The People of Gibraltar
1956 - A Visit to La Línea - The Ignorance of Youth

At nine o’clock in the morning on a nice spring day in Gibraltar I found myself below my best friend’s house in King’s Yard Lane. As usual I didn’t bother to knock on his front door but give him what I fondly thought of as our very own personally coded whistle - piiiii, papipi pa pa pio, pio, pio . . . . Of course it was anything but “personal” or “coded”. Just about everybody else our age on the Rock used it for exactly the same purpose. 

King’s Yard Lane coming down to Main Street from Town Range with Main Street at the bottom - My friend’s house occupied most of the bottom section on the right  ( 1970s - With acknowledgements and thanks to Phil Poulton )

My friend pushed back the Genoese shutters of his bedroom window, looked out and signalled that he was on his way down. We had planned a trip to La Línea the day before - a few cañas with our favourite selection of tapas here and there, a walk along Calle Real or Calle del Clavel to check the local talent and almost certainly a meal later on at one of the town’s many inexpensive restaurants. 

The year was 1956, the Generalissimo Francisco Franco has been in power for more than 17 years, but relations between the local Spaniards of the Campo and the people of Gibraltar were reasonably good. I loved going to Spain - by which I invariably meant visiting either La Línea or Algeciras. 

Very early 20th century postcard showing La Calle Cavel - not quite “Clavel Street” as clavel is Spanish for carnation - Whatever the name it had not changed all that much during the times that I visited it except that during my time there were many more pavement restaurants and bars 

A more contemporary photo of Calle Real - both this street and Calle Clavel were traffic free which allowed for a more comfortable daily afternoon “paseo” - one lot of people promenading along the right hand side and the other returning on the left   ( With thanks to Enrique Carreño )

With the ignorance of youth I was somehow able to ignore the unpaved roads, the appalling drainage system and the generally dirty ill-lit streets. Entering and leaving  - and this time was no exception - entailed running a gauntlet of the outstretched begging hands of the blind, the maimed, the mad, or the just plain hungry. 

The problem was that familiarity tended to breed a special kind of contempt. I tended to think of Gibraltar as generally dour and grey with an overwhelmingly military presence. Spain, on the other hand, was full of colour and romance - a place to enjoy rather than live in, the epitome of everything I thought of as exciting and fun. La Línea and Algeciras may have been a couple of rather shabby towns to everybody else but to me they represented a kind of urban countryside - something that Gibraltar was sadly lacking. 

But of course liking “Spain” and getting to it was another story. King’s Yard Lane was - and I suspect still is - right at the very end of the southern section of Main Street (see LINK) and it must have taken us quite a while to walk the entire length of Gibraltar’s main thoroughfare in order to catch the bus at the station in Gibraltar’s public market. From there it was a short trip along the Bayside causeway with the Inundation on our right. Then - as luck would have it - we were subjected to a long wait behind a barrier to allow a BEA flight from London to make its land. When it was finally deemed safe for the bus to continue off we went across the airstrip and onward to the British-Spanish frontier at Four Corners. 

Four Corners from the Spanish side of the frontier bus at the ready

Here we were both required to produce our Pase de Cuarenta Visitas which were duly stamped by a very bored looking official. From there it was a question of waiting for another bus that would take us across that part of the isthmus known as the Neutral Ground.

Pase de cuarenta (or ochenta) visitas

As was quite normal in those days the bus was packed with rather plump looking Spanish women of a certain age dressed completely in black every one of them reeking of either tobacco or coffee - both of these staple petty contraband items. They were known locally as matuteras. (See LINK)

Not too long after boarding we arrived at another much larger “aduana” manned by Spanish frontier guards.  On a bad day we would have been searched, but Spring was in the air and the guards simply couldn’t be bothered - besides neither me neither of us could even remotely be considered as professional petty contrabandistas - the women in black on the other hand were forced either to pay their bribes at whatever was the going rate or were subjected to humiliating searches somewhere inside the building. 

The main Spanish Aduana with more frontier officials than customers

La Plaza de la Constitución on the Spanish side - The old aduana - the building no longer exists - lies just behind the bus. Already there were plenty of bars to choose from without having to walk more than a few paces

Once across the border and into La Línea we more or less did what we had planned to do. We enjoyed ourselves immensely and returned home later that night tired but happy. 

The Rock from La Línea   ( 1963 - With thanks to Ildefonso Herrera Martos )

All of which might be considered as a rather indulgent reminiscence of those days when I lived in my home town - but there is more to it than that. The above passage identifies three well known Gibraltar landmarks - the Neutral Ground, North Front and Four Corners  - all of them instantly recognisable to anybody - Gibraltarian or otherwise - who has lived in Gibraltar for any length of time. And yet even the most superficial research soon reveals all sorts of historical idiosyncrasies associated with each of them - so much so that I have been forced to write a separate article on the isthmus. Anybody so inclined can read it by using the link shown below.

2017 - The Neutral Ground - North Front, Four Corners y La Verja (See LINK