13 Nov, 2013 @ 06:30
2 mins read

Michael Portillo misses the boat

algeciras gibraltar railway original timetable
Algeciras Gibraltar Railway original timetable

THERE he stood on top of the Rock, Bradshaw’s Guide in hand: Michael Portillo, resplendent in one of his signature Technicolor ensembles, talking to camera for his new series of Great Continental Railway Journeys.

With Spain spread out like a map below him, Portillo traced the route of Mr Henderson’s Railway from Ronda to Algeciras with his finger, telling 2.4 million viewers, “Early 20th century travellers would then have taken a saloon steamer across here to Gibraltar.”

Cue interview with a direct descendant of Captain Louis Lombard, the unsung Gibraltarian merchant ship owner who masterminded that vital sea link, without which Mr Henderson might never have built the railroad. It was a connection the Spanish didn’t want over their own dead bodies that’s super-topical today, given the current border debacles…

Tony Lombard

Did you miss that bit? So did I. What a shame not one of BBC2’s researchers looked up the good Captain’s great nephew, former Gibraltar Mayor Tony Lombard, who lives a cable car’s ride from where Mr Portillo was standing.

The railway may be named after its wealthy British financier, Sir Alexander Henderson; but it was Captain Lombard who brought the plan to fruition and persuaded Henderson to invest in it.

Portillo missed the boat on that one.

“I could have told Mr. Portillo a story or two, and shown him a rare 1909 timetable of the railway, printed whilst it was still privately owned,” said Tony Lombard, when I asked him how he felt about his great uncle’s story being shunted into the sidings yet again. “Sadly, the programme represented a missed opportunity by a team of professionals who should have known better, and that is a view shared by others.”

As Portillo began his journey in Madrid there was a lot of ground to cover and much of it probably ended up on the cutting room floor. But he might have mentioned that Mr Henderson’s great grandson, Lord Faringdon of Oxfordshire, flew to Spain this year with three generations of his family to ride the train for the first time. You can read the stories Portillo missed and download a Trip Planner to do the journey yourself on my website.

Captain Louis Lombard
Captain Louis Lombard

On the plus side, the aerial photography was amazing (that surreal view of Cordoba cathedral wedged into the Great Mosque like a cuckoo in the nest). Portillo was also memorable for his:

Sartorial elegance The dapper train buff dazzled with his rainbow wardrobe of jackets and shirts in shades that should never be seen together on a grown man: sky blue with baby pink, powder blue with lilac, lime green with cyclamen…

Classic remarks “So some poor politician has to make the decision,” commented the former politician on the government study into the closure of the Algeciras-to-Ronda line, and others, in Spain. Did the Beeb’s Politically Correct Department not tell him that, in the current climate, ‘poor’ is not the best adjective to use in connection with a Spanish politician?

Sense of priorities At the historic Reina Cristina Hotel in Algeciras, we saw Portillo signing in – but none of the rather more famous signatures (Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the King and Queen of Spain) displayed on brass plaques beside the reception desk.

Animal magnetism Britain’s former Defence Secretary ‘danced flamenco’ with an Andalusian thoroughbred for nearly five minutes of the programme. Oh well – he’s not the first ex-government minister, and he won’t be the last, to make a horse’s derrière of himself in public!

Algeciras Gibraltar Railway original timetable
Algeciras Gibraltar Railway original timetable

Belinda Beckett (Columnist)

Belinda Beckett is a qualified journalist and freelance writer based in the Campo de Gibraltar, specialising in travel & lifestyle features and humour columns.


  1. Well I couldn’t agree more that Portillo like most politicians is a horses derriere… That said he’s making up for his time as a far right reactionist under Thatcher by at least promoting some of the more charming (and tragically endangered) corners of Spain…..

  2. Only his father was a Republican Stuart. All six of his Spanish Portillo uncles were far right reactionaries, who wore Franco’s uniform during the civil war…

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