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In the bright sunshine at Xlendi, Godwin Vella unlocks the large padlock, pushes open a large wooden door – and we step right into the cliff – squinting a little as our eyes adjust to the shady passages inside. I hold my breath and take a look around: we are at the entrance of what seems like a smooth large tunnel leading right into the cliff face. The lamps glow dim, lighting up the passageway – everything seems shrouded in an air of secrecy. It’s hard to believe that it’s noon and that we are in Xlendi, one of Gozo’s best-known tourism resorts where, a few metres down the hill, people are cheerfully sipping drinks and enjoying the sea, oblivious to what lies hidden in the cliffs above them.
A few minutes earlier we had parked our cars opposite the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church and followed a rough road behind it, to the cliff face. There, hidden away behind the chapel, a wooden door had become visible in an aperture in the rock face; just as we were about to enter, we were joined by photographer Rene Rossignaud, looking excited at the prospect of entering the passageway.
So we follow Godwin tentatively into the tunnel until we reach a large room – and step right into another age. Beside me, I can hear Rene gasp. Large machines, their paint still vivid despite the post-war rust, glow in the artificial light of the lamps while, at the far end, a flight of iron steps seems to lead to other levels. As I walk past large machines filling both sides of a vast underground room, it slowly becomes clear – this is part of a massive underground flour mill and we are on the floor housing the grinding machinery.
“This mill was one of eight on the Maltese islands to be built in the aftermath of World War II,” says Godwin, senior curator ethnography with Heritage Malta, his voice hushed. “They were built as contingency measures in case of a nuclear fall-out,” he says, his words echoing slightly in the hollow cliff with its glowing machinery.
In the mid-1950s, during the Cold War, the world watched and waited as America and Russia eyed each other with distrust across the ocean, explains Godwin. At the time, America still did not have warheads which could cross the Pacific, so the UK and other countries were used as American bases, explains Godwin. As an English dependency, Malta was a high risk area, he says.
Fearing that the USSR might attack allied bases in Europe, the British government took a number of contingency measures. Now the danger was different from that of World War II: nuclear warfare presented a far more sinister threat since, apart from the obvious consequences of a direct hit, even nuclear outflow from other areas could result in the release of radioactivity which could travel several kilometres, he says.
Then, on 9 October 1951, the colonial government set up the Civil Defence Corps, says Godwin; this had a contingency role to set up mitigation measures through infrastructure – often underground – as well as coordinating public propaganda and education.
Of the eight underground flour mills built in those years, only the one we were standing in is located in Gozo, he says. In Malta, they were concentrated mainly in the north to ensure a safe distance from target areas such as harbours and airbases. Their air of secrecy was deliberate; most were at least partially buried or camouflaged, says Godwin. In Gozo, the Xlendi site was not the original choice. A tunnel and milling chamber had in fact already been dug at Fort Chambray when the project had to be abandoned because of the poor quality of the rock in that area.
Together the mills cost a phenomenal Lm250,000 to build, he says, three per cent of the annual budget for the year 1955-56. Mindful of the experience of summer 1942, when Malta had been on the verge of surrender due to food shortage, they were built with large silos which could store around 100 tonnes of grain – enough to keep the population of Gozo going for a few weeks, says Godwin.
The silos are found on the mill’s upper floor and, one by one, we climb up the narrow iron ladder which leads into them. Vast smooth concrete spaces, they now lie empty and hollow, but were designed to be filled from street level and then worked by gravity, the grain filtering down to conveyor belts and the machinery below.
Beneath the silos is another floor: here there is the machinery for the sieving of the grain and, beneath that, is the floor we had first entered, containing the grinding machinery. The grinding mechanism was imported from Great Britain’s leading milling engineers Thomas Robinson of Rochdale, says Godwin. The same company was engaged in the replacement of war-damaged mills in several countries.
In the mill’s bottom floor is the engine room, consisting of a central 80-horsepower diesel engine which generated electricity for the entire complex. Full of large rusty iron pulleys and conveyor belts covered in damp droplets, at 50 metres below the surface of the rocks, this room has an air of being the mill’s underbelly and it is easy to imagine its now silent machines chugging rhythmically when the engine was switched on.
As it turns out, however, the mill was never used, says Godwin. Nevertheless, he says, it was kept in perfect condition at least until the 1970s, with a full-time watchman ensuring that the machinery was greased, cleaned and kept in working order.
Not much information exists on whether other underground flour mills of this type were built in other parts of the world, he says, and research so far has not yielded any results. “This means that this site has enormous potential as a tourist attraction,” says Godwin, “especially bearing in mind its location in Xlendi.”
This view seems to have occurred to the Munxar local council too, who have recently started restoration works on the mill and its machinery. At a later stage, Heritage Malta will aid in the interpretation of the site to visitors, says Godwin.
Restoration works carried out so far have paid attention to detail, he says, with the lights being replaced with the same type of wattage as the original to recreate the post-war atmosphere, he says, as we make our way back out of the tunnel.
Outside, the strong midday sun blinds us momentarily, as we walk back towards our cars, still reeling from what we have seen. Behind us, the mill lies forgotten, half-hidden in the cliff behind the church, which stands next to it benignly, while a few houses stare at it blankly. Further down, by the sea, life seems to flow in its usual peaceful rhythms for the tourists and visitors, mostly oblivious of the emergency site in their midst – a reminder that, here – on this very spot – just a few decades ago, people had feared for their safety and that the patterns of our lives are perhaps more fragile than we know.
Source: Let’s Gozo 2008
Photography by Rene Rossignaud