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Round the bend

The Isle of Man is a land that embraces its eccentricities, discovers Dixe Wills, as he takes a ride in a horse-drawn tram and beds down in the 19th century

 

Scratch the surface of any society and you’re almost bound to uncover one or two traces of eccentricity.

The apparently staid Germans have their lederhosen; the sombre Norwegians eat half-fermented trout at Christmas and pretend to enjoy it … I have been told, however, that on the Isle of Man no surface scratching is necessary, that the populace is so relaxed about the island’s manifold quirks and idiosyncrasies that it rather rejoices in them. Mind you, if your self-governing British Crown Dependency is named after an obscure Celtic sea god (Manannan Mac Lir, since you ask) and your national symbol is a three-legged figure bereft of either body or head, perhaps having a slightly tangential world view comes naturally.

As it is, I experience some of the Manx take on the world before I even set foot on the island, for she has disappeared under Manannan’s cloak. Reportedly, the sea god protects the isle from her enemies by draping his cape of mystical mistiness over her so that they sail blithely past. Thankfully, modern navigational equipment is wise to this ruse and my ferry docks safely, allowing me to invade the island, albeit in a mild-mannered, touristy way.

The next day, leaving my hotel in Port St Mary, in the south of the island, I take it into my head to visit the 621-metre summit of Snaefell, Man’s highest peak (while desperately holding in jokes about Man’s highest peak actually being the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel).

I share a platform of the local steam railway station with a woman who tells me she is off doing her weekly shop. This is not anything so contrived as a restored heritage line. It opened in 1873 and has simply never been updated. The narrow-gauge engines and beautiful rolling stock (lovers of polished wood are in for a treat) are the same ones the Victorians used.

So when, at Ballasalla, a guard comes through the train announcing: “There’ll be a slight delay … of 30 minutes,” everyone in the carriage is having such a nice time that no one even tuts. There’s a laid-back culture hereabouts whereby a “slight delay” can indeed mean half an hour or more. I am thankful the guard hasn’t announced a state of total chaos.

The railway station I need is on the far side of Douglas, the island’s capital, so I naturally board a horse-drawn tram for a 20-minute ride along the promenade. It’s been going since 1876 and is, unsurprisingly, the oldest operating horse-drawn tram in the world. The service it connects with, the Manx Electric Railway, opened 17 years later. Nothing, as far as I can tell, has changed since.

Can you see a pattern starting to emerge? In my open train carriage we screech and squeak and squeal our way along the coast around a seemingly endless succession of bends and through a station called Fairy Cottage until we reach Laxey (home of the world’s largest working water wheel, a beautiful red-andwhite confection that looks like a fairground big wheel that got lost in a wood), where I change on to the Snaefell Mountain Railway.

This eight-kilometre, electrically powered museumpiece assault on the mountain was built in 1895. And no, they haven’t thought to alter anything since, presumably because it works perfectly well as it is, thank you very much. I’ve been told that from the summit I should be able to see seven kingdoms on a clear day: Man, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Heaven and Manannan’s (the sea). Sadly, whichever Manx god controls the clouds has contrived to plop one on top of Snaefell: I can barely see seven yards.

Of course, such bad luck could be ascribed to a number of things. I might, for instance, have provoked the mooinjer veggey – the little people – by not greeting them as I passed Fairy Bridge on the main road south from Douglas. My bus driver certainly did. Or perhaps I used the forbidden word. When I discuss this with a senior member of Tynwald before he shows me around the island’s seat of power (which happens to be the oldest continuous parliament in the world), he becomes noticeably edgy about the possibility of me uttering the banned name of the rodent he resolutely refers to as a “longtail”.

I am not even sure I am allowed to get ratty about having missed both the World Tin Bath Championships (July 13) and Tynwald Day (July 5). At the latter, under a huge canopy of the sort one would usually only see at a jousting tournament, all the laws created over the past year are read out in English and Manx. Locals assure me this is more fun than it sounds.

I’ve also missed the annual Parish Walk. Anywhere else this would be a pleasant afternoon stroll, perhaps with scones afterwards, but here it involves participants hiking a death-defying 137 kilometres in less than 24 hours. And no, that’s not a typo.

Guiltily, I take the bus back (“Hello, fairies!”) to my lodgings at Aaron House, where owners Kathy and Reggie greet me in full Victorian servants’ uniform, mob cap and all. This is less surprising than it sounds because what they’ve created here is an entirely Victorian hotel, complete with an antique brass telescope in the morning room for spying steam ships out at sea. Thankfully, Kathy’s breakfasts, though served with Victorian crockery and cutlery, are tasty in a 21stcentury way.

Curiously, after a few days on the island, I begin to wish these so-called oddities were a part of my life back home, too. For who would not want their working day brightened by a ride on a steam train, or be able to blame anything bad that happens on those pesky mooinjer veggey?

It was the English writer Edith Sitwell who said: “Eccentricity is not, as dull people would have us believe, a form of madness.”

Indeed, if the Isle of Man is anything to go by, one could say that it’s sure proof of sanity.

Guardian News & Media

 

Getting there: the Isle of Man airport, at Ronaldsway, is served by flights from most British and Irish airports. Car ferry services are available from Liverpool, Belfast and Dublin.

 

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