The Rock is big. I hadn’t been prepared for just how severe the fall away would be. The drop was well over a thousand feet; at the bottom of the sheer limestone cliff everything seemed rather small. I’d thought that the assent had been steep, I now realise that this was nothing; from its Mediterranean flank, Gibraltar is a wall of white.
Ancient Greek mythology had it that two giant pillars marked the entrance to the Mediterranean: The rock of Gibraltar being the northernmost and its southerly compatriot situated across the strait in Africa. Among Hercules’ many labours was to separate these pillars, thus opening the Mediterranean Sea to the river Ocean, which they believed encircled the world. It’s easy to see why the rock would have attracted the Greek’s attention. The rock feels primal. It’s three peaks stretch high and wide towards Africa.
Ancient and woven in myth though the rock is, the human impact upon the peninsular has been one of conflict and not spirituality. Modern day Gibraltar bares the scars of war. A thousand years of fortification line the Rock’s sides. Tunnels puncture its core. Even now, the northernmost peak of Gibraltar is given over to a RAF listening post and its runway is military grade, with a SEPECAT Jaguar and military barracks on standby. Half of the port is given over to the military dockyard.
The Englishness of Gibraltar has been ramped up for the tourists. It’s a UK overseas territory and as such Fish n’ Chips readily available, along with red phone boxes and equally sun reddened Brits filling the old town’s main street. I was concern that this would be the take away from Gibraltar. I’d worried it would be tarnished by that tacky English seaside-resort, tired brand of ‘Britishness’, but I needn’t have. Gibraltar speaks for itself.
It was the physical presence of the Rock that engaged me. It’s a lot of stone rising from the sea. It feels impregnable. It has permanence. Its strategic solidity touches a pre-human part of the psyche; the Rock feels secure, it feels safe. If I was a Neanderthal tribesman, it is exactly the place I would choose to make my home; and unsurprisingly they did, as the fossil evidence shows. This primeval sense of security can be felt in Gibraltar’s Barbary Monkeys. They are the only wild monkeys in Europe and, while in Africa their populations are dwindling, here they are thriving.
The cocksure confidence of the monkeys is easily felt, as they swagger comfortably about the Rock. They swing about the railings atop the thousand-foot abyss and they know that this is where it’s at. The rock is a big old safe zone and they feel it. They are Barbary Macaques with a strong sense of place; as I descended the Rock to the primates high pitched braying, I questioned whether it was really British at all.
Below the rock the town is booming. High-rises push skywards, luxury marinas encroach on the naval dockyards, and JCBs busily reclaim land from the sea. Like its Barbary Monkeys, Gibraltar possesses a confident swagger; and from the vantage point of nature’s own fortress, it’s difficult not to.