Tuesday, 27 August 2013


Castletown, the former capital of the Isle Of Man, is a pleasant, smart little town with narrow, twisting streets dominated by the medieval Castle Rushen, which overlooks the small harbour.  The town is on the northwest side of Castletown Bay, and is just one mile from the airport.  Built for a Norse king in 1265, with further developments between the 13th and 16th centuries, the castle is remarkably well preserved for its age.  As well as the vaulted rooms and halls of the interior, visitors can enjoy the views of the coast and countryside from the castle walls.  A large number of executions were carried out in the castle, so it is no surprise that it has a reputation for hauntings, most notably the mysterious woman in grey, thought to be the ghost of an innocent woman who was executed for killing her son.  Isle Of Man Ghost Tours organises ghost walks around the castle.  

Castle Rushen, from the town side

Another notable building in the town is the Old House Of Keys, where the Tynwald - the island's parliament - used to convene.  One of the Tynwald's former members, a colourful local character called Captain George Quayle, had a yacht called Peggy, named after his mother and probably one of the earliest yachts to be built, having been launched in 1791.  During the time the yacht was in use it is believed to have been used for smuggling among other activities. After the death of the real Peggy, Quayle locked the boat away in a harbourside boathouse, and there it remained until it was rediscovered in 1935.  The boathouse Quayle built for the Peggy now houses the Nautical Museum, where the Peggy has pride of place.  The museum includes a number of quirky features which are a reminder of the inventiveness and eccentricity of Quayle.  To the south of the town is the Scarlett Visitor Centre with displays of the island's flora and fauna and a nature trail along the coastline.  Birdwatchers should be on the lookout for wheatears, stonechats and meadow pipits as well as the many seabirds.

The harbour

Map of the area. 

Sunday, 25 August 2013


Port Erin and Port St Mary lie on the south-west tip of the Isle Of Man, on opposite sides of the peninsula where the land narrows at this point.  Port Erin is the southern terminus of the Steam Railway from Douglas.  In fact, it was here that the first steam railway on the Isle Of Man was built.  Known as the Port Erin Breakwater Railway, it was intended as a construction line.  There is a museum next to the Port Erin railway station dedicated to railway travel in a bygone age.  Port Erin's seafront consists of a sandy beach backed by a promenade, flanked by two headlands.  On one of them, Bradda Head, there is a tower called Milner's Tower made in the shape of a key and lock, the reason being that the man it is dedicated to, William Milner, owned a company which made fire-resistant safes.  Port St Mary, the first stop on the railway after it leaves Port Erin, is a similar, but quieter small resort with a sizeable harbour, a reminder of the time when it was an important fishing and trading port.  The name of the town derives from the Chapel of St Mary which is thought to have overlooked Chapel Bay.  Less mobile visitors should be aware that the town and harbour are a bit of a walk from the station.

Port Erin, looking towards Bradda Head

However, charming though the two resorts are, the most interesting part of this area is to the south-west.  Wildlife enthusiasts should head for the headland overlooking the islet of Kitterland, and just beyond, the larger Calf Of Man, where there is a bird observatory with wardens living on the island between March and November, keeping records of migrations, numbers and so on.  The island's feathered inhabitants include the ever-popular Puffin, Guilemots, Razorbills, and a real local bird, the Manx Shearwater.  Boat trips come here from various locations on the island, giving the opportunity to view not only the birds, but seals, dolphins, basking sharks and the occasional Minke Whale.  Near Port St Mary on the headland overlooking Calf Sound there is a visitor centre with a cafe offering panoramic views of the surrounding area (ignore the fact that the website says the visitor centre is in Port St Mary, it is not, as we found out to our cost).  Just inland from here is Cregneash, where there is an open-air folk museum, the first museum of its type to be opened in the British Isles.  Just outside of Cregneash is Meayll Circle, a chambered cairn with twelve burial chambers.

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Calf Sound. Photo by David Long, via Wikimedia Commons

Webcam view of the bay.

Map of the area.

Thursday, 22 August 2013


When we visited the Isle Of Man for the first time earlier this year, we decided that Peel was our favourite place on the island for its lovely setting and fascinating history.  Situated on the west coast, and therefore famous for its sunsets, the town consists of the main commercial and shopping centre, which is in the uphill part, and down below an attractive harbour area, a sandy beach and promenade, and St Patrick's Isle housing the impressive castle ruins and the former cathedral, now replaced by a newer one up in town.  The presence of the cathedral in the town, the only one on the Isle Of Man, means that Peel is strictly speaking a city.  Overlooking the town is Corrin's Tower, a folly built in 1806.

For people who like historic buildings and museums, there is plenty to do in Peel, with most attractions around the harbour area.  The House of Mannanan is built on the site of the former Peel railway station.  It is a modern museum with multimedia effects and interactive exhibits.  The biggest draw is the replica Norse long ship which was sailed from Norway to the Isle Of Man in 1979.  The museum features the Chronicles of Man Exhibition, the History of Fishing and other maritime themes.  Further along the harbourside is the much smaller, but equally fascinating Leece Museum, housed in the former Courthouse building, which still retains the Black Hole where prisoners used to be held.  Entry is free, with donations welcome, and the museum has displays of documents, objects and photographs relating to Peel.  Peel is still an important fishing port, and herrings are cured to make the famous Manx kippers.  The Kipper Factory is open to visitors, offering free tours of the factory. The Manx Transport Heritage Museum has displays on different kinds of land and sea transport, as well as a model railway exhibit.

Of all Peel's attractions, the most evocative is the ruined castle, sited on St Patrick's Isle, which is reached via a causeway.  The island is so named because the site is believed to be where St Patrick first brought Christianity to the Isle of Man around 1226.  The island once housed Celtic monastic buildings, but then along came the Vikings and it was the Viking chieftain known as Magnus Barefoot who built the first known, wooden fortifications.  Further sandstone walls and towers were later added, as well as the cathedral of St German, the forerunner to the present-day cathedral in the town.  Visitors to the site can borrow audio guides in different languages and wander around at will, following the numbered reference points.  The walkway along the outer wall offers magnificent views of Peel and out to sea.  On a clear day it is possible to see the mountains of Ireland, the south west Scotland coast and North Wales.  Like all good castles, Peel Castle has its resident ghost, in the form of a huge black dog known as Moddey Dhoo, reputedly the size of a calf, with huge eyes.  Sightings of the dog have been also been reported in other parts of the island. 

For a list of events in Peel, see here.

Webcam view of the harbour.

Map of the area.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013


Ramsey, the northern terminus of the Isle Of Man's Electric Railway, is sometimes referred to as "Royal Ramsey" in memory of a couple of past royal visits.  In 1847 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited the town, and the visit was commemorated by the building of a 45-foot high granite tower named Albert Tower, which can be reached via a choice of footpaths.  In 1907 it was the turn of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra to visit.  However, not all royal visits were as amiable as these two.  In the 11th century, a Norse-Gael ruler of Dublin called Godred Crovan, known as King Orry in Manx legend, invaded the Isle Of Man three times.  The third time he arrived at Ramsey in the dead of night and concealed 300 men in a wood.  The men managed to overpower the Manxmen who rose up in battle against the incomers.  In 1313 Robert The Bruce turned up in Ramsey, from where he went on to capture Castle Rushen in Castletown further south. 

Ramsey was once a hive of maritime activity.  It had an important shipbuilding industry in the 1800s, and it was here that the oil tanker known as "The Jane" was built.  Another vessel built in Ramsey called the "Star Of India" is now in a museum in San Diego.  As well as shipbuilding, the port was once a terminus for a steamer service to Whitehaven, Liverpool and Scotland, courtesy of the Ellan Vannin, the oldest ship in the Steam Packet Fleet.  However, in 1909 disaster struck when the Ellan Vannin foundered near the mouth of the Mersey, resulting in the loss of all passengers and crew.  The disaster was commemorated in a song by the Spinners folk group.  There is still a small shipyard, and the port is used by fishing, freight and leisure boats.  Just outside Ramsey is Grove House andGardens, built in the mid-1800s, a veritable time capsule which offers a fascinating insight into life in Victorian times.  There is a small restaurant serving light meals and afternoon teas.   

Webcam view of the harbour.

Map of the area.

Sunday, 18 August 2013


Laxey owes its name to the Vikings, who christened this spot Laxa - meaning "salmon river" - in honour of the rich salmon content enjoyed by the river in those days. The lower part of the village consists of a harbour and a quiet seafront, but the most interesting part is reached via an uphill walk towards the Electric Train station.  This walk leads up to one of the most iconic images of the Isle Of Man: Great Laxey Wheel, or "Lady isabella".  This part of the island was home to a thriving mining industry in the 1800s, in fact the Laxey Mines were the deepest mines in the world.  The Wheel was used to pump water out of the mines.  The wheel still turns today, though for the benefit of visitors, and it sits resplendent in its whitewashed base complete with the island's Three Legs Of Man symbol.  The base was sadly missing when I visited earlier this year, but the Wheel still made an impressive sight. There are rides available at certain times on the restored Great Laxey Mine Railway.   Near the wheel is Laxey's Electric Railway station, complete with a handy pub for passengers to quench their thirst in while waiting for the train.  Laxey is also the starting point for the 4-mile Snaefell Mountain Railway, which whisks passengers to the top of Snaefell, the highest point on the island.  The railway operates from the beginning of May.

Map of the area. 

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Photo by John Firth, via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 16 August 2013


Onchan is the first place the Electric Railway stops at on its way out of Douglas.  Nowadays it is effectively an extension of Douglas, but it used to be a village outside the capital.  Evidence of Stone Age habitation turned up in the 1890s when an axe was found near the Onchan wetlands.  The unusual name of the village derived from St Connachan, a 6th century bishop.  Although on the outskirts of the island's capital, Onchan is the location of Government House, the official residence of the Lieutenant Governor of the Isle of Man.  Captain Bligh, of Mutiny On The Bounty fame, was married in the parish church of Onchan in 1781.  His intended was the daughter of a Customs Collector who was stationed on the island.

Much of Onchan is in an elevated position, clinging to the clifftops of Ochan Head at the northern end of Douglas Bay.  As the Electric Railway wends its way from Onchan down towards Douglas passengers are treated to a magnificent view of the bay.  A similar view can be had by golfers making use of the King Edward BayGolf Club.  On the outskirts of Onchan is the charming Groudle Glen, which has its own stop on the Electric Railway.  The glen was created in the Victorian era with tourism in mind, and down at sea level there were six sea lions which had been imported from California.  For walkers, footpaths lead from the station through this wooded valley which runs down to the the sea.  For the less energetic, the glen has its own railway, with steam trains taking visitors from the glen out to the clifftops where there is a visitor centre and tearoom.  

Map of the area. 

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Onchan Head, photo by David Long, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 12 August 2013


The Isle of Man is geographically part of the British Isles.  However, it has its own Parliament, the Tynwald, which is of Norse origin and is older than the British Parliament.  It also has its own Manx language, and even its cats are a breed apart, distinguished by their lack of a tail.  The capital is Douglas, a Victorian seaside resort with a very long promenade, a fact to which I can testify, having stayed in a hotel halfway along it on my recent first visit to the island.  At one end of the promenade is the town centre.  As I walked around the shops I kept getting the feeling that there was something different and slightly old-fashioned about Douglas town centre.  Then it dawned on me why this was: there was a refreshingly low number of chains compared with the "clone towns" of mainland Britain.  Beyond the shops is the harbour and marina, lined with restaurants and pubs.  This is also where the ferries come in, arriving from Liverpool, Heysham, Belfast and Dublin. Out in the bay is St Mary's Isle, with the Tower of Refuge, a structure built in 1832 to provide refuge for the survivors of shipwrecks.  The islet is accessible by foot during exceptionally low tides, and one day during our April visit the annual organised walk out to the island took place, with large numbers of people lining up on the seafront ready to join the 'crocodile' line of walkers crossing the beach.  

St Mary's Isle

The Isle of Man is famous for two things, both of which involve getting from A to B.  The big event of the  year is the TT motorcycle races, which start and finish in Douglas.  During the races the town becomes party central in the evenings.  The other thing the island is famous for is its heritage railways, two of which have terminii in Douglas.  The Electric Railway, which follows a delightful route northwards to Ramsay, starts from the northern end of the promenade, and the Steam Railway bound for Port Erin via Castletown starts from near the harbour.  During the summer months a horse-drawn tram goes back and forth along the seafront.  Douglas' lively nightlife encompasses bars, restaurants, nightclubs and a casino, and for the more culturally inclined the Edwardian Gaiety Theatre.  One of the more relaxing daytime activities is a stroll through the gardens of the Villa Marina, while the Manx Museum occupies an elevated position in the town.  Outside the lively bar at the Sefton Hotel is a statue of the island's most famous former resident, Norman Wisdom, who spent much of his later life there.  The island's other claim to celebrity fame is that it was the birthplace of the Gibb Brothers (or Bee Gees), who later moved to Australia.  When we were there a special set of stamps in memory of the late Robin Gibb was being launched.

View of the bay from the Electric Train
For a list of events in Douglas and elsewhere on the island, see here.

Map of the area.

Sunday, 4 August 2013


For the last 21 months and a bit I have been blogging my way around the coast of Scotland - 6,000 miles of it, including all the islands and sea lochs of the west coast - and I have finally arrived back at the border with England.  The Solway Firth gradually narrows after Annan until by the time it reaches Gretna it effectively becomes the mouth of the River Esk.  Gretna used to be a customs post in the days when England and Scotland were two separate countries, the main purpose of which was to collect taxes on the cattle crossing the border.  Near the town is the Lochmaben Stone, a megalith which was an established meeting place on the border.

Just to the north of Gretna is Gretna Green, which is famous throughout the world for its role as a place where eloping couples could go to get married.  It all came about as a result of Scotland's relatively lax rules for the age at which a couple could marry compared with its next-door neighbour.  Marriages were conducted at the Blacksmith's Shop, with the blacksmith's anvil as the focal point of the ceremony.  There used to be a rule that a couple had to have been on the Scottish side of the border for 21 days before a marriage could be declared legal.  In 1930 one Helen Sefton-Toms went to Gretna Green from London to get married, but the marriage took place shortly after her arrival, breaking the 21-day rule.  The marriage was declared null and void by a London court, which was rather unfortunate for Sefton-Toms since she had a £200,000 fortune riding on the legality of the marriage.  However, the repeated attempts to deter the elopements did not have the desired effect: in 1938 it was reported in the Glasgow Herald that "the advent of legislation to stop irregular marriages of the Gretna Green type in Scotland has apparently served to stimulate English interest in them".  The weddings were finally declared illegal altogether in 1940, and this continued until 1985.  Today, however, the appeal of a Gretna Green wedding has been revived, with around 4,500 weddings taking place each year.  There are several venues in the Gretna Green area offering a range of wedding packages for couples who want something a bit different. 

Map of the area. 

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Photo by Alexander P Kapp, via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 2 August 2013


The River Annan in Annandale leads up to the town of Annan from the Solway Firth.  The Romans used the rivers and "waths" or fords hereabouts to invade the area and they set up camps and fortifications in Annandale.  The area has had a turbulent past, being so close to the border with England, with many battles in the struggle for Scottish independence.  Later, more peaceful times brought economic activity to the area including agriculture, shipbuilding and sandstone quarrying.  Annan, a Royal Burgh, is the largest town in the district.  The original burgh charter conferred by the lords of Annandale, the de Brus family (later known as the Bruces, as in Robert The Bruce) disappeared during the border wars, but a new one was granted by James V in 1538.  Each July the event is commemorated with the Riding Of The Marches, involving over 100 horsemen and women, and displays of Scottish pipes and drums.  The Annan Museum covers the town's history from prehistoric times until World War I.  Annan has a number of impressive landmarks and buildings.  There is a 176-year-old road bridge designed by the engineer John Rennie.  Bridge House is a Georgian town house dating from 1780, and was formerly an academy.  The Victorian Town Hall is built in the Gothic style, while Annan Old Parish Church dates from 1789.  One of the town's oldest relics is the 12th century motte and bailey built by Robert de Brus within a public park, overlooking the River Annan.  Opposite the park is a cottage where Wlliam Ewart Lockhart, artist to Queen Victoria, grew up.  

Map of the area. 

File:Annan river bridge - Oct 2006.JPG
Photo by Red Sunset, via Wikimedia Commons