The Principality of Andorra

The Principality of Andorra – one of the oldest and smallest countries in Europe, squashed between Spain and France. It is an independent country whose heads of state are the President of France and the Bishop of Seo de Urgel, Spain. Probably, the country is best known for winter sports and its biggest “industry” duty free shopping.

It is a mountainous land tucked in the Pyrenees; small fields scraped out of the mountainsides support cattle or are used for tobacco growing; vertiginous roads and tracks twine through the landscape. It was, in early times, a smuggler’s paradise, often carried out under the cover of the transhumance – the movement of sheep and cattle up to the high pastures in spring and back to softer ground in autumn.

It was a pretty open trade which boosted the subsistence level of many families. One Andorran priest remarked:

“It is a hard country…The cattle begin to straggle down from the hills when the snow falls early in September. The winter is long and very cold and my people are so poor. But for the smuggling they would suffer. What would you?”

American author and traveller Herbert Corey visited Andorra and watched the trade openly carried out. In 1918, he wrote:

“the public square was filled with men putting impatient feet against the ribs of rebellious mules in the effort to pull tighter the ropes of the diamond hitch. Loads were going across the hills, fête day or no. Other tired men straggled in at the heels of tired mules, the pack-saddles empty, after a successful trip into France. Small boys were importantly aiding. Girls clung to the arms of the contrabandista, and old women waddled about with parcels that looked like provisions for the departing.”

Accounts of 19th century smuggling tell of houses set up as receiving points for goods inwards and outwards. Often there was a “master” who paid the smugglers about 7 francs a day. If the men were caught they went unpaid and, as there was no defence against smuggling, went straight to jail.

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The goods were transported as 25kg loads in a canvas bag reinforced by a wood frame. This made it easier for the smugglers  to dump the load and take to their heels if necessary, hiding out in the rocky mountainsides.

The men travelled over French or Spanish “ports” – these were the little-known, narrow and often dangerous tracks and pathways through and over the mountains which ultimately led into France or Spain. Sometimes mules were used to carry the contraband or the men hefted the packs themselves. The men wore rope soled shoes which were light and quiet and usually made their silent way through the “ports”  in small groups.

Tobacco and Spanish wine were popular contraband but market demands could change. During the First World War mules were an important cargo. Mules from Spain were in high demand by the Allied armies so much so that their exportation was frowned upon by the Spanish government. Although the smuggled mules were ultimately purchased  for use by the French army, there was French import duty upon live stock. This created a unique opportunity for Andorran smugglers who obtained mules from Spain by any means they could and led them over the mountain paths, at night into France. The French gendarmes  were persuaded to look the other way for a small percentage per mule.

The Spanish civil war brought a demand for smuggled foodstuffs, chemicals and pharmaceuticals and there was an inflow of refugees who crossed the border from Spain. Many children and wounded fighters died in makeshift camps set up just over the border.

Similarly during WWII smuggled goods entered Vichy France via the mountain passes and from 1942 onwards, cross-border networks, established along tracks not closely monitored, were set up so that smugglers could help families to escape from occupied France.

Nowadays, illicit free-trading has turned into duty-free shopping and the mountain passes are left to the hikers whilst those in search of cheap booze and fags take to the relative safety of tarmac roads.

The Sounds of War

As I’ve spent the week on tenterhooks waiting to see if the offer on the French house is accepted it’s been a bit of a struggle to settle back to the editing work  so I shuffled off to one of my favourite places along the coast, Spurn Point. It was cold and cloudy and I forgot my camera so when I happened upon a weird object in the middle of a field I was a tad miffed with myself. Having almost decided that the denizens of the little village of Kilnsea (next door to Spurn) were not indulging in arcane rites and rituals involving whopping great lumps of concrete I needed to know more. A pleasant lunchtime chat with coffee in one hand and sandwich in t’other led to the disclosure of the area’s WWI history and this morning I’ll share some of it with you.

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The outbreak of WWI saw the East Yorkshire coast bristling with defences partly aimed at frustrating any attempts to land on the open Holderness beaches and partly to ensure the defence of the busy port of Hull. Military camps sprouted up along the coast and a temporary airfield was developed near Withernsea

The quiet village of Kilnsea was invaded by the military who built Fort Godwin there and what is now the wild nature reserve of Spurn Point was armed with three gun batteries and a signal station. All ships approaching the coast and the Humber estuary used a combination of lights, pennants and sound to show they were friendly. A railway was built to link the installations on Spurn with those at Kilnsea.

Perhaps the most intriguing military installation was that of a sound mirror – a huge concrete dish designed to pick up the sound of incoming enemy aircraft flying over the North Sea. So the mystery of the concrete lump was solved and no, the good folk of Kilnsea do not participate in idolatrous practices (to the best of my knowledge).

The Mirror works by capturing and concentrating sound waves from approaching aircraft (Zeppelins in Kilnsea’s case) via a microphone. Eventually, it was superseded by its big brother radar. The photo shows the mirror with the remains of the pipe for holding the microphone.

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The Kilnsea mirror is around 4.5m high and is said to have provided three or four minutes of extra warning before the attack.  That doesn’t sound much to me but what do I know? Perhaps it was sufficient for the searchlights and gun batteries to gear up for action – although all the military defences on the coast were unable to fend off a Zeppelin attack in 1915 when it offloaded its bombs on the ports of Hull and Grimsby further down the coast, with 60 casualties recorded.

Today much of the WWI installations like Fort Godwin (photos below) have tumbled down the cliffs onto the beaches however the Kilnsea Sound mirror is now a monument protected by English Heritage.

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Thanks to urbanrim.org.uk and Paul Glazzard for the photos.