diamond geezer

 Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Isle of Man (Southeast)

Manx Electric Railway
Los Angeles may have its Hollywood sign, but Douglas has the Electric Railway. Fifteen illuminated letters beam out across the bay, welcoming passengers to the far end of the promenade for a heritage ride. The Manx Electric Railway runs up the eastern side of the island from Douglas to Ramsey, with its main intermediate station at Laxey roughly halfway. It doesn't run direct either, following a sinuous 17 mile route along the coast, around headlands and across the tops of steep wooded valleys. Local residents could use it - there are innumerable request stops - but generally don't, it's far quicker to drive or take the bus. But the MER is ideal for tourists who want to take it slow and enjoy the view, plus there's an interchange at Laxey for those taking the train up the mountain. Just avoid the rush hour if you want to get a seat.

The first train of the morning looked to have plenty of space, but the luxury coach pulled up alongside should have been a warning. An entire walking party duly poured into the observation trailer from the platform side, squishing in with rucksacks and poles, creating a situation reminiscent of peaktime on the Northern line. And then we rattled off up the hill, past the bungalows and apartments on the edge of town, a hooter buzzing for every sideroad and farm track we crossed. The railway's twin tracks and electricity poles closely follow the main road, occasionally crossing it, before eventually careering off alone through clifftop fields. The first important stop is at Groudle Glen, the original 1890s terminus, where you can alight for yet another heritage railway, or a pootle down to the ruins of a Victorian pleasure garden. The walking party alighted at Fairy Cottage, which I was disappointed to see was a corrugated iron shelter, and then everybody else on board departed at Laxey. Which left BestMate and I with the entire service to ourselves, soaring over crystal blue bays and past goat-infested fields, to a tiny request stop at the top of a waterfalled glen. A proper treat and, if you avoid the busy stretch at a busy time, about as far away from the Northern line as it's possible to get. [7 photos] [map]

The capital of the Isle of Man spreads out along a broad curved bay on the southeast corner of the island. Arrive by ship, say aboard the Steampacket from Liverpool or Dublin, and you'll disembark in the shadow of the Sea Terminal. This 1960s concrete creation resembles a raindrop splashing in a bowl of water, or maybe a gasring, and may be the most Modernist chunk of architecture on the island. It's under threat of demolition, naturally, as the Manx government recently launched plans to replace it with "a new landmark gateway to the island" incorporating cruise liner facilities and commercial opportunities. Cruise liners are a growth area for the town, with one anchored offshore on Sunday disgorging its holidaymakers by shuttle across the bay. They might have enjoyed a walk along the promenade, with its arc of grand hotels and fluttering Manx flags, or taken a ride on the Horse Tram (which is yet another of the island's heritage railways).

Douglas is as close to UK-ordinary as the island gets, with parks and schools and housing estates. The main shopping street has several well-known household names, although I was disappointed to see that TK Maxx hadn't rebranded with an 'n' instead of that first 'x' - surely an opportunity missed. Residents have to get their entertainment where they can, hence the Gaiety Theatre sometimes welcomes acts from the mainland (it's John Newman next month), but more likely puts on a Gala Concert or Abba tribute. Sir Norman Wisdom was a huge fan of the island and spent the last 30 years of his life here. A hotel bar on the seafront is named after him, and a bronze likeness sits on a bench outside the front window, cloth cap on head, should you fancy a photo. If you can stand his cheery demeanour, this 5 minute TV clip promoting his favourite island gives a pretty good overview of the place. [12 photos] [map]

The island's main airport is perched on a flat plain by the coast, so you're likely to fly in low across the waves before touching down. Ronaldsway's departure lounge was opened 20 years ago by Nigel Mansell, another motorsport-related resident, and there's a decent view from the windows of planes taking off if you can't stick watching Channel 5 movies on the big screen telly. That scary-looking dark tower opposite belongs to King William's College, the private school with the nigh impossible general knowledge quiz the Guardian prints every Christmas. [1 photo] [map]

Before Douglas took the administrative crown, the island's capital was Castletown. And that was for several centuries, when the Isle of Man had its own line of royalty and an entirely separate history to the rest of the British Isles. The Kings of Mann had a castle built here to protect them against the Vikings, the Scots and the English, with the current structure dating back to at least the 12th century. Castle Rushen is one of the best preserved medieval castles in the world, what with a dynasty to support and few marauding armies ever getting this far. And as such it's therefore a fine place for a visit, indeed its completeness is likely to make crumbling ruins elsewhere seem almost ordinary. Taking the tour involves climbing a spiral staircase in stages to the roof, or indeed several roofs, and enjoying the view down over town, harbour and Co-Op. More effort has been made on the descent to depict how the Lords of Mann might have lived and entertained, with some finely decorated rooms and a steward who'll tell you all about 17th century banqueting in fine detail until you manage to thank him and walk away.

The Queen is now the Lord of Mann, but only infrequently pops over to exercise her rights. Across the road is the Old House of Keys, formerly one of the houses of the Manx Parliament which, as you may know, is the oldest continuous parliamentary body in the world. This rather understated building was its home in the 19th century, then became a bank, and is now an intriguingly democratic tourist attraction. Visitors are invited to vote on historic motions from the island's past, including the one which gave women suffrage in national elections earlier than any other country in the world. A couple of other museums on the seafront give tourists alternative options for infotainment (the world's oldest yacht, anyone?), although the town centre itself is a bit small, and I can see why those elected representatives relocated. [4 photos] [map]

(If protracted non-London reportage is getting you down, rest assured that later in the week I'll be bringing you all the latest news from Sutton)

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