I knew it was going to be a big ask for my geographically challenged friend. “The Isle of Man,” I said. “Oh, that’s the one down south, near Southampton,” he said. No, not quite. The thing is there are a lot of people who aren’t quite sure where the Isle of Man is. And it’s a pretty good bet the ones that do are either walkers, lovers of nature or bikers.
Set in the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man is almost equidistant from the coasts of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Legend has it that we owe its position to Irish giant Finn Mac Cuill. He’s said to have hurled a handful of earth at a rival giant over in Scotland. The earth fell rather short of the intended target, dropping into the Irish Sea to form the island we see today. It must have been a big handful – for the island is 33 miles long and 13 miles wide.
Ancient Folk Tales
Even now, visitors soon discover that folk tales and superstitions abound on Man.
As you approach the capital Douglas from the airport, remember to say ‘hello’ to the little people when crossing the Fairy Bridge, or your trip might not go as planned. Oh, and watch out for Moddey Dhoo, a black hound that reputedly haunts Peel Castle…
Another of the island’s legends gives the Isle of Man its name. The standard explanation is that it comes from the Manx Gaelic name for the island – Ellan Vannin – which translates as ‘The Island of Man’. However, the locals know it really comes from the ancient Irish sea god Manannan Mac Lir. It is said the heavy mist that sometimes covers the island is his cloak, protecting the land from invaders.
The Hour of the Vikings
It’s a moot point whether the mist worked. Though it’s not known whether the Romans ever landed, the Irish certainly did, making the short hop across the water sometime in the seventh century – as so many do now. The first Vikings appeared at the end of the eighth century, and Man fell under Viking control in 1079. The island passed to the Scottish crown in 1266 and then to the British crown in 1764 – but it was never fully incorporated. To this day, the Isle of Man isn’t part of the United Kingdom or the European Union, but is a Crown Dependency – a self-governing possession of the British Crown, like Jersey and Guernsey.
Despite not being part of the UK, there’s a familiar feel to the place. The islanders drive on the left side of the road; there are British-looking buses, and the road signs and traffic lights are the same as on the mainland.
But there is one major difference. The pace of life on the Isle of Man is calmer, more laid back. There’s no need to rush here, as it takes under an hour to get pretty much anywhere on the island. Another difference is the prevalence of the Manx language, albeit more in the written form. A legacy of the early Irish settlers, Manx has its origins in Gaelic and is an important part of the island’s Celtic culture and heritage.
The only invaders these days are the thousands of tourists who make the crossing to experience the island’s unique charm and atmosphere. And the couple of bikes that pop over, too. (Up to 15,000 bike owners bring their machines over to the island for the TT).
But most of those tourists are here for the walking. Despite being only around a third of the area of Greater London, the Isle of Man boasts possibly the most varied and exciting walking anywhere within the British Isles. With more than 40 percent of the island uninhabited, there’s plenty of space to feel at one with the great outdoors.
It’s often said that Man is like the British Isles in miniature. Imagine the craggy, gnarled cliffs of the north Cornwall coast, the undulating hills of the Peak District and the sandy beaches of south-east England in one compact package, and you’re there. Add one mountain that wouldn’t be out of place in North Wales or Scotland, and that’s the Isle of Man.
The mountain is Snaefell – which is old Norse for ‘snow hill’. With a height of 620m (2,034ft) it’s mid-table in comparison to Wainwright’s Cumbrian fells; but no Wainwright walk can offer the view from the top. On a clear day, you can see England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The summit is certainly walkable, but in common with Snowdon, most visitors travel to the top using the Snaefell Mountain Railway, which has been commuting up and down since 1895. Snaefell rises up from the central belt of the island, along with 10 of the island’s 12 highest peaks. If you’re happy walking Haystacks and Hartsop Dodd in the Lake District, this area is for you.
I would advise tackling all or part of the Millennium Way, one of four long-distance footpaths on the island. It travels for 26 miles through the central belt, passing peaks such as Carragham, Beinn-y-Phott and the side of Snaefell on its way from north to south.
One of the other long-distance footpaths is perfect for lovers of the sea – the Manx Coastal Path, known as the Raad ny Foillan, or The Way of the Gull. Devised in 1986, the path hugs the shoreline and comprises 95 miles of beaches, harbours, hills and cliffs. And of course the walk can be broken into sections easily accessible at both ends by public transport.
On the Bright Side
The Isle of Man has a bit of a reputation for being wet – and you don’t get a landscape this lush without rain – but the amount can vary across the island. There is less rainfall in the north and along the south coast, but plenty along the central hilly sections, and the heights of Snaefell are often engulfed with cloud. If you’re used to the Lakes, you’ll know what to expect. What isn’t well known is that the island often hosts several different micro-climates at same time. So if it’s raining around Peel, simply drive across to Ramsey and you could well be bathed in sunshine.
There are plenty of attractions other than the landscapes and nature. Around the coast from the Calf (the tiny island off Man’s southern tip) is the terminus to the Isle of Man Steam Railway at Port Erin. From here is one of my favourite scenic rail journeys in the world. Using original rolling stock and locomotives, the 15-mile trip steams from the west to the modern capital Douglas. En route, a stop at the former Manx capital of Castletown to see the splendidly preserved medieval castle. Transfer across Douglas to the Manx Electric Railway, and Laxey is the stop for the Isle of Man’s most iconic sight – The Lady Isabella – otherwise known as the Laxey Wheel.
“Is it worth going?” said my geographically challenged friend.
Two hundred and twenty one square miles of stunning landscapes, spectacular wildlife, scenic drives, old fashioned steam railways and centuries of history to explore… “I’d say so,” I replied.
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Andrew White is a writer, broadcaster and film-maker with a passion for walking and railways – which makes the Isle of Man his perfect place.