a clear day, you can see Africa from here.

If you’re not run over by one of the taxis fer­ry­ing tourists there, St Michael’s Cave with its vast sta­lac­tites is one of the most spec­tac­u­lar I’ve seen – but I’m not sure the ex­pe­ri­ence is en­hanced by the Seven­ties disco mu­sic that fol­lows you around.

The Bar­bary macaques (mon­keys) are the most fa­mous fea­ture of the Rock and they were every bit as in­tel­li­gent, char­ac­ter­ful and pho­to­genic as I had ex­pected. But the

Alex Rider, call home: a Gi­bral­tar phone box

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