The morning of the 8th of March came around with decent weather which was a blessing and I realised I only had a couple of days left with plenty left still to see so the decision was what. I had been impressed with the way the Wirt Artna organisation had gone about their business at the other sites run by them which I had visited namely the Lascaris War Rooms and the Malta at War Museum in Birgu, both of which are fully reported in earlier posts in this sequence so I decided to head to Fort RinellaFort Rinella in Kalkara.
As always I let the morning rush hour subside and got the bus into Valetta where I changed to a #3 which deposited me close to the entrance. Although I did not know it at the time there is a free bus which runs Monday – Saturday departing 1220 from the Saluting Battery and 1245 from the Malta at War Museum in Birgu / Vittoriosa so if you are pushed for time you could easily do at least two attractions in the one day. The bus is only one way and you have to come back by public transport.
Approaching the Fort from the road it is not really impressive for a number of reasons. Firstly, military engineering in the late 1870’s tended towards low profile buildings which made them less vulnerable to artillery and ever deeper ditches were excavated to repel infantry. To assist in the latter task caponiers were built protruding at right angles from the wall where the defending troops could pour enfilading fire on the attackers from the relative safety of the thick stone walls of the caponier. All the caponiers were linked by underground tunnels to the main courtyard so the defenders were never exposed to enemy fire and they were well ventilated to save the troops from the choking effects of the powder smoke from their own weapons. The second reason is that the Fort was not designed to house a lot of men as it was merely a gun battery concentrating on the sea of which more in a moment, and only required the detachment of gunners and a relatively small guard of infantry. Whilst everyone nowadays calls it Fort Rinella it was never actually designated as such.
So why the need for the hefty seaward defence? Whilst the UK had the most powerful navy in the world defending trade routes with her Empire, the Meditteranean was of vital importance to safeguard shipping heading to or from the new Suez Canal which cut the journey to India considerably and also took the perilous trip round Africa and the Cape out of the equation. The French and Italians were building up their seapower and it was feared they may make a move on the British colonies of either Gibraltar or Malta or both which would have been a disaster and so twin batteries were built in either location to house one each of the monstrous gun you can see in the image at the top of the page.
This beast of a weapon is an Armstrong 450 mm. Rifled Muzzle Loading (RML) gun and it weighs in at 100 tons. Yes, you read that correctly, 100 Imperial tons. I really should have got an image with someone standing beside it to give a sense of scale. Believe me, it is a behemoth of a weapon. To put it in context for those of us that still use “old money” the calibre is the best part of 18″ across and it could fire the 2,000 lb. shell up to 7,000 yards which, again for those of us still thinking as we were taught, is the best part of four miles. It took a black powder charge of 450 lbs. to perform such a feat.
The gun at Rinella was one of a matched pair with the Cambridge Battery at Tigne Point on the other side of the Grand Harbour. It is now long gone and the only other 100 ton gun still in existence is at Napier of Magdala Battery in Gibraltar which was one of another matched pair. If this sounds like fearsome firepower, which indeed it is, then consider this. One of the reasons the British were worried about Italian expansion was that in 1873 they launched the battleships Duilio and Dandolo which, in addition to 22 inch steel armour each had not one but four of these monstrous weapons on board. I shall talk more about the gun later but let me tell you about what happened when I arrived.
I was greeted by a re-enactor in the costume as a gunner of that time and he pointed us to a selection of swords on a table and a couple of rooms set up as a tableaux of the guardhouse etc. We were told to try out the swords as long as we did not skewer each other and to wander about as we pleased until he called us for a demonstration of a small field gun.
As mentioned above, the Fort is not very big so there was no danger of anyone getting lost and I had a bit of a wander about with a few images captured, some of which you can see above. I realise it is less that a century and a half old but it is in a very good state of repair and wandering around alone it was easy to imagine being a British soldier here in the late 19th century.
We all filed out to a large open area to the front of the Fort where the field piece you can see in the images was set up, complete with the re-enactors in their appointed positions. One of them explained everything as the gun crew went through the fairly complicated drill of loading the piece although obviously there was no projectile loaded, merely the bag of black powder. At this point the “narrator” informed us that for a fee (€15 if memory serves) that any of us could actually fire the gun. An American chap promptly volunteered and was duly togged out in uniform and briefed on what he had to do. You can see him briefly in the video attached below which I shall explain later. Without a projectile the piece did not recoil at all although it would have leapt back fairly violently if it had been loaded on the principle of “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”. It was an impressive bang all the same.
We were then escorted back inside and asked to wait for a while whilst the next demonstration was set up. Basically I think there were about seven or eight re-enactors in total and they did everything so they had to get back inside and prepare. In the meanwhile we were invited to use the “cafe” which was basic enough serving tea, coffee, soft drinks and a selection of light snacks. I didn’t bother and had another look round the immediate environs of the guardhouse until we were invited to take our seats for the next portion of the demonstrations which was of 19th century drill. Some of the manoeuvres I recognised from my time in the Forces and some were noticeably different. The five men were not exactly parade ground standard but I suppose they were playing the part of gunners and not the Brigade of Guards so it was possibly accurate enough. I hope I do not malign the Royal Artillery of that period and in fairness to the re-enactors I spoke to one of them after who told me that they did not have one day of military experience between them so fair play. Again, judge for yourself on the attached video.
After the drill, there was a display of a matchlock musket and a repeating rifle of the Martini Henry type although I am not sure if this was actually one of those. A trained infantryman could get off 12 rounds a minute with one of these as opposed to the three achieved with muzzle loading muskets in the Napoleonic wars not sixty years previously. It amazes and slightly depresses me the ingenuity that goes into creating ever more efficient ways of slaughtering other human beings but that is the way of the world and yes, when I was carrying weapons I naturally wanted the most efficient kit I could get, it is only natural.
Again, the main re-enactor offered the audience the chance to fire this weapon for so much per round, I cannot remember how much. It may sound as if the whole thing was a high-pressure sales pitch but it really wasn’t and I do not begrudge Wart Artna the money they make at all. I have spoken warmly about them in previous posts here and I think they do a superb job of the sites they administer without any Government support. Again, of you plan to do a lot of sightseeing, their combined ticket for all the sites is recommended.
After a few of the visitors had winced, flinched and squealed their way through a few rounds (which in itself was as much fun as the “professional” demonstration) it was time for the main event, the “Big Gun”. I did not bother with the rifle firing as I have done more than enough of that in my life and did not wish to exacerbate the high frequency hearing loss that I suffer from in both ears as a result.
Off we all trooped then to the Armstrong 100 ton RML that is the raison d’etre for the establishment. It was built by the Elswick Ordnance Company based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne which was a division of Armstrong’s which in turn merged with Whitworth to form Armstrong Whitworth and produced armaments, ships, locomotives and motor cars amongst other things. They built two ice-breaking train ferries to connect the Trans-Siberian Railway across Lake Baikal as well as the first polar icebreaker. Nearer to home they built the working parts for the world famous Tower Bridge and a hydraulic mains system in Limehouse Basin. Both of these sites are within 30 minutes walk of my home. A fascinating company but back to the gun.
Only 15 were ever made so that is eight for the Italian warships and four for the batteries on Malta and Gibraltar that I have mentioned but I cannot for the life of me find out where the other three went! It is interesting that the Italian Navy went with four on each of two warships when the Royal Navy had already rejected it as being too heavy and too costly for seaborne use.
All the figures relating to the gun are staggering. Each one required a crew of 35 to man with 18 doing nothing but handling the ammunition. This comprised three types of shell; Armour piercing (AP) which could penetrate 21 inches of steel at 2,000 yards, High Explosive (HE) which had a payload of 78 lbs. and Shrapnel (named after Henry Shrapnel the British Army officer who invented it) which delivered 920 four ounce “bullets”. After test firing, the shrapnel was not replaced as it was deemed ineffective. I don’t know about that but I know I would not have liked to have been standing where one hit. Forget the 21st century, this truly was a weapon of mass-destruction.
Given the dimensions of the weapon, it obviously could not be laid by hand and everything was effected by a self-contained hydraulic unit in the Fort. Armstrong obviously had the capability to do this as evidenced by the Limehouse Basin project as mentioned above. These hydraulics also helped reduce the recoil which I have also spoken of above but even then it was still getting on for six feet. Without the hydraulics it would probably have blown back through the front wall of the Fort!
When we had all had a good look and wonder at the sheer size of the piece we were shown downstairs to the “engine room” where the weapon was loaded from. With such a vast amount of powder lying around, every precaution was taken to avoid an accidental detonation which would have blown half the island to Kingdom come and the crews had to wear special cotton uniforms and cotton overshoes to avoid the chance of a spark. Everything here was done mechanically as it would have taken about half a dozen men to lift one of the huge shells you can see in the image. When we had had our fill of looking round, taking images and having our questions fully answered by the very knowledgeable guide we were shown to a small auditorium for a film presentation.
I was expecting something about the Fort but it turned out to be a presentation bout World War Two. It was very interesting though and I could watch this type of documentary all day.
Out of the cinema and that was that. With a final reminder to visit the gift shop we were back out in what was a reasonable late afternoon, just gone 1630. Before I leave Fort Rinella here I should do one final thing. I have mentioned a video a couple of times above and it probably requires a bit of explanation. I have noted many times that I am a complete technophobe and I genuinely have difficulty with anything of that nature. This piece is being written in September 2019 and posted retrospectively as it is the only way I can keep things in order.
A couple of days ago I spent literally a complete afternoon finding, downloading and then learning how to use (I hope) a video editing suite. I chose Video Pad by NCH Software more or less at random and primarily because it was free and when it loaded I thought I was looking at a control computer in NASA, I was perplexed to say the least. For various reasons I have a lot of time on my hands at the moment which is just as well as it took me literally hours to get to grips with just the basics. I cobbled together the few clips I had taken at Rinella into some sort of montage. There are no fancy crossfades or subtitles or musical soundtrack but I shall try for those in due course when I have a bit more experience. Anyway, if you want to have a look at my debut effort then here it is. As always, any and all tips on the subject would be much appreciated.
Most of the visitors had come by car and a few others walked back to the bus stop but I didn’t fancy heading straight back the way I had come and so I decided to walk back a bit as I knew I could always regain the main road easily enough and jump on the bus. As always I had no map or GPS but I do have a reasonably good inbuilt compass and so I set out parallel to the main road to see what ordinary life was like in these parts. I was hoping perhaps for a bar for my first beer of the day or maybe a Church or graveyard or something else but I was to be disappointed. There were residential buildings and one or two small shops but nothing I could describe as the “centre” if Il-Kalkara. In the interests of researching this piece I have checked it out on a mapping system and it seems I was right with the only thing I would have liked to have seen but missed was the Naval graveyard but in fairness to myself it was away from the direction I was heading.
I wandered back as far as Birgu and decided against going there for a drink as I fancied heading back to Sliema / San Giljan. In the event, the latter won out and after a couple of beers in the wonderful and now sadly demised Dick’s Bar I decided I really should see some of the other watering holes in the town and there is certainly no shortage as it is regarded as “party central” for the island. It is so popular that buses run from all over the island all night at the weekend for revellers to congregate here. That is not my thing and wasn’t even when I was young enough that it might have been considered an option, it never appealed to me. I had walked past a few places with what passes for dance music pounding at volumes that were ridiculous even outside and must have been an otologist’s nightmare. Again, I cite my hearing loss as well as my desire to keep whatever small musical credibility I may have intact!
I chanced upon a place called Green Shutters which seemed pleasant and was playing music that was discernible as such and so I ambled in and ordered a beer. There were only a couple of other guys in there and I dd not want to crowd them at the small bar which is where I normally sit and so I took a table and just relaxed. I did make a couple of extended trips outside for the purposes of smoking but they turned into people watching exercises instead. There were not that many people to be seen it must be said and they mostly appeared to be locals at this time of year although I am told the whole town is manic in the high season.
As is my way I had only had a very light breakfast and I fancied another Maltese offering for my evening repast which is my main (often only) meal of the day and so I headed back to Sliema where I was reminded that, to quote the Scottish “national” poet Robert Burns, “the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley (go oft astray)”. The fly in this case was the Ta Bajri Wine Bar which was literally next door to my apartment and I should mention in passing that adjacent on the other side was Le Malte restaurant which features elsewhere in these pages. Talk about a good location and I actually worked it out that my little apartment probably shared a wall with the restaurant kitchen. It being off-season I had passed it a few times when it had not been open and I am not really much of a wine drinker at the best of times but I thought I would pop in on the principle that it was rude not to and they were bound to serve beer anyway.
I went into what was a lovely and pretty old-fashioned bar. I do not know what a traditional Maltese bar actually looks like but I suspect this must be pretty close. The venue was near enough empty with only about three other people in there and so I perched myself at the bar and ordered a beer which led me immediately into a conversation with the very friendly barman. It transpired that he was the younger half of a Father and son outfit who ran the place (the Father appeared much later on) and the wine bar was merely a showcase for the vineyard they ran a few miles away.
After a couple of beers and some great chat, including the imminent election, he insisted that I try some of his produce “on the house”. Well, it would have been churlish not to. I am certainly no wine expert but to my ignoramus’ palate it was pretty good, a fairly full bodied red. Do not ask me what, if anything, it tasted like as I would not know a cabernet from a cabinet! It went down well enough though and it appeared I was drinking as much free wine as I was having beer put on my tab and so in the interests of good manners I ordered a large glass of his product which was going down increasingly easily and the conversation flowed as easily as the wine which made for a most convivial evening but was doing nothing for getting my empty belly filled. I knew, even as I was doing it, that it was going to lead to a big head in the morning but I was just enjoying myself far too much to slow up.
The whole scene was just so typically Maltese, very relaxed with excellent company in lovely surroundings that the time just flew by until I checked the time and decided I had better dash before all the restaurants closed up. A word of warning about the wonderful Ta Bajri though. Whilst researching this piece as I always do, I can find no online presence for the wine bar since 2016, including their own F***ook page and I suspect it has gone the way of Dick’s Bar and closed which is a shame.
I took a very short walk, which was possibly more like a stumble and thankfully it was a Friday night as La Cuccagna was still open when I arrived. I had seen this place before and had determined to try it before I left the country and besides it must have been all of two hundred yards from home so it seemed a fairly safe bet I wouldn’t get lost although stranger things have happened. The drinking had knocked the edge of my appetite a bit and I didn’t want to delay them too long as there were only a handful of others there, all obviously coming to the end of their meals and so I went to my standby of ravjul (spinach and ricotta filled) which was easy for the kitchen to prepare and quick to eat. It was accompanied by a tasty garlic bread and a small carafe of the house red completed the affair.
I have to say that I was not pressured or rushed in any way and even asked if I wanted dessert or coffee with or without a liqueur even though the other diners were in the process of leaving but I thought I would do the decent thing and let them get shut up. There is one final thing to mention about La Cuccagna and that is their attitude to dietary requirements which I did not recall from my visit but again discovered whilst researching for this piece. They cater for no less than 14 allergens, have numerous vegetarian and vegan dishes, including vegan lactose free cheese and vegan pasta, they have gluten free pizza bases. As well as this they boast that 80% of their produce is locally sourced and changes seasonally thereby slashing food miles and their carbon footprint.
Add to this the fact that head chef Charlene worked in a Gordon Ramsay restaurant and it is not difficult to see why they have been going strong since 1992. As and when I ever return to Malta which I very much hope to do, I am earmarking this place for a big splurge of a dinner no matter where I may be staying on the island. It just works on every level.
Paying the bill it was the work of five minutes to get home and off to bed to sleep the sleep of the just, although it has always baffled me how I might possibly fit into that category. I suspect that a day in the fresh air, a bellyful of Maltese red wine and a tasty meal might have had more to do with it than my moral rectitude.
One more full day to go before my journey back to UK so stay tuned and spread the word.