OUR CONTINUING history series uses a modern-day daredevil adventurer and a 1903 walking guide to tell the story of one of the most ambitious 19th century civil engineering projects undertaken on the island.
A VIDEO Rubén Alonzo Bizarro posted on Instagram of himself walking along the ruins of the old pumping station of La Gordejuela in Los Realejos went viral and was seen all around the world. It was, indeed, the ultimate in daredevil adventure, bordering on lunacy.
The video was not for the faint hearted but it was impossible to switch off. We were rabbits caught in the headlights muttering about the stupid fool – and worse in the Fisher household.
Many visitors to the island have seen these ruins because they are at the start of one of the most interesting walks in the north of Tenerife. It is a flat coastal walk of two kilometres leading to the old Manor House of the Castro family in Los Realejos.
The views are stunning, the vegetation, flowers and birds a joy to behold but there’s also plenty to interest the historian along this gentle stroll.
Let’s start with the Pumping Station itself.
Where the barranco (Spanish for ravine) of Palo Blanco meets the sea there is a point in Los Realejos where the cascading waters from Mount Teide crashed down with a mighty force.
An early sketch in the first quarter of the 19th century by J.J.Williams depicts this awesome sight. They were called the Cascades of Gordejuela, named after an ancient gentleman knight and philanthropist, Don Juan de Gordejuela, born in Vizcaya who built convents in Los Realejos.
Osbert Ward in his Guide Book published in 1903 described walks and rides that could be taken to make the visit to Tenerife more interesting.
No 37 is entitled To the Waterfalls on the Coast. Having walked from the Plaza de Charco to Punta Brava in the west the walker is advised to “go down to the cliff top and turn left by a small path under the cliffs until a curious place is reached – a big precipice, and near the foot of it water gushing out in all directions. It is a pity the water is too low to be of any use. So it runs into the sea.”
At the time that Osbert was preparing his book, little did he know that the Hamiltons of Santa Cruz had a project under way to capture this roaring escape of fresh water and use it to service most of the banana plantations of the Orotava Valley.
In 1898, Hamilton and Co formed La Sociedad de las Aguas de Gordejuela and in 1902 work commenced on a massive project to build a pumping station directly over the mouth of the outlet spring.
A year later it was finished. However it took two more years to find the best machinery for the job. The first steam pumps to be introduced to the island were installed. They were moving 4,800 cubic metres of water per day.
The water was pumped two kilometres to a reservoir in Los Realejos Alto. But that wasn’t the end of the project. The water from the reservoir was then distributed a further 12 kilometres by aqueduct to the banana plantations of the Orotava Valley.
The project was designed and supervised by a military engineer, Don José Galvan Balaguer. After he had supervised the building, working continuously without taking a break, Don José, could then concentrate on searching for the ideal machinery.
The investors should have started to get anxious around this time but would have been relieved to see this monumental project in action. For various reasons they were well over budget – if they ever had one. The plant leapt into action in 1905. It ran at a loss but they struggled on.
Eventually, in 1910, to get at least some income, the pumping station was rented out to another British company, Elders and Fyffe, who eventually purchased it in 1919. In later years, as other cheaper methods were adopted, the plant was closed down. The towering chimney was taken down in the 1940s and what was left of the building was abandoned.
Striding along from the Pumping Station we come to the little fort of San Fernando, on the edge of the estate of the Castro mansion. The fort was built in the late 18th century possibly as a lookout for pirates and in 1808 Agustin de Betancourt y Castro stationed there five miniature cannons to show the pirates that the Castros meant business.
It was also in 1808 that Spain became allied with England in their fight against Napoleon, after being on the other side for five years. The cannonballs were about the size of cricket balls and would have little effect on a French man ‘o war sailing by – unless one hit the admiral on the back of the head.
Agustin de Betancourt y Castro was the father of Agustin de Betancourt y Molina (1758-1824) who found fame and fortune as a military engineer in Russia. Born in Puerto de la Cruz, Agustin Jnr. left Tenerife in 1778 to study in Madrid and never returned. He spent the last 16 years of his life in Russia and became a great favourite of Tsar Alexander 1.
It was reported that when Mikhail Gorbachev visited Spain in 1990 he commented that he was happy to be in Spain, the birthplace of the most illustrious supporter and collaborator that Russia has ever had: Agustin de Betancourt…”
Further on our walk towards the Castro Mansion, we come across the Ermita of San Pedro. This was built as the private chapel to the Castro family. Inside is a small statue of St Peter the Apostle which was restored in 2014.
Finally we reach our destination, the Castro Mansion. The land we have traversed with its beautiful scenery and a botanical paradise known as the Rambla del Castro was awarded to Hernando Castro, a Portuguese merchant who assisted Alfonso de Lugo in the conquest of the island in 1496: the spoils of war. Here Castro built a hacienda (which was not called Hernando’s Hideaway) but the building you see today appertains to the 18th century.
It was owned by the Castro family in 1875 when the grandson and family of Agustin de Betancourt y Castro entertained Marianne North, the renowned artist, for a few days during her visit to Tenerife. Osbert Ward also mentions in his 1903 Guide that the property is still in the hands of the Castros. Now the trail grows cold, but I will discover when the last of the Castros handed over the keys. The Mansion now belongs to the people of Los Realejos and has been suitably titivated to be used as a visitors’ centre albeit still closed.
A few steps further and you arrive at the bus stop where you can catch the TItsa bus back to Puerto and a well earned gin and tonic.
I have not mentioned the small beaches that are part of this walk with their strange names. You can look down on them and see and hear the waves crashing against the rocks. Myself, I suffer from vertigo, which is where we came in.