This post is a brief guide to the Isle of Man, which Ted and Steve have visited several times. As a tour manager with Great Rail Journeys Steve led tours to the island in 2011, 2014 and 2015. They had been to the island once before – With Colin they rented a cottage for a week in 2000. Over the years the island has reinvented itself from a bucket-and-spade destination – Steve’s parents had a vacation there before he was born and his grandparents holidayed there several times as a change from Blackpool and Scarborough. Today it is a finance centre and tax haven but also retains a substantial tourist trade – from the scenery and history to motor cycle races and vintage transport.
One of the island’s principal attractions of the island is the network of heritage railways and tramways – the Great Rail tours were titled ‘Vintage Railways of the Isle of Man’ and it was also the main reason why Steve chose the island for our first visit.
Steve the horse sets off along Douglas promenade
The capital of the island, Douglas, is also the starting point for much of the heritage transport. In summer horse trams run along the promenade from the Ferry Terminal to Derby Castle. On one occasion our group was hauled by a horse called Steve. We were able to organize a visit to the stables for one of our groups. We were told that the horses have a more powerful trade union the staff – they will refuse to do more than two return journeys at a time. On a tour of the island the rest home for retired horses was pointed out.
A Manx Electric Railway tram at Ramsey
The Manx Electric Railway, a tramway where some of the cars are over a century old, runs for 17 miles from Derby Castle in Douglas along the coast via Laxey to Ramsey. Prior to buses it was the main form of transport between the towns and it still provides good views as it trundles along the clifftops.
Snaefell summit station
From Laxey the Snaefell Mountain Tramway runs to summit of Snaefell, the highest point on the island at 3036 feet, with views (if weather permits) over to Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. Clear weather at the top of Snaefell is not guaranteed: out of four visits it was perfectly clear on only one – but the licensed café at the summit is fine and the railway journey to the summit is always worth it
Snaefell summit (above) and the Manx Steam Railway (below)
The Isle of Man Steam Railway, operated by steam locomotives built between 1873 and 1926 runs from Douglas to Castletown and Port Erin and is the remaining section of the island’s standard railway network. We were able to visit the Steam Railway sheds on one occasion.
‘Oi! Who’s stolen my tank engine’ said Thomas to his twin brother, at the Isle of Man Steam Railway sheds.
Two small, volunteer-run railways also operate on the island. The Groudle Glen Railway is accessed via Groudle Glen station on the Electric Railway, followed by a ten minute walk through the glen to the station of the two-foot gauge railway which runs to Sea Lion Rocks. Laxey was a lead and zinc mining village and the Great Laxey Mine Railway operates on part of the old track – the two locomotives are And and Dec.
The walk through Groudle Glen, Sea Lion Rocks and the Laxey Mine Railway
Around the island
In the south the settlements include Castletown, the picturesque former capital of the island, where Castle Rushen and the old parliament building, the House of Keys, can be visited. Port St Mary is a fishing village, which Steve and Ted visited during the queenie (scallop) festival. At the end of the Steam Railway line is Port Erin which developed as a holiday resort – today there is a railway museum by the station. All three have decent pubs in which to pass an hour or two. At the southern tip is the Sound, undeveloped except for the visitor centre and café, with views across to the small island, the Calf of Man. On the road to the Sound is the Cregneash open air museum of traditional Manx farming life.
The Calf of Man from The Sound
Much of the west coast is are mountainous, though it also includes the town of Peel with its castle, on an island in the harbour. Also in Peel is the House of Mannanan Museum of Manx Celtic and Viking Heritage, and the Manx Kipper Smokehouse, which sells excellent kipper rolls. In 2000 we were based in the small and pretty village of Kirkmichael, which we used as a base for walking through the quiet side of the island.
To the north is the part of the island we have least explored, an area of small settlements and the northernmost tip of the island the point of Ayre. Attractions include the transport museum at Jurby and the Curragh Wildlife Park. On the east coast is Ramsey, the northernmost town and second largest on the island, a fishing port and shipbuilding settlement which grew into a holiday resort.
The Laxey Wheel
In the east is Laxey, junction of the electric railway and the mountain tramway. A must visit is the Laxey Wheel (the largest working waterwheel in the world, built to pump water from the local mines). We’ve managed to climb to top of the Laxey Wheel by the narrow spiral staircase and visited the mine. Nearby, on the coast is the old part of Laxey around the harbour.
More of the Laxey Wheel…including the view from the top
The capital, Douglas features an impressive promenade of hotels and guesthouses. Today it is the shopping and commercial centre for the locals and a financial centre – there are a lot of brass plaques of dodgy sounding banks on the doors, taking advantage of low taxes and regulation on the island. We managed to see inside the Manx Parliament building and a take a backstage tour of the magnificently restored Gaiety Theatre. As the tours were based in Douglas, there was plenty of time to visit a few of the pubs.
Douglas from the ferry
Other attractions include the course of the motorbike TT races which winds round the island and up the slopes of Snaefell. The main races take place in late May – early June. On one tour we followed the course with a commentary by our coach driver, who had often ridden it on his own motorbike. Another group took a tour round the course by taxi, with a knowledgeable driver. In the centre of the island is Tynwald Hill, the ancient site of the Manx Parliament, still used to proclaim new laws each year. Throughout the island there is a well-marked network of walking paths, which we explored from our base in Kirkmichael (pictured). Around the island there is plenty of decent beer to be had and a good selection of pubs – it is becoming too long ago to recommend any in particular. However, the Isle of Man is included in CAMRAs UK Good Beer Guide and the whatpub app.
Port St. Mary
When we visited in 2000, it felt like stepping back fifty years or more. Whilst generally friendly enough there was an obvious lack of diversity and social attitudes were often antediluvian. We enjoyed our visit but when we disembarked the return ferry and stopped off in Lancaster for a couple of pints it felt like returning to the real world. On the more recent visits with tours it seemed that the island was edging its way slowly into the twenty-first century. There’s a lot of (sometimes dubious) money floating around the islands but the rich tax exiles are well hidden away from public gaze.
Cregneash Open Air Museum
In the middle of the Irish Sea the weather is not always perfect – there has been the occasional wet day but none of our visits (between May and September) have been spoiled by a long spell of bad weather. There are microclimates on the island and one side can have sunshine while it is raining on the other.
The kipper factory, Peel
The Isle of Man is a Crown Dependency and is independent from the UK except for defence and external affairs. It was never part of the European Union – Maybe England should have applied to become part of the Isle of Man, and left the rest of us to get on with life without the horrors of Brexit. The currency is sterling but the Isle of Man issues its own notes and coins which are in everyday use throughout the island (though of course UK contactless and cards are increasingly accepted). However, the ATM at the ferry terminal issues Bank of England notes for those travelling to the UK (presumably the same happens at the airport).
Douglas station – Isle of Man Steam Railway
Getting there – The traditional route is by ferry and all of our visits have used the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company ferry from Heysham, Lancashire, a three and a half hour journey. Other ferries operate from Liverpool and in the summer from Belfast and Dublin. For details see www.steam-packet.com .There are flights to Ronaldsway airport from a wide range of UK airports, particularly in the summer months.
Getting around, tourist information and useful websites – Everyday public transport is by bus and a comprehensive network across the island is provided by Bus Vannin. The tramways and steam railway operate in the tourist season – roughly between April and September. Passes are available – the Go Explore card (pictured) for visitors covers all the public transport on the island (including the vintage railways but not the Groudle Glen and Laxey Mine railways) and is available in 1,3,5 and 7 day versions. They are available online and at the ferry terminal and airport. Timetables and passes can be found via links on the Isle of Man Government site– www.gov.im and the Government tourist organization Visit Isle of Man at www.visitisleofman.com . The Groudle Glen railway site is www.ggr.org.uk and the Laxey Mines railway www.laxeyminerailway.im . Many historic attractions are operated by Manx National Heritage and details of opening times and admission prices are at www.manxnationalheritage.im . The Go Explore Heritage Card is a version of the 5 day Go Explore Card which includes admission to their sites.
Ted refusing to climb the Laxey Wheel and an Electric Railway tram on our 2000 visit.
Derby Castle ticket office – Manx Electric Railway
Great Rail Journeys continues to operate the Vintage Railways of the Isle of Man tour with weekly departures during the summer months- visit www.greatrail.com for details.
Photographs. All of the photos are by Steve Gillon, except for the picture of him, which was by Colin Hood.
Ted and the trig point, Snaefell summit
© Copyright Steve Gillon, 2020.