John White and - F.E. Kelaart - Private McVane, Private Jewell and Gunner Grey
La Caleta above, Sandy Bay below
Many years ago, the last ice-age only just having melted its way towards the north from Gibraltar, I remember sitting at a local bar in Catalan Bay (see LINK) discussing the meaning of life and other such trivia with one of the village's older inhabitants. Now before I continue, it might be useful to know that there were at the time three types of Gibraltarians living in the town which lies on the opposite side of the Rock and who made a more or less daily pilgrimage eastward every summer. There were those who spent most of their time swimming at Catalan Bay - la Caleta - those who preferred Eastern beach, and those who plumped for Sandy Bay.
I was a Sandy Bay man myself - despite its many inconveniences. For a start it was hard to get to. A bus from town took you to Catalan Bay via a rather unpleasant left-over from WW II - a damp and narrow military tunnel called Williams Way which had far more turns in it than any map I have seen of it would seem to suggest.
An abandoned Williams Way now no longer needed ( Late 20th century ( Unknown )
The need for a tunnel had become necessary after heavy quarrying and tunnelling on the eastern side during the war had led to a nasty landslide that had swept away a section of the coastal road connecting the Neutral ground with Catalan Bay. The Caleteños - and others so inclined - could walk home along a dangerous make-shift path but it was far too narrow for vehicles of any sort. From Catalan Bay there was nothing for it but a long walk south - about half a mile along Sir Herbert Miles Road - to the beach of my choice.
Sandy Bay itself, while a bit longer than Catalan Bay, was much smaller than Eastern Beach. Worse, and despite its name, the beach was anything but sandy - in fact it was almost entirely made up of uncomfortably sized pebbles.
The pebbles of Sandy Bay. . . and me ( 1940 )
To the west of the beach and just over the road loomed the now long gone Water Catchments. Started around 1903 and reaching their largest surface area in 1961, these huge, flat corrugated structures covered the entire area of the Great Gibraltar Sand Dune along the precipitous east side of the Rock and just above the beach - imposing no doubt but nevertheless a rather unattractive feature. It also proved something of a waste of money as it never collected enough water even during those years when it rained a lot.
The Rock from the east, Sandy Bay on the left. During heavily overcast levanter days - as shown on the photo - the town would be under cloud. Not so in Sandy Bay where the sky would often be cloudless.
But perhaps the greatest inconvenience was the nearness of the well over 1000 ft high eastern cliffs of Gibraltar a consequence of which was that the sun - even at the height of summer - began to cast its shadow over the southern part of the beach during the early hours of the afternoon. This shadow progressed inexorably north throughout the day. It meant that most people frequenting the beach tended to congregate along the northern end, and that those who had unwittingly or otherwise decided on the more peaceful south, spent most of their time migrating north as they followed the sun.
During rough weather, a warning red flag was flown. Theoretically not even paddling was allowed in such cases - but rules, of course were meant to be broken and just about everybody paddled. On one memorable occasion the red flag was flown not because it was rough but because a shark had been sighted. It was a day when ever those paddlers that invariably indulged in bad weather, kept their feet very close to the shore.
The end of the road at the end of Sandy Bay - that Policeman was there to stop unauthorised civilians from going any further. The leaves of the very common succulent plant on the left side of the road were used by everybody under the age of 12 to write wet graffiti on the pavements and walls
But there were other compensations. For a start large sections of the rocky coast between Sandy Bay and la Caleta were available to any intrepid rock scrambler. It was dangerous territory but great fun. Mussels - morcillones in Llanito (see LINK) - goose barnacles - percebes in Spanish - and even the odd small octopus were relatively easy to harvest and catch. The best hunting ground was Blackstrap Cove, although the relatively inaccessible Shirley Cove was best for the barnacle goose. The use of a boat was handy for this one.
Another indirect advantage was that catching the bus back from Catalan Bay was very much a hit and miss affair. The unreliability of the timetable often made us late for the bus we had intended to catch which meant a visit to the very nearby la Terrassa Restaurant which overlooked the Mamela rock on the southern side of Catalan Bay.
La Mamela on Estern Beach - ( 1950s - Photograph taken from la Terrasa Restaurant )
La Terrassa was one of those magical places which were all too rare in those early post-war years. As the name implied it was set in a series of terraces the first one just about at road level, the last just above the beach. A drink and a side order of local homemade crisps were more than enough to make up for the long wait for the next bus.
Catalan Bay - Those white walls with white railing posts on the left were part of L a Terrassa
( 1950s - Unknown )
Reminiscing much of this personal nostalgia with my old Caleteño friend I remember he came up with a comment that has stuck in my mind all these years since;
"Si, es verdad hijo, a mí también me gustaba mucho la Caletilla Vieja. No tanto como la Caleta claro . . .pero me gustaba. En los tiempos antiguos todavía no habían hecho la carretera y era muy difícil caminar por el track que había entre la Caleta y la Caletilla Vieja".
La Caletilla Vieja! - Of course. Sandy Bay must have been a name given to the place by the English sometime after 1704 when the place was captured by Anglo-Dutch forces. (see LINK) It was also pretty obvious that the beach must have had another name when Gibraltar was part of Spain.
Nevertheless, although I have since searched high and low in the literature for a written reference to Caletilla Vieja I have as yet not been able to find one. The name has been confirmed anecdotally by other Caleteños but there is no other evidence. Perhaps it was just a name used by the locals during the early 18th century rather than its original Spanish name. The truth is that the very existence of the name gives rise to whole raft of questions:
For example, why the use of the word "Caletilla"? Spanish names for Gibraltar's many coves and inlets (See LINK) never use this descriptive word. Instead their names are preceded by "calita", "ensenada", "caleta", "cala", or "bahia" - of which the two first are by far the most used.
The "Calitas" of the south-western coast ( 1738 - Tindal and Rapin - Detail )
The "Ensenadas" of the south-western coast ( 1779 - Tomas Lopez - Detail )
Also why "Vieja"? By inference one would suppose that Catalan Bay might have been la Caletilla "Nueva" with the suggesion that the beach might have been used as a base by fisherman in the 17th and 18th century perhaps even before Catalan Bay.
But it seems unlikely. As far as I can out from the literature there were no houses in Catalan Bay before the 18th century. There certainly were none in Sandy Bay. One advantage in using the later rather than the former as a base for seasonal fishing is that at the very least there were several caves at the back of the beach which could be used as temporary accommodation. There were no caves behind the beach in Sandy Bay. In fact it would seem that the great sand dunes must have taken up much of the space between land and sea leaving just a narrow strand of beach between the two. It's a guess that is more or less confirmed by John White, a mid 18th century naturalist and long term resident of Gibraltar:
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. (See LINK)
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.
Catalan Bay fishermen just off Ailsa Craig Rock. It was so named by Black Watch soldiers during WW II in a fit of nostalgia - or perhaps they were being ironic. The solitary house must have been some sort of military outpost. Behind lie the Great Gibraltar Sand Dune with scarcely a hint of Sandy Bay (Unknown)
If la Caletilla Vieja had indeed been a forerunner of a newer fishing camp in Catalan Bay one might also have expected some sort of track connecting the two, perhaps even allowing access to the North Front and from there to the town. But even as late as the mid 19th century it was still extremely awkward to get from one to the other. This is how F.E. Kelaart (see LINK) describes it in his "Flora Calpense" published in 1846:
Passing along the moat, after leaving the bay-side guard, a road to the right leads to Catalan-bay, almost round the northern side of the rock, which has lately been extensively quarried for stones to erect the new works . . . . Having gained the little fishing village, one might rest here a while, and see the fishermen drawing in their nets .
. . 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 . . .This little bay is romantically situated facing the Mediterranean, but it is not inhabited, and only resorted to by pic-nic parties, and fishing-boats put in there occasionally.
The sandy deposits are here distinctly stratified and hardened evidently by calcareous infiltrations. There is no passage to lead the botanist to the other side of the rock; he must retrace his steps to the neutral ground
The name "Sandy Bay" itself is not easy to find either in the literature or on maps. The oldest example I have been able to find of the latter is one published by Baedecker in 1908 - which is pretty late in the day.
( 1909 - Baedecker - Detail )
The alternative name of Salto Garrobo that appears beside Sandy Bay is possibly a reference to what it was known as in the days when Gibraltar was a Spanish town. Indeed the name crops up continuously on maps throughout the 18th and 19th century. It is, however, hard to tell on the older maps whether the name refers to the beach or to the historic pass that can be seen just above it and from which it presumably got this name. In one 20th century Spanish map the name is changed to Salto del Algarrobo.
Salto Garrobo ( 1738 - Tindal and Rapin - Detail )
Salto Garrobo ( 1831 - W.H. Smyth - Detail )
Salto del Algarrobo ( 1928, 1929 and 1951 - Servicio Hidrográfico de la Armada - Detail )
On yet another mid 18th century map a completely different name appears - La Calita de Hacho - by which the map-maker presumably meant La Calita del Hacho. Once again and as was the case with Playa Garrobo it referred to the name of a particular part of the overhead cliffs, in this case a Signal Tower which had been known as el Hacho perhaps as far back as the 15th century and continued to be called that by the locals despite the official British name of Signal Station Hill.
( 1743 - John Hardesty - Detail )
But on the 3rd of May 1851 the name "Sandy Bay" made a rare appearance in the record books. A certain Private McVane of the 55th Regiment ran into trouble while swimming of a cove somewhere between Sandy and Catalan Bay. He was about a hundred yards off shore when he suddenly sank to the bottom, a depth of about ten feet.
Private Jewell, a friend of his, dived in and tried to save him, but gave up when he realised that he was being dragged under himself. Luckily somebody else was at hand. Another soldier, Gunner Grey, plunged in and tried to rescue McVane but the current was so strong that he was unable to get a proper grip until his third attempt in which he ingeniously grabbed hold of the drowning man's neck using his feet and landed him safely ashore.
At the turn of the 20th century enormous amounts of money were spent modernising the old harbour - including the building of a huge arsenal, various dry docks and a detached mole. Even as it was being built, warning voices were raised as to the suitability of creating such an important naval base well within distance of the guns of a possibly hostile Spain. Proposals were therefore bandied about as to the feasibility of creating a far more protected harbour on the eastern side of the Rock.
The Eastern Harbour (1903 - The Sphere )
In the end the enormous extra cost put paid to any further development of this idea, but there is little doubt that if such a new harbour had been created, Sandy Bay would have been a major casualty.
A rather bleak photograph of Sandy Bay, with the road to Catalan Bay, the Water Catchments and the cliffs of the Rock raising in layers above it. Taken just after the end of WW II, the British family enjoying their day out possibly helps give some credence to yet another of Sandy Bay's alternative names - La Playa de los Ingleses (1950's - Ralph Crane ) (See LINK)
During the late 20th and early 20st century the bay and beach and its surrounding area were subjected to a series of radical changes. Holiday apartments were built along the seaward side of Sir Herbert Miles Road, toy houses occupying a length of road equal to that of the beach.
The old and the now not so new - the apartments wer known as "Both Worlds"
In 2006, the Water Catchment structures were finally dismantled and four years later the Dudley Ward Tunnel was reopened and made available to the general public. It was now possible for civilians to circumnavigate the Rock of Gibraltar.
Another four years and 50 000 tons of imported sand from the Sahara were used to replace Sandy Bay's notorious pebbles and greatly increased the width of what had by then become an almost non-existent strand. Part of this project included the construction of two curved groynes at either end of the beach and a frontal breakwater.
Paso Garrobo, La Calita del Hacho, la Caletilla Vieja, la Playa de los Ingleses - it no longer mattered a damn whether Sandy Bay had once been called this or that. A rather hard-to-get-to rough and ready beach that had once formed part of my life had simply disappeared forever. . . .
The Sandy Bay I remember - that rock in the middle of the beach was a children's delight - it was imagined as an island with the beach taking the role of the sea
The new improved version - Sandy Bay looking good, groynes and all ( Michael Fa - with thanks )