Ronda - Mr Henderson's Railway & Gibraltar connection

Bobadilla 2-2-0 steam engine built in 1890 by Beyer & Peacock for the Henderson railway.
Bobadilla 4-4-0 steam engine built in 1890 by Beyer & Peacock for the Henderson railway.

Mr Henderson's Railway & the Gibraltar Connection

by Belinda Beckett

If you thought Gibraltar was Spain's closest connection to Britain, you've never ridden 'Mr Henderson's Railway' - a scenic line in Andalucía that's 100 per cent Victorian English! TV train buff Michael Portillo was so smitten by its glittering past - linked to WW2 spies, Hollywood stars and a young Winston Churchill - he's featuring it in his next series of Great Continental Railway Journeys. Today you can ride the line on air-conditioned trains upriver to Ronda for rocky mountain highs or hop off for lunch at quaint trackside restaurants en route. But perhaps not tomorrow ... Spain has plans to blow the whistle on this delightful connection to British history.



An exotically-turbaned gypsy couple selling oranges in the foreground of a swanky ocean-front hotel decorate a hand-drawn poster announcing 'The New Winter Resort'. Polo, hunting, cricket, sea bathing, boating and an English resident doctor are among its attractions. 

The poster has been shrunk to fit the pages of an old, pocket-sized railway timetable advertising 'Trains departing daily with direct connections to and from Biarritz, Paris and The Riviera', and 'commodious saloon steamers to meet passengers arriving by liner from New York'.

Where was this amazing new resort? Cannes, perhaps, or San Tropez? The unmistakeable silhouette of Gibraltar hovering in the background of the poster is a giveaway but would you ever have guessed Algeciras - the industrial port city at the tip of Spain that's dismissed by most guidebooks as charmless?

Once upon a time before Algeciras had a port, this Cinderella city was beautiful and, yes, she did go to the ball!

During the first half of the 20th century royalty, artists, writers and heads of state stayed at the 'poster hotel', the Reina Cristina, enjoying hot fireside baths poured from copper urns by a parade of chambermaids. Next time you're passing this Edwardian grand dame, check out the gold plaques flanking reception; they bear the signatures of Cole Porter, Tyrone Power, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the poet Lorca, King Alfonso VIII of Spain, Queen Elizabeth of Belgium, Ava Gardner, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and many more.

Wealthy Europeans colonised fincas on the headland, building summer mansions in the fashionable Queen Anne style, their English pitched roofs and chimney stacks striking an incongruous architectural note beside the whitewashed Spanish cottages of this poor Andalusian town.

And all thanks to a group of visionary British and Gibraltarian businessmen who saw, in the 1880s,  that Algeciras was a very attractive place indeed to build a railway.

The 'age of the train' had arrived in the rest of Spain and Europe but still bypassed the wild, rural corner of Andalucía known as the Campo de Gibraltar. Until the late 19th century this was dangerous bandit country! Peasant farmers took their lives in their hands when taking their produce to market; mule tracks, unfit for carriages, were the only roads; the nearest staging post on the journey north was a hard day's ride on horseback.

Of more concern to the British government was that Gibraltar, their strategic Mediterranean military base, was completely cut off from the civilised world by land. A Colonel Sayer, garrisoned on The Rock in the 1860s, wrote of 'small and crowded dwellings, ill-ventilated, badly drained and crammed with 15,000 human beings confined within a space covering a square mile.' To the fine lady wives of garrison officers, The Rock must have seemed like a prison!

A rail link was sorely needed but, then as now, Gibraltar was a 'delicate subject'. A cunning plan was required. 

Several schemes had already been mooted - Cádiz, Ronda and Jerez all wanted a rail link - but none proved viable until French railway engineer Charles Lamiable drew up plans for a link from Bobadilla to Ronda, later extended to Algeciras. Bobadilla was connected, via Madrid, to Paris and the rest of Europe. But the cost and scale of building the 177km line was enormous because of the mountainous terrain surrounding the southern approach to Ronda.

The man who brought this plan to fruition was not the wealthy British financier after which Mr Henderson's Railway is named but an unsung Gibraltarian merchant ship owner of French descent called Captain Louis Lombard.

Captain Lombard had met Alexander Henderson on his sea voyages to South America and knew he was the man for the job. Henderson had made his fortune financing railroads in South America and Africa, together with the Scottish engineer John Morrison. To such a team, the Algeciras railroad would be a piece of cake.

As a wealthy Gibraltarian businessman wise to the ways of Spain, Lombard undoubtedly knew a rail link with The Rock would never be approved. But what if the 'missing link' could be provided by ships? He set off for London and convinced Henderson to part with the lion's share of the capital (some 45 million pesetas).

Interestingly, this part of the story will be news to Mr Henderson's great grandson, Lord Faringdon of Oxfordshire, who flew to Spain with 21 members of his family earlier this year to ride their ancestral railway for the first time. Lord Faringdon could shed little light on the railroad. "I come from a family of shredders," he told me apologetically. "When my great grandfather died, all he left in the middle drawer of his desk was his passport and title deeds."

Fortunately, Captain Lombard's descendants kept every document in triplicate! They are currently in the safe-keeping of his great nephew Tony Lombard, former Mayor of Gibraltar, who has spent many years researching his family history.

He says: "Not only did my great uncle have the vision but also the gravitas to convince these businessmen to deposit a princely sum that would be worth anywhere between £163m and £2.3 billion today, depending on calculations. In modern parlance, Captain Lombard not only talked the talk but walked the walk."

The Algeciras (Gibraltar) Railway Company was duly set up, headquartered in Algeciras, with John Morrison as general manager reporting to a committee of businessmen in London. Captain Lombard became a shareholder and controlled construction from Algeciras. The first section of track was laid on 1st September 1888.  

'When it is finished it will link Gibraltar to Madrid, the French border and the rest of Europe, also connecting British,  Americans and Europeans with Gibraltar and places of interest like Cordoba, Granada, Seville," wrote the then British Consul in Málaga, Alexander Finn, 'also transporting wine, olive oil, cork, livestock, pigs, fruit and minerals which can be transported by ship to Gibraltar and from there all over the world, turning Gibraltar into a major port.'

It was an immense undertaking. The  line rises from sea level to an altitude of some 750 metres, following the Guadiaro River through mountain ranges and across ravines via 16 tunnels and 20 bridges. Most stations had to be located in the valley, some distance from the steep hilltop villages they served.

More than a century later, the scenery as described in the original railway timetable is little-changed: the 'corkwoods whose sunny glades continually remind one of the pleasant woodlands of Old England' are still there, although viewed in faster forward on modern electric trains. Olive and orange groves, sunflower fields, white villages, nesting storks, lonely goatherds and majestic mountain peaks circled by eagles and vultures flash past the carriage windows in a continuous collage.  

The industrial revolution having made little impact in Spain, all material and equipment for the railroad had to be imported from England: the track, signals and rolling stock; the big black steam locomotives built by Beyer, Peacock & Co. of Manchester; the bench seats and clocks gracing the pretty wayside stations with their fringed wooden canopies, modelled on British stations in India; even the paper, ink and pens!

Many of these curiosities can still be seen at the old Algeciras railway station, now HQ for Los Amigos del Ferrocarril de Algeciras, where President José Roballo runs an informal museum. "It's a home from home as my grandfather used to live here, when he was Chief Inspector of the railway," says José, proudly showing me his spoils: the old company safe, the plaque from the locomotives' turntable, even an aged item of lost luggage!

On November 27, 1892,  the final section of track was laid and all 22 stations were open for business - but that's not the end of the story.

The railway company had won La Linea Town Hall's support for a branch line from San Roque, giving the British their desired Gibraltar link. But Spain's War Ministry was having none of it and the following decree was published: 'Spain will never consent to any line that would connect the enemy territory of Gibraltar with the Spanish rail network.'

Captain Lombard's contingency plan came into play. A wooden passenger pier was built in Algeciras (credited on Wikipedia as being the origin of the vast port today - another badge of honour for Captain Lombard's hat). The company's first steamship, Elvira, made the inaugural crossing in 1894. Extra track was laid from the wharf to the main station which was built some distance away, Spain having refused permission to locate it on the waterfront within range of Gibraltar's cannons! The ferry service was timed to precisely coincide with trains departing directly from the wharf, creating one smooth connection between Gibraltar and Spain.

The British had achieved their objective. In 1901, the Ronda newspaper El Teléfono ran a leader article stating that the railway had been:

 'purely and simply an extension of Gibraltar, constructed on behalf of the British government to augment Gibraltar's defensive powers in the Strait and convert it into a modern stronghold, using marbles and jaspers mined from Andalusian quarries'.

Now peasant farmers could safely take their livestock and produce to market; and garrison officers' wives could escape the claustrophobic atmosphere of The Rock for an adventure in the Spanish countryside - craning their necks for a glimpse of those reckless bandits through the carriage windows, no doubt! It was a relatively cheap thrill for the wealthy. A 1st class return ticket from Gibraltar to Ronda cost 17.10 pesetas.  

The local Calpe Hunt used the train to transport their horses, and the sporty set to visit the Duke of Medina's hunting lodge in Castellar. Smugglers used it too, hurling their contraband goods through the slow-moving train's carriage windows to contacts waiting in the mountains with pack mules.

Alexander Henderson was created a baron by Edward VII of England. Both he and his engineer, John Morrison, have streets in Algeciras named after them.  

For Captain Lombard there were no such honours. His only memorial is his mausoleum in Algeciras cemetery and the crumbling vestiges of El Recreo, his sumptuous villa which started a trend among Gibraltarians in Algeciras for stylish colonial homes built to British design, some still in occupancy today. The Larios family (of gin fame) continue to live on their elegant estate at  Monte de la  Torre where the beautiful main house is available for summer lets. (

Captain Lombard's epitaph rests with Tony Lombard:

"For too long my 3rd great-uncle has been denied recognition for the vital role he played. Without his efforts, the railway might never have existed. In justification to him, it should also bear his name and henceforth be known as the Henderson-Lombard Railway."

The company went on to establish The Iberian and Mediterranean Hotels Company and the magnificent Hotel Reina Cristina, named after Spain's Queen Regent, opened in 1901. Designed by British architects, set in expansive manicured gardens and  boasting 100 sumptuous bedrooms with fireplaces, the Saturday night balls on the sprung dance floor were popular with all. The hotel promised to refund the room rate for any day it rained between May and September

A Spanish newspaper reported: 'The compartments of the train are decorated with posters extolling the virtues of a new hotel - an English hotel, of course.'  

Five years later an equally magnificent sister hotel, the Reina Victoria, opened in Ronda, where the fresh mountain air was recommended for TB sufferers. Ernest Hemingway and the Austrian poet Reiner Rilke were regular guests. Both hotels welcome tourists today.

In 1906 the Reina Cristina hosted the 3-month Algeciras Conference, when delegates representing eight world powers met to discuss the future of Morocco around the mahogany boardroom table. It was covered by a young journalist called Winston Churchill. The Spanish delegation were guests of Captain Lombard at El Recreo.

That's how a quirky scenic railway in Spain came to be created by the British - a strategic link reconnecting Gibraltar with the modern world. And so it remains. In a 2009 article on British-built railways The Daily Mail reported:

'The longest possible train rail journey without leaving the rails today is an astonishing 10,600 miles, and runs between Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City and Algeciras'.

The railway and its ships were sold to Andalucía in 1913. The Reina Cristina, destroyed by a fire in 1928, was rebuilt to similar design with an extra storey. During WW2, German and Italian spies photographed shipping movements in the Strait from the bedrooms, using the bathrooms as dark rooms.

During the Franco era, Algeciras was transformed by major industrial development. Soon the sprawling port had obliterated the wonderful sea views from the Reina Cristina's windows and smoke belching from factory chimneys stained the sky.

The clock had struck midnight for the Cinderella city and Prince Charming and his court had moved on ...

This year, the death knell of the railroad itself has been sounded. Spain has published a list of 48 routes that may be axed because they are no longer paying their way. The Algeciras to Ronda line is among them. For the many trackside restaurants, boutique hotels and small businesses struggling in La Crisis who rely on the railway for their livelihoods, the loss of this financial lifeline may be the final blow.  © Belinda Beckett


For foodies with a one-track mind, Mr Henderson's Railway is just the ticket!

A Station Buffet with a Difference!

If British railway buffets remind you of greasy chips and luke-warm tea, La Estación will change that train of thought. This charming country station, which could have been plucked from the pages of a Thomas the Tank Engine book, does double duty as a gourmet restaurant!

Leased from Renfe by self-taught chef Nieves Dominguez, the creative Mediterranean menu includes partridge paté, Iberian pork fillet with grenadine-caramelised onions and a fresh orange mousse that's a culinary celebration of Spain's succulent national fruit.

Hop on the 12.01 train from San Roque station, alight at San Pablo half an hour later and step off the platform straight to your table! There's time for a leisurely trackside lunch in the leafy garden, or around a crackling log fire in winter, before your carriage arrives at 17.20.  

One of the line's original Victorian railway stations, you can still admire the old railway bell and the stationmaster's smart red and blue uniform, hung decoratively on the wall. 

During July and August the restaurant switches to evening dining so take the car as, alas, there's no late train connection.

San Pablo has another claim to fame as the scene of Che Guevara's 'execution'. The 2008 Stephen Soderbergh biopic, Che, was filmed here, starring  Benicio del Toro and many of the locals! 

Almuerzo at the Molino

If a louche lunch in the country is your idea of heaven, a table awaits beneath the weeping willows at the Molino del Santo, five minutes walk from Benaoján station. 

The British owners have spent 26 years polishing this charming boutique hotel's very smart act and the daily concerts of birdsong and 'water music' from the old mill stream are free of charge!

There's a three-course Menu of the Month and á la carte but, as you're not driving, why not splurge on a wine pairing menu? The five (or eight) courses are the perfect excuse to linger in this flower-scented Arcadia and by the time you're on your fourth (and fourth glass) life will feel very good indeed! 

If catching the train home seems too much trouble, stay the night and burn off those guilty calories next day on Mr Henderson's Walk! 


Follow in the footsteps of David Cameron who took Mr Henderson's Railway Walk before he became Prime Minister. It's a two-to-three hour hike but he lived to tell the tale.

The well-signposted route between Benaoján and Jimera de Líbar stations follows the single-track railway along the river through the Guadiaro valley, beneath the sheer limestone mountains of the Serranía de Ronda. You won't be alone, with eagles, griffon vultures, goats, exotic butterflies and black foot pigs for company. You'll be hailed by many other walkers, too, in a variety of languages!

Train times allow you to do this walk early in the morning, with plenty of time for lunch. Restaurant Quercus, a converted railway shed in the sidings at Jimera de Líbar, specialises in barbecued meat and game and fresh vegetables harvested from the Spanish owners' kitchen garden. Tel: 952 180 041. Or try a pint of super-strong Belgian-style beer, home-brewed by Englishman Paul Darwent at Bar Allioli, across the track from Quercus. You can also do this walk in reverse order, finishing up at Molino del Santo.


Should the final whistle blow on Mr Henderson's Railway, you can still visit its attractions by car. 

You'll also need wheels - or a good pair of legs - to reach Pileta Cave on Benaoján's outskirts, the closest you'll get to prehistoric cave paintings in Spain because tours are decidedly informal (no roped-off areas or 'do not touch' signs). It's a cool half-mile walk through limestone galleries slippery with bat droppings.

The more beautiful Cueva del Gato nearby, passed by the train, is so-called because the fissures in the rock resemble the face of a cat. From an observation platform at the entrance you can watch the subterranean river cascading from the moggy's mouth into a natural pool that invites you to take the plunge for a refreshing summer splash. Walking the cave to Montejaque is for skilled potholers only as number of people have died after becoming trapped inside by the rising river. 

This article was written in July 2013 by freelance Andalucia-based travel writer Belinda Beckett. Read Belinda's article about the visit of Lord Faringdon, Mr Henderson's great grandson to the line.