In a world where modern high speed rail links can whisk you across the country in less time that it takes to say ‘Tickets please’, there is something innately comforting in a train service that slowly and serenely snakes through some of Spain’s most stunning scenery.
The Algeciras to Ronda line is often referred to as ‘Mr Henderson’s Railway’ and, as so often in Andalucía, has a colourful and fascinating history.
Article by Giles Brown
It all began during the height of the British Empire at the end of the 18th century. Britannia was not only ruling the waves, but also at the forefront of exploration and engineering. And if there was one thing that those plucky Victorians loved, it was a challenge that combined both.
Then as now, Gibraltar was a hugely important strategic location, standing sentry over the entrance to the Mediterranean. Because of this, it was heavily garrisoned, but conditions for the officers and their families on The Rock were somewhat claustrophobic. They might be able to view the beautiful Andalusian countryside on their doorstep, but the roads leading through the picturesque pueblos blancos to the historic town of Ronda were little more than mule tracks in terrible condition.
That was not the only problem, however. Once outside of the towns, most of Andalucía was ‘bandit country’. Although the Guardia Civil was created in 1844 to deal with the problem, travellers still ran the risk of being robbed by roaming highwaymen.
British engineer, John Morrison, came up with the solution to the problem with a bold plan. Highlighting British railway engineering expertise, he proposed a rail line that would connect Algeciras to Bobadilla – Andalucía’s equivalent to Crewe Junction – and from there to the rest of Spain.
As an aside, Bobadilla is still an important railway junction, although its tiny station and low platforms often confuse bleary-eyed passengers. Alighting from the sleeper from Barcelona for their connecting trains, they look around and panic, thinking that they are at the wrong place!
Such an ambitious undertaking needed money and his friend and wealthy financier Sir Alexander Henderson – later Lord Faringdon – backed Morrison. Having already worked together on challenging railway projects across South America, the 110-mile line was considerably easier. Morrison and Henderson formed “The Algeciras Gibraltar Railway Company” to oversee the construction and set about the project with gusto.
The first section of the line, complete with British rolling stock and even British clocks at the new stations, linked Algeciras with Jimena and officially opened in October 1890, with the stretch to Ronda opening in November two years later.
As well as being a hugely impressive engineering feat, Mr Henderson’s Railway had a huge impact on the area. Villages such as Jimena and Benaoján, virtually cut off from the outside world for centuries, suddenly had an influx of visitors, which meant new markets.
A complimentary steam passenger ferry ran from Gibraltar to Algeciras, and Henderson decided that, to encourage people to use the railway, he would build a hotel. The Hotel Reina Cristina, which still stands today, is a slice of British colonial architecture overlooking the Bay of Algeciras, where patrons could rest and enjoy a decent meal before beginning their journey. A plaque in the hotel reception has the names of later guests, including a young Winston Churchill, Ava Gardner, and Rock Hudson.
Although their modern Spanish counterparts have replaced the original British steam trains, Mr Henderson’s Railway is still a throwback to a more gentile, less hurried age of transport. The journey takes you through sunflower fields and cork forests and passes the fortified villages of Jimena and Castellar. Climbing towards Ronda, 16 tunnels take you through the mountains, crossing rivers and ravines via 20 bridges.
It has also become something of a favourite amongst foodies. Restaurant La Estación in San Pablo, as the name suggests, is located in the train station itself and must be one of the few places where you can step from your train straight to your table! Bar Allioli in Jimera de Libar is popular stop that offers a great selection of beers and live music, while El Muelle in Arriate serves Mediterranean cuisine in the station’s converted waiting room. Benaoján is home to the popular Molino del Santo, a boutique restaurant and hotel that makes a great base for exploring the nearby countryside. On the other hand, you could opt to stay overnight at The Catalonia Reina Victoria Hotel in Ronda. This railway hotel is almost a bookend to the Reina Cristina in Algeciras and was a favourite of Hemmingway.
In the BBC’s “Great Continental Railway Journeys”, Michael Portillo described Mr Henderson’s Railway as “One of the most picturesque train journeys in Europe”, and, watching the Andalusian countryside glide past, you will have to agree.