The Victoria Lines are a set of fortifications built between 1870 and 1899. They consist of four principal forts, a number of other gun batteries and a continuous infantry line that connects them together to form a 12-kilometre-long defensive line which cuts across Malta from coast to coast, from Kunċizzjoni/Fomm ir-Riħ in the west to Madliena/Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq in the east.
The Victoria Lines have lain abandoned ever since their military significance faded a hundred years ago. Nevertheless, they still provide a very interesting insight into the development of fortifications in the 19th century and, as such, form an intrinsic part of Malta’s historical heritage. They also offer some of the best vantage points from where to enjoy the beauty of the countryside spread out beneath them.
Walking along the Victoria Lines can only confirm their potential to become Malta’s foremost countryside/heritage trail. The views are generally spectacular, albeit with one glaring exception, which is the large hard stone quarry between Mosta and Naxxar. Otherwise, the Victoria Lines offers breathtaking scenery, including some very interesting valleys of ecological interest. And all the various vantage points and valley beds are linked together in a tangible manner through the unifying historical nexus provided by the Victoria Lines, built at a particular period in Malta’s history and representing an intriguing example of military engineering technology from the last quarter of the 19th century.
Properly delineated countryside trails have an inherent value in facilitating access to the countryside for locals wishing to discover and enjoy the Maltese rural landscape. Furthermore, they should also be seen as an additional product in the global Malta tourism product offer.
A proper national heritage trail along the Victoria Lines would be an additional activity to propose to tourists visiting Malta. This would be something else for tourists to enjoy, especially in the shoulder and winter months, in line with Malta’s stated tourism strategy not to be perceived only as a sea and sun destination but as an all-year destination with a diversified and, in a number of respects, unique product offer.
Before 1995, the Victoria Lines had been practically unknown to most people in Malta. In that year, Mosta local council launched an initiative, in the context of an EU-funded programme called Med-Urbs, which served to raise the public profile of the Victoria Lines. This culminated in a series of events in 1997 to mark the 100th anniversary since the dedication of the fortifications to Queen Victoria in 1897 on the occasion of her diamond jubilee.
In terms of recognition, the Victoria Lines will always suffer from being compared to the much more imposing fortifications around the Grand Harbour. However, the Victoria Lines and the other fortifications erected during British rule are now accepted as a deserving element in Malta’s historical heritage and, often enough, are featured in local and foreign publications.
The 1995 Med-Urbs programme provided the opportunity to reflect upon the experience of Hexham and other counties in the UK in their promotion of Hadrian’s Wall as one continuous trail linking together various scenic and archaeological sites, where the historical legacy of the wall provides the principal and unifying attraction.
The programme also provided the impulse for a number of tangible interventions along the Victoria Lines. Between 1995 and 1997, various sections of the Lines were cleared of accumulated debris and vegetation. In the following years, actual restoration works were also undertaken by the Restoration Directorate, most notably the intervention in 2002 at Binġemma Gap. This was possible after the Lines had been extensively surveyed and a detailed photographic record compiled, in conjunction with research carried out in the UK at the Public Records Office in Kew.
Since then, the Planning Authority has scheduled the whole length of the Victoria Lines and the prospected trail now features in the relevant local plans such that it may be said that a national countryside/heritage trail along the Lines has already been established as a concept.
Unfortunately, however, what has been established as a concept is still a long way from also being achieved in practice. Parts of the Victoria Lines have remained largely inaccessible, and even in those areas where the original patrol path had been cleared, vegetation has grown again, making it quite difficult to walk even along those particular stretches.
Continued encroachment of sections of the fortifications at Dwejra by certain individuals remains a serious concern. And little progress has been achieved in securing the allocation of Fort Binġemma and of ex-military buildings at Dwejra and along other parts of the Victoria Lines for uses that would support an eventual countryside/heritage trail. As far as I know, the only exception is the allocation of Tarġa Battery to Mosta local council, which plans to restore it and open it to the public.
The components of the Victoria Lines, such as the forts, are interesting in themselves, but it is their linkage into one integrated defensive system which provides the unique character
Anyone approaching certain parts of the Victoria Lines today is still likely to remark upon the problem of litter, but for those who remember the same areas 20 years ago it is fair to say that wholesale dumping has been contained. Similarly, wanton damage to the fortifications has been curtailed although they remain subject to ongoing deterioration.
One important consideration that has not changed concerns the ownership of the land on which the Victoria Lines are built and of the space alongside them which originally formed a patrol path. This is all government-owned except for a small part at its eastern-most extremity at Madliena, but this segment would not be essential for an eventual trail since this could start from Fort Madliena and continue down to San Giovanni Battery. There are two places where the path is obstructed by farming-related encroachments but the land is leased from the government and, undoubtedly, a solution could be found to open up the path.
It has to be kept in mind that the Victoria Lines extend over 12 kilometres, for the most part in open countryside. It is not a site that could be enclosed within a perimeter fence. There are also real and practical difficulties in undertaking restoration and even simple cleansing interventions in locations that are distant from access roads.
Therefore, one must not underestimate the daunting challenge in implementing effective measures to protect, conserve and rehabilitate this most interesting vestige of Malta’s more recent history. In particular, the required initiative must not be perceived as being primarily a restoration project but rather as the development of a new ‘product’, specifically a managed heritage trail.
The essential aim must be to secure unimpeded and safe access along the whole length of the Victoria Lines, with the ultimate goal of establishing a properly managed National Heritage Trail. And, once inaugurated, the eventual trail will need to be maintained and sustained on an ongoing basis. This will involve promoting the trail to induce people to visit, while providing safeguards against any damage to the historical heritage and to the surrounding natural habitat.
The Victoria Lines cannot be segregated from their surroundings. The fortifications exist in synthesis with the natural environment and any intervention made must not disturb this important relationship.
By definition, the concept of a heritage trail implies an open invitation to the public to visit. This will necessitate giving due consideration to issues of safety and liability. This will involve providing interpretation, channelling access and managing visitor flows.
The objective to be set must be twofold: (i) a cultural one – seeking to protect/rehabilitate this element of Malta’s historical heritage while making it accessible to the public, and (ii) an economic one – develop an additional attraction/activity for tourists in off-peak months.
The project would need to address issues concerning access, restoration, reutilisation of heritage sites, links with local communities, public education, heritage interpretation, marketing and ongoing management of the eventual trail. This last aspect is likely to be the most challenging as it requires the establishment of new structures and the acquisition of new skills, plus a broad collaborative effort between the government, local councils, NGOs and the private sector.
There is no ready template from past experience that can be directly applied but it is possible to identify some of the essential elements that will need to be incorporated into the required comprehensive strategy. These are outlined in the accompanying box.
In conclusion, the Victoria Lines may be said to be Malta’s most extensive, military-architecture undertaking. Its defining characteristic is the combination of natural features and man-made structures to create a defensive barrier that cuts across the whole width of the island.
The individual components of the Victoria Lines, such as the forts, are interesting in themselves, but it is their linkage together into one integrated defence system which provides the unique character. This is something that can only be fully appreciated if one walks along the Victoria Lines. Hopefully, sometime in the future, it will be possible to do so from one end to the other.
• An officially sanctioned and government-appointed Victoria Lines heritage trail steering committee. A small project management team with the active participation of those government entities that will need to play a key role (principally the Parks Directorate and the Restoration Directorate and possibly also the newly announced agency – Ambjent Malta);
• An open link with the relevant local councils (to secure their involvement);
• The participation of NGOs with relevant expertise (such as Wirt Artna and the Malta Ramblers Association);
• The involvement of the private sector.
• A detailed action plan to secure access along the whole length of the Victoria Lines from Fort Madliena to il-Kunċizzjoni;
• Consideration on how best to use the various existing buildings along the Victoria Lines (at Għargħur, Dwejra, Binġemma and Kunċizzjoni) in support of the envisaged trail;
• The necessary action through the government property department to secure access through those few points along the Victoria Lines where the original patrol path is obstructed by encroachments;
• An assessment of the potential to tap EU funding (for rural development, tourism product diversification, heritage conservation).
• Interventions to trim vegetation and facilitate access along the whole length of the path;
• Targeted restoration interventions, in particular where there is the danger of damage to the remaining parts of the wall.
• A management plan to develop the path as a national countryside/heritage trail based on a collaborative arrangement involving government agencies, NGOs and the private sector.
Ray Cachia Zammit was editor of a publication on the Victoria Lines in 1996 that served to raise public awareness about the fortifications. This article was prompted by a talk on the Lines given earlier this year by Judge Joseph Galea Debono and Prof. Anthony Bonanno.