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They came by boat

10 May 2013

NO LONGER does anyone live on the Isla del Rey, in the harbour of Mahon, in Majorca, but it was once home to one of the oldest Royal Naval Hospitals in the world.

As it was strategically placed in the Mediterranean, Admiral John Jennings, who had taken part in the capture of Menorca in 1708, saw it as an ideal place for a hospital to treat the growing number of sailors who were suffering from the effects of poor diets on long sea voyages. Only five years previously, Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell's five-month Mediterranean voyage had brought a death toll of 1500.

Admiral Jennings (the 15th son of a struggling Shropshire squire - which may well have accounted for his humanity) submitted a plan to the Admiralty, but gave up waiting for their approval, and ordered the construction of the hospital, funded largely by his fellow officers. It was completed in 1711 for a third of the estimated total cost, although the officers had to appeal to Queen Anne to get their money back.

By the time the hospital was finally abandoned, in 1964, the buildings were almost in ruins, and the once-famous herb garden was completely overgrown. But an ex-Chief of Staff in the Spanish army, Luis Alejandre, came to the rescue with an army of local Sunday volunteers, who, over the past four years, have restored the hospital almost entirely from their own resources, emulating those naval officers of 300 years ago.

The building now has new roofs of traditional tiles, the creamy limestone shines bright, and the herb garden has been replanted. The chapel has also been restored to use, and the Very Revd Dr Michael Higgins, former Dean of Ely and now a locum chaplain in the diocese of Europe, celebrated a service there on St George's Day, attended by residents of Menorca who had come by boat.

He tells me that some 300 to 400 people cross to the island every Sunday morning from May to October, and all of them visit the chapel, where the organist plays as they walk round; and there are now regular services at festivals and on other special occasions.

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