The People of Gibraltar
1937 - El Mar de Levante - The Firing Range

During the years leading up to the Second World War my family were regular goers to Eastern Beach during the summer months, but I don't think we ever referred to it as such, but rather as Mar de Levante.

Eastern Beach - Mar de Levante

Moreover it was sometime before I came to realise that literally the term meant Sea of the East; in my mind it registered as one word - Mardelevante, which simply denoted a glorious place of sun sand and sea - never mind its precise geographical location.

In fact the same happened with the term we invariably used for North Front, Puerta de Tierra (1) which I never associated with a gate but with a great open space where exciting events such as football matches and horse racing took place. (See LINK

". . . a great open space where exciting events such as football matches and horse racing took place" 

Eastern beach was then popular in the summer though nowhere near what it has long since become. There were plenty of vacant spaces and there seemed to be an unwritten rule whereby once a family began to appear regularly, others respected the patch where they set up their beach-umbrella or tent. I recall this firstly because our immediate neighbours were invariably the same crowd, and I made friends with kids with whom I had no contact in any other connection; and secondly because we always pitched our beach-umbrella in almost exactly the same spot, which was about half way up from the shore and in line with a particular target number on a firing range just across the road in the rear.

Firing range with target numbers just behind her, Evelyn Chipulina (see LINK) on the left with her friends relaxing in Eastern Beach   (Late 1930s )

The firing range, incidentally occasionally caused delays. When in use the military would place a red flag at the southern end of the road and we had to wait until target practice was over. I don't know about the adults but the kids in our crowd didn't complain. Collecting spent bullets and empty cartridges was a popular pastime for us so it meant that as soon as the flag was lowered we would be able to add a few more to our collection.

The firing range was well towards the land side of the road, a parapet with large iron numbers sticking up above it and an earthen slope to the rear which was mainly where the spent bullets were to be found - and a concrete trench running underneath that always spelt of stale urine. The majority of the spent bullets came in a variety of different shapes so the aim was to find one in perfect condition. Empty cartridges too, were often found lying about, but the collector's item par excellence was the occasional bullet and cartridge intact.

As all who frequent it will know, Eastern Beach has many moods, but when I hark back now at that long-gone era it is always the image of a tame levanter day that comes to mind; the triangular north face of the Rock palled in the hazy glare of the sun, the shadows of the grooves and wrinkles in the limestone blurred; the smoke of the incinerator at the southern end rising lazily, almost vertically tainting the still air with a burnt smell; the sand radiating heat and the sea beckoning, a velvety bluish-grey sea its sheen ruffled rhythmically by shallow waves rolling in placidly from way out with a sound like the murmur of a distant crowd.

Picturesque view of el Mar de Levante from Spain - with smoke rising gently from the old incinerator tower in the distance

Gharry with customers at the entrance to el Mar de Levante with a thoroughly unpicturesque incinerator complex and tower in the background

In that sea which smelled vaguely of melons, you could wallow for an hour without feeling cold or, after countless duckings in the froth until the pressure in your ears forced you out. On such a day the appearance of a transatlantic liner in the direction of Ceuta - Italia Line "Rex" and "Conte di Savona" (2) were regular callers at Gib - was a welcome sight. Eventually the waves generated by the liner's wash would reach the shore, providing fun without the danger of natural big waves. . . . 

The Rex visiting Gibraltar

. . . Our day at the beach usually came to an end when the sun now turned a bright orange hovered close to the horizon behind us. Grudgingly we packed our beach things and carried them to the gharry waiting to take us back home. Early in the bathing season it was only when you were inside the comparatively gloomy interior of the house that you realised that the sun wasn't just a decoration in the sky - that your back and shoulders were on fire.

The standard remedy was to place a cloth soaked in a mixture of vinegar and water upon the sunburnt skin. The sensation of relief was wonderful - it felt as if the heat was being transferred to the cloth. Messy and smelly though it was, this was one old remedy that really worked.

Written by Eric Chipulina

1. Puerta de Tierra is the original Spanish name for Landport Gate. (See LINK) However, the name was usually used colloquially to refer to the entire and ever changing area on the British side of the isthmus to the north of the Neutral Ground. Presumably the fact that once upon a time one could only really get to it by walking through the gate may have had something to do with it.

2. Actually the Conte di Savoia . . .