….And God Created Man (The Isle Of)!
Phil Hopkins, Arts & Travel Editor
There’s a rumour in some parts that when the Almighty created man he also named a certain county starting with the letter ‘Y’ and declared it ‘God’s Own Country’.
However, there’s an even stronger rumour that Yorkshire might never have come into being had the Lord not first taken inspiration from the Isle of Man!
Inhabitants of this fiercely proud Crown dependency claim to have direct access to the very gates of Heaven themselves…..only a tram journey is first required for anyone brave enough to seek audience with the Creator.
Entry is via the top of Snaefell Mountain, the highest point on this tiny island but, once there, you can see ‘The Seven Kingdoms’; England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Man, the Kingdom of Neptune and, of course, The Kingdom of Heaven!
However, you would be well-advised to temporarily suspend your quest for eternal life because if you enter the Pearly Gates too early, you are in grave danger of missing the poetic beauty of this tiny island, which measures 30x13 miles and boasts just 85,000 residents. In fact, 40% of it remains uninhabited, accounting, no doubt, for some of the incredible scenic backdrops.
Those who have been there seemingly return time and again, for it has all the relaxing qualities of an afternoon spa and the innocence of an Enid Blyton novel.
However, those who have never been most probably hold on to the singular prejudice that the Isle of Man is merely a 10% tax haven and a place that has hosted the TT race since 1907.
Whilst that may not be entirely wrong, it is also a one-dimensional view that is not entirely right, for the island has much more and tells a Celtic tale that would give both Scotland and the magic of Wicklow’s Glendalough a run for their money.
It was my first visit and, having spent three days there, I was pleasantly re-educated without the need for any Orwellian persuasion techniques, as I witnessed the most wonderful heritage railway system, an ancient castle, culture, wildlife and a changing countryside that would require a journey of 200 miles in any other part of the UK, in order to witness.
Joining York based Great Rail Journeys, my Manx baptism began with a gentle A65 drive to Heysham near Lancaster, ahead of a four-hour sail to Douglas where our hotel, the Claremont, was a five-minute walk from the ferry terminal.
For me, one of the most striking images initially was the Douglas Bay Horse Tram system which runs a mile and a half along the length of the Promenade.
Established in 1876 by retired engineer Thomas Lightfoot, thankfully it survived the 1960’s demolition brigade and the ‘modern is better’ school of thought. It now remains a quaint but key component of the island’s heritage transport system linking the Sea Terminal with Derby Castle, where you can pick up the Manx Electric Railway for the beautiful half hour journey to the village of Laxey, taking in a unique combination of residential and sea views.
There the island’s industrial past unfolds at the foot of one of its most famous landmarks, The Great Laxey Wheel, which you can still climb via an external spiral staircase and witness breath-taking views.
And, as I digested the 19th century heritage, there wasn’t a motorbike or a tax accountant in sight, although both account for a large slice of the island’s historic success. One attracts upwards of 40,000 visitors a year, with around 15,000 bikes in tow, whilst the other is the mainstay of the island’s low-tax economy, a haven for some of the largest commercial and gambling brands in the world.
But little of that is in the front of your mind as you trundle out of Laxey on board the Snaefell Mountain Railway, a unique Victorian enterprise that was built in 1895 and famously completed in just seven months. At the summit – 621m above sea level – jaw dropping views await.
As you stand at the island’s highest point, it is not hard to imagine why the Isle of Man has long been recognised as having dark night skies – 26 to be exact – a valued attribute of the rural character and tranquillity of the Island and a firm favourite for stargazers.
Enthusiasts of night skies can pop across the island and enjoy lunch at the Sound Café next to the beautiful wildlife experience that is the nearby Calf of Man island – Atlantic Puffins breed there - and, if time permits, stick around for the dark sky experience that the Meayll Peninsula affords visitors. Check out the colony of seals whilst you await dusk!
The Isle of Man is steeped in Viking history and didn’t become ‘English’ until 1400. Even then it steadfastly remained outside the 1707 Act of Union and is neither part of the UK or a member of the EU, maintaining its own currency and a unique system of government, although it is still British and part of the Commonwealth.
The Queen, generally referred to as "The Queen, Lord of Mann", is head of state and her representative on the island is the Lieutenant Governor, whilst ‘Tynwald’, said to be the world's oldest continuously existing parliament, consists of the directly-elected House of Keys and the indirectly chosen Legislative Council.
Every July you can witness Tynwald Day as the Parliament opens at Tynwald Hill, home to the Royal Chapel, aka the Parish Church of St John the Baptist.
And you can still visit the Old House of Keys in Castletown, also home to medieval Castle Rushen; look out for the unusual clock!
Linking everything, of course, is the heritage transport network, including the wonderfully quaint steam railway,
a short walk from the main Sea Terminal and connecting you with Port Erin or, alternatively, the electric railway that has a series of tributary lines including one to the ancient town of Peel, its stunning castle and House of Manannan, an interactive museum telling the Island’s Viking story, not unlike York’s Jorvik Museum.
Richard Adams who wrote Watership Down and Norman Wisdom have both enjoyed the hospitality of this fair island which takes you back to a time, many would argue, is long since gone in the UK.
Its inhabitants are a proud lot – witness the 25,000 views on my Facebook post about the horse drawn trams – and they hold dear the Latin phrase on their island’s three-legged flag, ‘whichever way you throw me I’ll always stand.’
The Gibb Brothers were born in Douglas long before they became the Bee Gees, but one has to wonder whether they had the Isle of Man in mind when they wistfully penned their 1979 hit ‘Too Much Heaven’.
I’m sure that God still smiles on Yorkshire but, if you have any problems in life, the gates to his Kingdom are just a short rail ride away but, if he’s tied up, the calm and beauty of the Isle of Man will reassure you that life is still worth living, and that beauty is eternal, even if our lives are not.
Experience heritage Railways of the Isle of Man on an escorted group tour with Great Rail Journeys, www.greatrail.com / 01904 734 812.
Phil Hopkins travelled to the Isle of Man for a 5-day trip with GRJ Independent: www.greatrail.com/grj-independent / 01904 527181. Follow the link for further details.
For travellers on a smaller budget, Rail Discoveries www.raildiscoveries.com / 01904 734 812 offer a 6-day escorted group tour.
www.visitisleofman.com (Email: email@example.com)
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….And God Created Man (The Isle Of)!, 17th April 2018, 12:32 PM