31st August 2021
Four Days on the Isle of Man
Sometimes, for no particular reason, people decide on a place they feel is a must to visit. I felt like that about the Isle of Man. I was delighted to discover it was easy to organise a holiday there – flights with EasyJet and a hotel through Booking.com and I was all set and ready to enjoy four days on the Isle of Man. This island, in the Irish Sea between the North West Coast of England and Ireland has so much to offer. Equipped with my GoExplore heritage card I set of on my own magical mystery tour – and what a great experience it was. As my diary recalls.
I am staying at The Penta, an annexe of the grander Regency Hotel at the far end of the Promenade in Douglas. As I know I am not going to spend much time in my hotel it is ideal –clean and comfortable and includes a complimentary continental breakfast. leave the hotel just after 8am and start walking towards the Isle of Man Steam Railway station (2 miles away) intending to get the first train at 09:50 am. It is a nice walk along the sea front and through a series of gardens in the middle of the wide road that stretches along the promenade.
My route takes me past the ferry terminal so I call in at the tourist information office to collect some maps and get final directions to the steam railway station. I am told I can board 15 minutes before departure time. But when I get to the station there is a long queue so I join it. As the queue starts moving it is a bit haphazard and it is only when I get to the front that I realise I have eased myself into a large tour group booked on the train. Tour groups take priority and today three groups are booked on the same train which is unusual. I step aside. Once the three groups have been boarded the train is very nearly full. The guard manages to squeeze on ten more and I am one of them. But I have to stand in the guard’s van. It is a very enjoyable journey despite the lack of windows as it gives me the chance to chat to Steve, the guard and his assistant Will. Both are very well informed about the railway and the island. I stay on the train until the end of the line at Port Erin.
Port Erin is on the southern tip of the Isle of Man and home to the Port Erin Railway Museum. This little museum is packed with interesting artefacts and locomotives which tell the history of the steam powered railway from its creation in 1873 to the present day. It includes the history of the lines that served Peel, Ramsey and Foxdale but have since been closed. It also features a simulator so visitors can experience the joys of driving a steam train.
After leaving the museum I walk the short distance to the sea front where I find an ice cream parlour selling Davison’s ice cream. This is an Isle of Man brand of ice cream and comes highly recommended. I sit on a bench looking out to sea enjoying a cone of salted caramel ice cream. Port Erin has a pretty sea front with a sheltered bay a peninsula topped by the distinctive Milner’s Tower and clothed in the trees of Bradda Glen. The path to the tower winds through the trees which offer shelter to walkers on rainy days. The beach is busy today and screams of delight waft across the golden sand to the promenade.
As I wander back through the town towards the train station I discover the Erin Arts Centre a well-known performing arts centre combining a cinema and gallery housed in an old Methodist Church. As I am leaving the centre I stop to admire the beautiful door and a passer-by, noticing my interest, takes time to tell me the door is called Viking and was created by Michael Sandle who studied at the Douglas School of Art and Technology. He also told me where I would find more works by Sandle on the island. I don’t have time to explore further as I had also planned to visit Castletown today and I make my way to the bus stop to catch a bus that will take me there.
I get off the bus in the centre of Castletown, the ancient capital of the Isle of Man and home to the famous Castle Rushen. Before visiting the castle, I take a walk around the town centre where I find the old House of Keys and the Old Grammar School but both are closed and only open by appointment – along with the Nautical Museum. I am pondering an information board when a local stops for a chat. We had exchanged greetings earlier today and he is curious to know what I am doing in Castletown. I say my priority is to find somewhere nice for a break and a snack. He directs me to The Bowling Green Café. This little café is in the middle of a complex including tennis courts and a bowling green. The café faces the bowling green and I watch a crown green match taking place as I enjoy a pot of tea with a jam and cream fruit scone. Re-energised I make my way back to Castle Rushen.
I am just in time to do a quick tour of the castle before it closes at 4.30 pm. When I enter I am advised to start at the top and then make my way down visiting each floor on the way. When I get to the top I find four separate turrets and climb each one to enjoy different aspects of the countryside around the town. It is low tide. From my vantage points I can see two places of interest within walking distance of Castletown, Scarlet Point, a walk along the shore and Hango Hill. But, I don’t have time to take either of these walks as I have to be back in Douglas for an evening trip on the steam train.
However, I have time to explore each floor as I make my way down the narrow winding stairs to the exit from the castle. This medieval castle, built around 1200 AD has been home to the Kings and Lords of Mann. It has also been used as a fortress, a mint and a prison. Tableaux on each floor and videos recall the days when the castle was a royal residence.
By the time I started my journey back to Douglas the last steam train had departed – I had heard the whistle tooting as it chugged out of the station. So I get the bus back and as it is a double decker I have a good view of the green countryside around me. As I have no idea where to get off I ask the driver. He tells me which stop I need and when we get there he gives me easy directions to the steam train station. I am booked on the Pie and Mash event and when I arrive at the station the carriages are set up as dining cars and the locomotive is puffing away at the end of the track as it shunts into position. As we enjoy our two course meal we journey all the way to Port Erin at the end of the line and back. This time I travel in style on a comfortable seat next to the window. A very special evening out.
My plan today is to take the Manx Electric Railway to Laxey and then the Snaefell Mountain Railway to the top of Snaefell (Snow Mountain). I am slightly disheartened by the gentle rainfall but pull on my waterproof jacket and set off along the promenade. It is a ten-minute walk and I am soon at the terminus. Shortly after I arrive the tram comes rattling down the hill and stops short of the stop. I watch, fascinated as the driver manually switches lines and then manoeuvres the two carriages into the correct order before easing up to the stop and waiting passengers are invited to board. Despite the weather I choose to sit at the back of the open carriage which is nearly empty as most of the passengers opted for the covered front carriage. We set off up the hill alongside the main road out of town.
The outlook is still pretty bleak when I dismount at Laxey and head for the single carriage Snaefell Mountain Railway. I am not the only optimist and there are already several passengers aboard. When we start off it is clear and I am hopeful I will see something from the peak. However, as we start climbing a swirling mist appears and we are soon enveloped in grey cloud and cannot see anything at all. At the top it is barely possible to make out the café just a few yards from the end of the line. Standing outside this café I fear the strong wind will blow me off my feet so I do a quick circuit and take a few photos before retreating inside to warm up. I don’t have long to wait as trams depart every half hour. I get the next carriage back down the mountain. This is a larger carriage with padded seats so it is more comfortable ride than bouncing around on narrow wooden benches.
After pulling in to Laxey station I take the opportunity to speak to the driver, Colin. He tells me some of the history of this little mountain railway. I am surprised to learn that like the Isle of Man Steam Railway and the Manx Electric Railway it is part of the public transport system on the island. There are still some places only accessible via this little tram or on foot. Colin also points out some highlights of Laxey and I set off to have a walk around the town. I was also hoping to find somewhere for lunch but, as the weather has improved there is no room at either of the two cafés. I went into the visitor centre, housed in a church and full of information about Laxey and in particular the lead ore mines nearby. After that I followed the course of the river down to the Laxey Mill where they weave Isle of Man tartans. There are some lovely sculptures outside the mill but all they can tell me about them is that they came with the property. By then it is time to move on to Ramsey but first I go into the Whistle Stop Café and buy a homemade Bakewell slice to eat on the electric train. It may take a lot longer than the bus but so much more enjoyable.
Ramsey is the second largest town on the island and, as it is a busy working port, it has a very different feel to it. I have a wander along the main shopping street where I find a delightfully old-fashioned iron mongers. Clearly still very necessary as it attracts a steady flow of customers. I stroll along the sea front where I find an extensive beach and then cross the swing bridge to the large swimming pool complex. Beyond that I find some lovely old buildings along a street that leads to Mooragh Park a haven for lovers of water-based activities. I catch the last electric train back to Douglas and spend most of the journey chatting to a local who is delighted to answer all my questions about the island – and pleased to hear how much I am enjoying my few days here. It is clear the islanders are very proud of both their home and its heritage.
Another rainy morning but I am still looking forward to a day out. I take the electric train to Laxey and then walk through the town to the Great Laxey Mine Railway station. This station is based in the Valley Gardens where they used to wash the lead ore when it was brought here from the mines on a miniature train. It is also the site of the Lady Evelyn, a waterwheel once used to pump water out of the mines. It was originally named the Snaefell Wheel but the name was changed in honour of the extensive support of Evelyn Jones for the Laxey Mines Research Team. The locomotive and rolling stock had to be very small in order to get through the only tunnel on the island. This little railway is run by volunteers and Tanya, the driver today, told me all about it. As most of the volunteers go to work during the week the railway is only open on Saturdays. Two very small steam locomotives, Ant and Bee, pull the ten-seater passenger carriage to and fro between the station and the Mines Yard terminus. I take a ride on the train which is full so Graham, the guard, kneels on the floor by my feet. It is great fun.
It is a short walk from the railway terminus to the Great Laxey Waterwheel – known as the Lady Isabella, the largest operational waterwheel in the world. It was built in 1854 to pump floodwater out of the mine. Today it is open to the public and I climbed up the outside spiral staircase to the platform at the top. From here I had great views across the countryside surrounding me. The rain has eased off and a mist hangs in the air above the trees. Back at the bottom I start following the Mine Trail. It is punctuated with information boards and ruins of the old mine buildings. It is raining again but I keep going as it is such an interesting walk. And I am looking forward to going inside a mine shaft at the end of the trail.
The Ballacregga Corn Mill Tea Room is nearby and it also has a waterwheel as a result of the building’s industrial heritage. It is a lovely place to stop for a meal and I had some traditional Manx kippers with brown bread and butter. Delicious. And then walk back into Laxey and catch the bus to Douglas where I get a connecting bus to Peel. As soon as I get off the bus I realise this little seaside town has a very different ambience to the towns I have visited so far. I strolled along the Harbourside past pleasure boats and fishing vessels. Ahead of me the ruins of Peel Castle, built on a small island. Behind me a cluster of buildings where the famous Manx kippers are smoked. A row of cafés and shops line the sea front and I am drawn into the Harbour Lights Café curious to try Norma’s special tea bread, baked using a secret recipe. It is moist, fruity and delicious – especially with a topping of creamy butter. The Isle of Man is famous for its dairy products.
My afternoon becomes considerably brighter at the discovery of the gardens around the Cathedral Isle of Man also known as Cathedral Saint German. I am not sure where the entrance is or even whether I can enter but I walk across the car park in front of the building and find a way in. A series of gardens surround the cathedral, some complete and some a work in progress. There are some interesting plants and information boards planted in the flower beds tell the story of the Isle of Man and the way in which Christianity has been involved in it through the centuries. I am particularly impressed by the Knockaloe Garden Sculpture designed by Angela Patchett and presiding over a garden of the same name. When I go inside the cathedral I am greeted warmly by Rosemary who invites me to take my time exploring the interior and take as many pictures as I like. She tells me evensong is about to take place but it won’t be a problem. This is puzzling as there is no congregation but it seems it has to be said anyway. I decide to stay and one other person joins me. It was very uplifting – I haven’t been to church for years.
This morning my first visit is to the Groudle Glen Railway – a stop on the Manx Electric Railway. This is another restored railway line run by volunteers and just operates on Sundays all summer plus Wednesday evenings for a limited period and organises some special events throughout the year. The first train does not run until 11 am so I have time to explore Groudle Glen itself before making my way to the station. The path through Groudle Glen follows the course of a small river through a wood. Strolling along this path I pass under a viaduct, over a bridge and past a cut collection of fairy houses. Myths about fairies abound on the island although, historically, they are not referred to as fairies but the little people or ‘Themselves’. They can be good or bad and are treated with great respect. Manx fairies do not have flimsy wings and generally dressed in green jackets and wear red hats. It is a lovely morning and the sun filters through the trees as I make my way to the railway station.
When I get to the little station several volunteers are bustling around getting ready for the day. I have a chat with Tim who is duty officer today and also manning the shop. He talks about the volunteers and their training for their respective roles. He also sheds light on the meaning of the name of the café which is part of the railway project and also manned by volunteers – the Sea Lion on the Rocks Café. A zoo once occupied this area and this is reflected in the names of the locomotives as well. Today the steam locomotive Otter is pulling the passenger carriages. Our journey takes us along the coast to the café where I sit in the garden, looking out to sea and enjoying a coffee and a muffin.
When I return to the station I meet Alex who is in the workshop today and clearly a king pin of the whole project. He glows with passion and pride for what has been achieved here although he modestly announces that it is just big boys playing with toys as Hornby’s just aren’t big enough. Alex shows me around the workshop where some locomotives are being restored/rebuilt. But they have also acquired some of the original carriages which are being restored.
Back at Laxey station it is such a lovely day I am tempted to fit in another trip on the Snaefell Mountain Railway – hoping to see the spectacular views from the top. The guard tells me it has been clear at the top but the clouds are closing in again. I decide to risk it and jump aboard. This time the commentary has some meaning as passengers can actually see the site of the disaster when the mine collapsed and the reservoir. As the tram will be there for a few minutes I run around taking photos and the guard manages to find a seat for me on the return journey. I am very grateful as it will give me more time in Peel my next destination.
Peel looks very inviting in the bright sunshine and the pavements are crowded with people sitting outside pubs and cafés and the air rings with excited chatter and laughter. I make my way to the House of Manannan. I am curious about the Island’s mythological sea god, Manannan who will guide me through a series of rooms illustrating the Celtic, Viking and maritime history of the Isle of Man. The museum occupies many rooms and two floors – all beautifully set out to illustrate different aspects and different eras of the island’s history including a full-size replica of the Viking ship, Odin’s raven
As evening starts to draw in I walk to Peel Castle and walk around the exterior of this impressive ruin. I am too late to explore the interior. The Vikings built this castle on St Patrick’s Isle during the eleventh century. I walk back over the bridge, past the RNLI lifeboat. A reminder that the founder of the RNLI lived in Douglas on the Isle of Man. Truly an island bursting with history.
Four days is not enough to do justice to this intriguing island. I have already booked my flights (EasyJet operates flights daily to the island) to return there for a Christmas break.
Valery Collins is the Experienced Traveller An excellent raconteur, Valery has been writing about her experiences on the road since she started travelling 25 years ago. After publishing four books she turned to online travel writing.