Sunday 7th October - 41 residents of Winthorpe and the surrounding area set off at 8am on a five-day coach tour of the Isle of Man. The knowledge of Alex Machin, our coach driver, was to prove very useful, as he had lived on the Island for a number of years.
Arriving at Heysham in Lancashire, we boarded the Isle of Mann Steam Packet Company 500 passenger ferry ‘Ben-my-Chree.' After a 3½ hour crossing of the Irish Sea we arrived in Douglas, the capital of the Isle of Man. Near the harbour entrance, a sight familiar to all ferry passengers, is the Tower of Refuge on Conister Rock. Sir William Hillary, founder of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, built this small structure in 1832 as a place of refuge, after the paddle steamer St. George, with 22 aboard, became stranded there.
Douglas, the Isle of Man capital since 1863 and the seat of government is a hub for shipping, transport, shopping and tourists. The town has spread from the harbour, first with Georgian residences built for affluent arrivals from England and then further along the 2 miles long promenade: Victorian buildings were erected to cater for the wealthy holiday visitors. Old buildings are being replaced using new building techniques and the old façades have been retained, thus in keeping with the original Victorian style.
Our stay for the next four nights, with its 67 rooms, was The Rutland Hotel on Queens Promenade. This impressive wide and sweeping crescent shape promenade, with well-known sunken gardens, runs along side Douglas Bay with its pleasant sandy beach.
Monday 8th October - Leaving Douglas, with a Manx Guide, Leslie Fargher, on board, we started out on a tour of the central part of the Island. The scenery across the Island reminded me of Derbyshire with its hills and stonewalls. Limestone and slate are used for these walls. The light grey slate is not used as a roofing material as it is softer and does not split as easily as the traditional Welsh slate. Like Scotland, many of the houses were white in colour and often flying the Manx flag.
Our coffee stop was Niarbyl on the west coast, whose Manx name is ‘Yu arbyl,' meaning ‘The Tail,' on account of the long reef jutting out from the shoreline. Due to its superb views and scenery it is a favoured location for film and TV producers. The film ‘Waking Ned' was made here. The Calf of Man Isle can be seen and appears to be joined to the main Island.
Following the coastline northwards we called at Peel, once the centre of the Isle of Man's thriving fishing industry. Alighting from the coach we were greeted with the smell of oak-smoked Manx kippers, which Peel is noted for and three Viking Longboats, outside the Heritage Museum. Close to the busy harbour, with fishing and pleasure boats was Peel Castle, built in 1392, on St. Patrick's Isle. Peel has two cathedrals. One is the medieval ruin of St. German's, and located within the walls of the castle. The other, the present cathedral with the same name, is in the centre of town. This is a fine building which technically speaking, gives this ancient fishing port the status of a city.
Travelling inland we came to the attractive village of St. John's. Every year in July, (normally the 5th) this pleasant and quiet community is transformed by the colour, splendour and ceremony of Tynwald Day, which dates back to the 10thCentury. Parliament meets on the four-tier Tynwald Hill, and announces in English and Manx all the laws passed during the legislative year. Members of the Parliament then move into The Royal Chapel of St. John, the parish church built in 1849, for the signing of these legislative documents.
St. John's Primary School is the only one on the Island that teaches Manx Gaelic, the ancient language of the Isle of Man.
ONCE on the top of Tynwald's formal mound
(Still marked with green turf circles narrowing
Stage above stage) would sit this Island's King,
The laws to Promulgate, enrobed and crowned;
While, compassing the little mound around,
Degrees and Orders stood, each under each:
Now, like to things within fate's easiest reach,
The power is merged, the pomp a grave has found.
Off with yon cloud, old Snafell ! that thine eye
Over three Realms may take its widest range;
And let for them, thy fountains utter strange
Voices, thy winds break forth in prophecy,
If the whole State must suffer mortal change,
Like Mona's miniature of sovereignty.
William Wordsworth. 1883.
Tuesday 9th October - The morning visit to Laxey started with a half-hour journey by electric tram of the Manx Electric Railway. In operation since 1803, it has the two oldest working tramcars in the world. With a three feet gauge double track and overhead wires at 550v DC, it is the longest vintage narrow gauge line in the British Isles. This journey north hugs the Island's east coast, passing through leafy glens, gorse topped hills, cliffs and bays.
Laxey, close to the 2,036 feet Snaefell Mountain, has the largest waterwheel in the world. Built in 1845 by John Casement, a Laxey native and talented engineer, the wheel has a diameter of 72 feet and a circumference of 227 feet. Known as ‘Lady Isabella,' it is named after a former Lieutenant Governor Hope's wife. In its day this waterwheel was capable of pumping 250 gallons of water per minute from the mines. These mines, which produced lead, copper, silver, and zinc closed in 1929. The Manx National Heritage, which is similar to our National Trust, runs the site.
Lower down the valley in the Memorial Gardens, behind the railway station, is a smaller waterwheel. Opened in 2006, this 50½ feet diameter wheel and known as ‘Lady Evelyn' is named after Evelyn Jones, who's efforts helped to make the project a success.
Members of the tour spent the afternoon in different ways. Several visited the award winning Manx National Museum in Douglas. This was something not to be missed.
Port Erin, a photogenic seaside town, in an almost landlocked bay, is guarded to the north by the lofty Bradda Head and to the south by Castle Rocks. Pretty white painted cottages trim the inner edge of the bay, boarded by grassy banks and a sandy beach. On top of Bradda Head is Milner's Tower. This monument celebrates the life of William Milner, a Manchester locksmith, who was a staunch supporter of building the breakwater. Before leaving Port Erin, we discovered, from the railway staff, that the son of the late Fred Dibner, steeplejack, steam enthusiastic and TV personality, works for the Manx National Steam Railway.
Boarding the coach that had followed us to Port Erin, we arrived at the most southerly tip of the Island, Calf Sound. Known as the Land's End of the Isle of Man it is one of the most scenic spots on the Island and a haven for birds and wildlife. Swimming in the sunlit tidal waters of the Sound and the Calf of Man beyond were grey seals. The Calf of Sound is now under the protection of the Manx National Heritage.
We had some wonderful moments during the short time we were there.
Just a short distance away from the Sound is Cregneash, the oldest village on the Island. In this village, tucked away on a hillside of the Mull peninsular, are whitewashed-thatched cottages the home to Gregneash Folk Museum. This museum, which has a working farm, tells the story of the life of the Island's crofters in the 1800's. They have many of the famous Manx cats and Manx Loughtan Sheep (also known as Loaghtan), with the rams having four or even six horns.
The church of St. Peter, built in 1859, is a little gem. The remarkable thing about the building of this church was that everyone in the village gave his labour free, the only expense being £150 for materials.
What a wonderful story.
Our last stop of the day was Castletown on the south coast. Guarding the former capital of the Isle of Man is the medieval Castle Rushen. Visible for miles around, this working castle has a courthouse and precincts still in traditional use. In front of the castle is a monument to John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, who preached there in 1777.
Looking down on the Market Square is a clock presented to the Island by Queen Elizabeth 1. Curiously, it has only one finger, but it is still going strong after 400 years.
Close to the castle is the magnificent building of the Old House of Keys, which was the seat of the Manx government from 1709 to 1869 until commercial pressures forced its move to the new capital, Douglas. Two main buildings overlook the harbour. One, the Old Grammar School, formerly the first church of the town, and built in 1200 is now a museum. The other is The Nautical Museum, which has as its main exhibit an armed sailing schooner ‘Peggy' built in 1789, which saw many years of smuggling and trade.
The TV series ‘Island at War' was filmed at Castletown.
On our return journey we passed over Fairey Bridge at Santon with everyone saying "Hello" to ‘Themselves,' a term used by the Manx for little folk. During our journey this morning to Port Erin we passed under this same bridge.
Thursday 11th October - Our tour today was the Manx TT (Tourist Trophy) motorcycle racecourse and the northern part of the Island.
The yearly Manx TT motorcycle race, now in its centenary year, runs in the last two weeks in May and the first week in June. Starting at Douglas, this course, which operates on the Islands roads, is 37¾ miles in length. It therefore requires the rider to have absolute concentration and an almost photographic memory of the weaving and twisting circuit. The Manx Grand Priz Race, for up and coming motorcycle riders, follows this in August.
After a coffee stop at the Tynwald Craft Centre at St. Johns we continued our journey following the TT course. After a few miles the woodland scenery started to change. On our left hand side were fields with their low cut hedges, Loaghton sheep and Friesian cattle. On the other side were a range of hills, peaking up to 1,600 feet, with scrubland, coniferous and broadleaf trees.
Ramsey, also known as Royal Ramsey and capital of the north is overlooked by Albert's Tower, which commemorates the visit by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria in 1847.
Once the forefront of shipbuilding, Ramsey Shipyard is the birthplace and launch site of the ‘Euterpe' now called ‘Star of India.' Launch in 1863 as a fully rigged ship and having sailed to the four corners of the world, it now resides in the American port of San Diego. This iron-hulled sailing ship is the oldest ship in the world that still regularly puts to sea. The shipyard also constructed the world's first iron ship and oil tankers. In the harbour entrance with its twin forcep-like breakwater is a 225 feet long iron swing bridge, made in 1892, connecting West Quay to Mooragh Promenade.
These are proud reminders of the Manx craft and heritage.
Continuing northwards, we came to Port of Ayre. There, the red and white distinctive lighthouse, which dominates the low-lying landscape, is the most northerly building on the Isle of Man. Built in 1818 by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of the poet Robert Louise Stevenson, and still operational, it is only 18 miles from the Galloway coastline of Scotland. Nearby were two buildings. One, a derelict and now redundant foghorn and the second a late 19th century working lighthouse known affectionately by mariners as ‘Winkie.'
Leaving Port of Ayre, which is 33 miles from the Calf of Man we had a short stay at Jurby Junk on the redundant WW11 airfield. Continuing south on the Mountain Road we past a misty Sneafell Mountain. On a clear day, from the summit, six kingdoms can be seen: - England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and the Kingdom of Heaven.
Our last stop was Grove House and Gardens just outside Ramsey. Built in the mid 1800's, it was owned by Duncan Gibb, a Liverpool Shipping Merchant, as a holiday home. The rooms are filled with period furnishings together with a costume exhibition. In the adjacent farmyard are buildings containing displays on farming and 19th century vehicles.
It is now owned by the Manx National Heritage and remains a Victorian museum frozen in time.
It was a treasure.
Friday 12th October - Sadly this was departure day. After a 3¼ hours sea journey on the ‘Ben-my-Chree' we arrived at Heysham and then home.
As Alex, our coach driver was taking us to catch the ferry home, he remarked that he had taken us to the north part of the Island, the south part of the Island and the central part of the Island but not around the Island. He then proceeded to drive around the traffic island outside the ferry terminal. We rolled with laughter. Thank you Alex.
The highlight of my stay on the Isle of Man has to be the 15 miles journey from Douglas to Port Erin on the Manx Steam Railway. Pulling two coaches, and with a steam pressure of 160 lbs per square inch, was ‘Kissack,' a puffing, hissing, fire-eating steam locomotive, built in 1910.
This journey brought back nostalgic memories of my childhood days.
Was it your highlight?
Pat Finn. October 2007.