The Eliott Memorial area with a view of the sea on a hot summer day – The author called it “Public Gardens” ( Late 19th c - Edward Angelo Goodall )
None of us alive today can have any memory of the red sands that occupied the area where the Humphreys estate (see LINK) and the Alameda Gardens stand now. The gardens were already there when we were born, and most of us at one time or another have been taken there as children to play, to clamber over the mortars at the Eliott memorial or the guns at the Wellington.
Playtime at the Alameda Gardens ( 1954 - Walter Carone ) ( See LINK)
In the pre-motorcar era, residents of the South District would have been particularly familiar with the gardens, whose shady paths provided them with a pleasant short cut into town. Familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt, but it does tend to induce a take-for-granted frame of mind.
It has become so difficult to imagine 'Gibraltar “without these gardens that perhaps it makes us less conscious of their singular beauty. The project was the brainchild of Governor Don (see LINK) and if only for this he merits the informal title, father of modern Gibraltar. Consider what the author of a mid-19th century travelogue had to say about the town of Gibraltar:
The public buildings may be despatched in a few words. There is not (save the old Moorish Castle a single edifice of the slightest pretentions to architectural beauty or antiquarian interest. But for the sentinel at the door, one might pass the governor's palace (see LINK) without ever suspecting it. The principal church is a vulgar attempt to imitate Moorish ‘architecture; an utter and deplorable failure".1
The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity (see LINK) - “as utter and deplorable failure” - It looks a bit nicer at the time of writing ( Unknown )
After those scathing remarks, one can hardly say the writer was biased in favour of Gibraltar. Which makes what follows in his narrative all the more striking:
But as soon as we pass through this stuffed-up, uninteresting town and issue out at its southern gate, the contrast is positively magical. We are at once upon the Alameda - perhaps the most beautiful, but at all events the most singular public promenade within the confines of Europe, or perhaps the whole world . . . an ornamental garden with intricate winding walks . . . furnished with alcoves and seats planted in the most shady and inviting nooks . . . a perfect paradise of semi-tropical vegetation huge clusters of Aloes and enormous cactuses orange trees bearing the white blossom with the clustering fruit certainly the Alameda more than atones for the deficiencies of the town. 1
Bridge in the Alameda Gardens ( 1911 - Oswald Lübeck ) (See LINK)
If a foreign travel writer today were to heap such lavish praise on the Alameda gardens, one might suspect that he had been bribed by the Tourist Board, but no such institution existed in mid 19th century. The truth is that this traveller was seeing the Alameda for the first time, something that no adult local resident has ever experienced, the chances being that he or she would have been conditioned from babyhood to the special atmosphere of the gardens, and subconsciously come to regard them as a natural part of the Rock rather than a meticulously-planned embellishment.
German tourists taking a rest by the Eliott memorial – Grand Parade behind them – the background building on the left is the Assembly Rooms ( 1911 - Oswald Lübeck )
It was a pity that the Kingsway promenade and the lower gardens had to be sacrificed in order to build the Humphreys estate, but the post-war housing shortage in Gib was acute, and with the military on the Rock still at full strength there were few sites available for development. My family, for one, (see LINK) were lucky that the estate had already been completed at the time of the Bedenham explosion, (see LINK) which left our Main Street house in a state dangerous enough to earn us the allocation of a flat at Alameda House.
From an old postcard
Humphreys estate buildings on Red Sands Road – occupying the area once known as Kingsway ( 1950s – L. Roisin ) (See LINK)
But that in no way dims my fond memories of the Kingsway. Pre-war there were no houses anywhere near the gardens or the promenade. The whole area, including the assembly rooms, was purely recreational. The present car park was used mainly for ceremonial military parades, sometimes for events like the distribution to commemorative medals to assembled school children on occasions like a jubilee or a coronation.
I remember, too, being taken to a night-time military tattoo that included a mock version of 18th-century warfare - redcoats and all - and most exciting of all, searchlight beams criss-crossing the night sky and a couple of anti-aircraft guns blazing away with blank ammunition.
The Alameda parade was also the venue for the annual fair, to which the terrace of the assembly rooms, that jutted out from the main building like the bow of a ship, made its contribution to the atmosphere; Simond‘s beer was their speciality, and so closely associated with the place that people would invariably refer to the terrace simply as "Simond's".
Pre WWII annual fair at the Grand Parade ( Unknown )
The Assembly Rooms with its long terrace facing the grand parade on the right ( From an old postcard )
And to go with the beer, men in white caps and aprons went round the tables with their flat wicker baskets tempting the customers with fresh prawns. But fair-time apart, on ordinary Sunday afternoons people went to listen to military bands playing on the bandstand halfway up the promenade. On weekdays the vacant bandstand became a fortress for us kids playing our war games.
“On weekdays the vacant bandstand became a fortress” ( Unknown )
In the late 1930's, when the present fire station was being built, we used the works in progress as fortification walls. One side attacked, the other defended, our missiles being the fruit of nearby trees which we called "trompillos" since they looked like small tops. Hence, we referred to the battle as "guerrilla de trompillos".
Fire Station - before the Humphreys estate was built ( Old postcard )
No doubt all the foregoing waffle sounds too much like nostalgia; and of course nostalgia by its very nature censors the bad memories and exaggerates the happy ones. But at the same time remember that the traveller who wrote that panegyric about the Alameda Gardens could not have been influenced by nostalgia . . . .
1. William Henry Bartlett – Gleanings Pictorial and Antiquarian of the Overland Route – 1851 (See LINK)