Trafalgar Day in Gibraltar


The day I spent in Gibraltar when I was in Andalucia last summer had never seemed quite enough to see everything I wanted to, even without my camera dying halfway through it – plus I wanted to go back in the spring or autumn, when there was a chance of flocks of birds passing through or over the straits. So the combination of Trafalgar Day, the weekend, and reading week making my work go quiet seemed like a good excuse for a second trip, even if it did put two big adventures into the same month.

I spent Friday travelling via London – the flight to Gibraltar was in the early evening, but as a lunchtime flight to London would mean cutting it a bit fine, and a late morning flight would still mean taking the whole day off work, I took an early morning flight and went via St Paul’s, which was having Trafalgar Day on the Friday.

I wasn’t sure which day was going to be Trafalgar Day in Gibraltar, because I’d read that the service in the Trafalgar graveyard was held on the Sunday closest to Trafalgar Day, but I went down there when I got up (quite late) on Saturday morning anyway, and that was a good thing, because the various groups involved were beginning to gather then.

This was a very different thing from the public services at Tynemouth, or even in London – very formal and naval, with various important guests. You didn’t get too bad a view from outside, although there were always trees in the way.

Trafalgar Day service, Trafalgar graveyard

There are two graves there actually from Trafalgar, and they left wreaths on both of them.

Trafalgar grave

Both services I saw that weekend began with words of Collingwood’s – it’s the one privilege he does get – St Paul’s with the General Order for a day of thanksgiving after the battle, and this one with the words from the Trafalgar dispatch which are also on a monument there.

Trafalgar dispatch

There were at least two Lord Nelsons (or Lords Nelson?) prowling the streets of Gibraltar that day – this one had joined the reenactment of the Ceremony of the Keys which takes place on Saturdays.

Ceremony of the Keys

There did turn out to be a service on the Sunday as well, but in the King’s Chapel. I wasn’t really dressed for church at the time, though.

Trafalgar Sunday service

Later on Saturday I went to the Alameda, where Stephen Maturin watched a great variety of people walking as he sat on Worcester, but now the botanic gardens – the main parade ground seems to have become a car park.

There’s a monument there to General Elliot, governor of Gibraltar during the great siege.

Eliott monument in the Alameda gardens

The gardens also have a very nice view of the tower on the dockyard buildings.

Dockyard tower from the Alameda

On Sunday morning I walked out to Europa Point early to watch the sun rise (but not too early, because it was the last week of summer time and sunrise wasn’t until 8.30), then came back, had a proper breakfast, and started walking down again, this time sticking to the coast rather than the quick way by Europa Road.

The naval base is, of course, still very much in use, so that it’s hard to get a good picture from anywhere around it. Apart from the Alameda picture, my favourite was taken from the rock the next day. The South Mole – the old New Mole – is the one running in from the left, although it wouldn’t have been so long in Jack and Stephen’s day.

Naval Base from the Rock

Behind and above the dockyard is Jumper’s Bastion, where some of Worcester‘s young gentlemen stood, for some reason, with a black calf.

Jumper’s Bastion

Nelson’s Anchorage, at Rosia Bay, is really just the name for the site of an enormous Victorian gun, although the bay itself is where Victory anchored after Trafalgar.

Nelson’s Anchorage

The old vcictualling yard at Rosia Bay now seems to be used for all sorts of things, but still has its original entrance.

Old Victualling Yard

The bay is the only natural harbour in Gibraltar, apparently. It’s a bit elusive – easy to look down into, but not at all obvious how you get to sea level. But I did find a way down by an odd spiral staircase, and it’s then easier to find the old archway and the steep slope which lead back up to the yard.

Rosia Bay

Again, I had a very good view from the rock the next day – the yard entrace is just behind the stripy looking roof on the left.

Rosia Bay from the Rock

Beyond that there’s nothing very much until Europa Point. The lighthouse was built in 1841, and belongs to Trinity House.

Europa Point lighthouse and Africa

I did get to see Africa this time – but if there were any birds about, apart from odd seagulls, it was so calm that they were right out to sea.

Algeciras Bay was quite busy, but relatively peaceful.

Algeciras Bay

Monday I spent mostly on the rock, starting at the Tower of Homage and going on up to the siege exhibition at Willis’s Battery. It’s quite nicely done, but the buildings themselves are possibly the most interesting thing about it. (Except maybe for a sign which told me that over 400 *horses* were destroyed by bombardment during the siege. Poor horses!)

Willis’s Magazine

There’s quite a lot of grafitti from the period there, including this drawing of a tall ship.

Tall ship grafitti

Further up again are some of the tunnels dug out during the great siege – originally with the intention of getting guns onto a ledge called The Notch on the north face of the rock, but openings from the tunnels themselves turned out to work just as well, and when the Notch was reached guns were put inside it too, rather than on it.

The notch

I went up to the top of the rock, where an odd cloud was hanging about, by the steps on the Charles V wall, and then ran out of time to come down by the Mediterranean steps – instead I just came down by way of St Michael’s Cave. So I’ve still got something to go back for…

Mount Misery

Along the Thames


The day before the Sheerness trip i spent on the Waverley, sailing or at least steaming along the Thames. I enjoyed it more than I expected to, actually – I thought I would enjoy Tower Bridge, and the mouth of the river and the Medway, but almost everything we passed was interesting.

The buildings along the river are a very varied collection, mixed in with layers of history – as well as the weird company buildings and modern waterfront developments we were constantly passing remains of Victorian and Edwardian docks and wharves and piers. But there’s quite a few Georgian survivals too, scattered along the river.

Almost beside the pier at Tower Bridge is the old City of London Custom House (sadly with a thing like a mutant hoodie towering over it), built in this incarnation in 1814, but existing on almost the same site since the 14th century. According to the man who was doing commentary, it’s very grand on this side to impress visiting foreign captains with the status of London, and very dull and ordinary on the land side!

City of London Custom House

Round the first big bend in the river and more very modern buildings at Canary Wharf we came to the surviving buildings of the Deptford Victualling Yard, which once provided and stored food not only for ships at its neighbouring dockyard, but for Woolwich, Chatham and Sheerness as well.

Deptford Victualling Yard

Next, at the head of the bend, came Greenwich. Cutty Sark is newer than some of the Victorian survivals, but as she sailed for a living I suppose she has to count as part of the Age of Sail – and she does have lovely rigging. She was all burnt and wrapped up in things when I went to Greenwich years ago!

Cutty Sark

The Hospital buildings – later the Royal Naval College – are probably the most stunning things to be seen along the river – and, like the Custom House, seem to have been built to be seen from the water. The buildings were built in two sections to allow the Queen’s House behind a view to the river.

Greenwich Hospital and the Queen’s House
Greenwich Hospital

The buildings at Greenwich are a good example of the muddle along the London section of the river – the hospital, then a collection of more modern buildings, then an almshouse towered over by an enormous power station.

Trinity Hospital Almshouses

Back into the longer reaches of the river, and outside of the flood barriers, this clocktower is on the only building surviving from Woolwich Dockyard.

Woolwich Dockyard clocktower

There’s much more left of Woolwich Arsenal, just downriver.

Woolwich Arsenal

Beyond that the city starts to fizzle out into industrial land and countryside – plus the Dartford Bridge, the docks at Tilbury, bright blue flood defenses at Canvey Island and the endlessly long pier at Southend, but nothing from the right kind of history until the Medway.

This is Sheerness from the sea, with the tower of the old Dockyard Church in the middle.

Sheerness from the sea

Sheerness Dockyard was on the river side of Garrison Point, where the Victorian fort is now used as part of the Medway’s navigational control. The dockyard site is under the modern commercial port, and I don’t think there’s much left of the historical buildings.

Garrison Point and Sheerness Dockyard site

I did think about going right back up the river, but it would have been dark by the time I got into the interesting parts of London, so I stuck to my original plan of getting off at Gravesend and making my way straight into darkest Kent (there was a bit too much unlighted road involved) ready for the next day’s adventures.

Chatham Dockyard

After the Sheerness adventure I went on to Chatham dockyard – not without difficulty, as it was possibly the moat confusing place I’ve been in my life – no signs along the road, a great gate that you can’t get in, and then finally a pedestrian entrance which is only labelled from the other direction, and which leaves you in one corner of a great waste of other people’s carparks, still with nothing to point you towards the entrance in the faraway opposite corner.

And so I was late getting there, and later once I’d eaten lunch – I was starving – and everything is done by slow guided tour, so they’d organised me into a 3pm ropery tour before telling me that I wouldn’t have time to see the main actual Age of Sail exhibit beforehand, and without telling me that the ropeworks would take so long I wouldn’t have time after.

Right, I’ve had my moan. And after all it’s not like Portsmouth, where I might never be in my life again – it’s quite conceivable that I’ll find a reason to go back to London in the next twelve months, which is how long the ticket lasts. And what I did see was interesting.

This is the old main gate, the one that you can’t get in, with George III’s arms over it.

Main Gate

The entrance, once found, is through this line of old workshops – although this is the inside.

Wheelwrights’ Shop

Chatham by the Napoleonic period was mainly a building yard, with ships refitting in the Thames or at Sheerness rather than trying to make their way up the Medway, and several of the ‘working’ buildings seem to have been built about that time.

The mast house building is older, from the 1750s, but the upper floor is the mould loft where the plans for Victory were made (this is what I wanted to get to and didn’t).

Mast Houses

No. 1 smithery was built in 1808, originally as a courtyard which was later roofed over. At first it was used for making chains and anchors, but of course more and more work was done in iron as time went on. It holds an exhibition of ship paintings and models – from a range of periods, but with plenty of wooden sailing ships!

No. 1 Smithery

A line of stores and office buildings lead down towards the ropery. The Clocktower building, built in 1723 and rebuilt in 1802, is the oldest surviving naval storehouse.

Clocktower Building

The (Port) Admiral’s offices also date from 1808, and were originally the offices of the master shipwright.

Admiral’s Offices

The Commisioner’s House, here shown slightly squint because I was in a hurry, was built in 1704 and is apparently the oldest surviving naval building in England. You can’t go into the house, but you can go into the gardens behind.

Commissioner’s House

Sheerness Dockyard


I will admit that it was probably at least 75% Lt Bush which took me to Sheerness on Sunday morning, after a Saturday spent on the Waverley on the Thames and Medway – plus about 20% historical interest and 5% plain liking for going to the ends of the earth.

But one thing that Saturday in particular pointed out to me, though, is that while it might be the ends of the earth, it’s not a remote or obscure place if you think in terms of the sea. This is a place at the mouth not only of the Medway but the Thames and the way to London – an army garrison as well as a naval port. It’s the closest land to the constantly changing fleet at the Nore, and part of a chain of naval establishments along the two rivers – in particular the bigger dockyard at Chatham, a few miles up the Medway, but with food stores coming down from Deptford.

It was the Nore that brought the yard to Sheerness, and its original purpose was to provide a base for refitting ships which were finding it too hard to get up the river to Chatham and tending to prefer to refit at sea, with all the stores having to be brought out by boat – although by the early 19th century smaller ships were being built there as well, with Chatham mainly building larger ships.

There’s nothing left now of the Sheerness of the Napoleonic Wars, because the site was rebuilt between 1815 and the 1820s – so that it was once a perfect example of a Georgian dockyard, as it had been built to a definite plan, rather than growing up over time. Sadly there’s not much left of the Georgian dockyard either, with a lot of buildings having been demolished since the navy gave up the site in 1960.

The main buildings left are the residential buildings, in particular Naval Terrace on the edge of the site, which was looking its best on a sunny autumn morning.

Naval Terrace across the green

At one end of the row is the Dockyard Church, beautiful but sad, having been burnt out a while ago. There’s a campaign under way to restore it and turn it over to some kind of community use, and I hope it succeeds.

Dockyard Church
Dockyard Church side

These houses are still inhabited, although privately rather than through any connection to the yard. They’re the kind of plain Georgian I like best, and I think they’re wonderful – but imposing as they are, these are the houses for the less important officers, three storeys high but only three windows wide.

One of them is for sale, or has been recently, so you can have a look inside as well!

Naval Terrace houses

Naval Terrace also still has its row of coach houses running along the bottoms of the gardens.

Old coachhouses

This map shows the layout of the houses – Naval Terrace on the edge with its gardens running back, and then the larger gardens of Dockyard Terrace running up to the grander houses, with the church and the separate Captain Superintendant’s House off to the side.


The dockyard is surrounded by a high wall, built in 1827 and still surviving.

The Dockyard wall

The second terrace, Dockyard Terrace, still survives inside the wall and can just be seen over it. These houses are two storeys tall plus the attic level with windows, but are five windows wide and with grand porches and gardens – the houses for the more senior officers.

Dockyard Terrace over the wall

This page from Spitalfields Life called From Spitalfields to Sheerness is well worth reading, and has pictures taken inside the wall, including one of the avenue leading from Dockyard Terrace up to the church, as well as pictures of the dockyard in the 1820s.

Outside the wall is the original settlement of Sheerness, originally the Blue Houses which 18th century dockyard workers built and painted with blue naval paint, and now the area called Blue Town. It’s also fading away without the dockyard, but I liked this old sign as a reminder of the naval connections (and the one pub that still seemed to be open was called the Jolly Sailor).

Lord Nelson Inn, Bluetown

After prowling round Blue Town, I went for a walk along the sea front, and discovered to my surprise that you could get along almost all the way to the garrison, giving a better view of the suriving buildings inside the walls.

Captain Superintendant’s House
Dockyard Terrace

Neither building is in particularly good condition, I think, having been used and abused by the current commercial port, but there are also plans to restore them and bring them back to residential use.

The dockyard and garrison were protected on the landward side by moats and earthworks, some of which still survive – these are parts of the moats just beyond the edge of the yard, but there is also a long moat running right along the edge of the town, a good bit further out.

Landward moat
Landward Moat
Moat behind the sea wall