The bizarre little corner of a foreign field that is forever England

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.

There are red buses and telephone boxes... - Credit: GETTY
There are red buses and telephone boxes... Credit: GETTY

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wall, the shops – including a Dorothy Perkins, a Mothercare and, inevitably, a Marks & Spencer – felt about 30 years out of date and the only bookshop was a true shocker with hardly any books at all.

...and no shortage of fish and chips and full English breakfasts - Credit: GETTY
...and no shortage of fish and chips and full English breakfasts Credit: GETTY

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 12 million 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.

But there are caves, tunnels and Barbary macaques, too - Credit: GETTY
But there are caves, tunnels and Barbary macaques, too Credit: GETTY

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 highlight of the visit was the Mediterranean Steps. A tiny arrow next to the entrance to O’Hara’s Battery leads you to a vertiginous concrete staircase that clings to the eastern cliff face… half-abandoned and pure Indiana Jones. The views are astonishing and few tourists seem to know it’s there.

I stayed on Sunborn, a five-star super-yacht hotel that floats on the water – and I loved it. It’s charming and quirky with super-friendly staff. I ate good North African cuisine in its Barbary restaurant and the breakfasts were excellent. My spacious room had great views of the runway.

Gibraltar may be a little shabby in places but it’s still very rewarding. Guns, caves, tunnels, monkeys... I’d have thought children would have a fabulous time here. And once he gets out of jail, I’m sure Alex Rider will too.

How to get there

EasyJet (0330 365 5000; flies from London Gatwick to Gibraltar with fares from £29.22 one-way.

Sunborn Gibraltar has rooms from £158 per night

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