by Stephen McClarence, The Telegraph, May 30, 2017
Sir John Betjeman loved the Isle of Man. “A miniature of all the Western world,” he enthused. “Such wildness and such sophistication, such oldness and such newness.”
As for Douglas, the island’s breezy capital and holiday hub, he called it – presumably on the strength of its sweeping bay – the “Naples of the North.” I say, Betch, steady on!
He was writing in the late Forties, when every summer half a million people packed their buckets and spades and caught a ferry to the island. “Manxland for Mirth and Merriment,” the posters proclaimed. Since then, cheap foreign packages with a better guarantee of warm sunshine have challenged the British seaside and Manxland has had to find other ways to lure tourists.
Which is why my wife and I are sitting on a charming little steam train at Douglas station, waiting to huff and puff (and chuff) down the line that reputedly inspired Thomas the Tank Engine. The narrow-gauge Isle of Man Steam Railway is one of three Victorian heritage lines – plus a horse-tram service along the prom – that make the island a joy for vintage transport enthusiasts.
It may be best known for its TT Races, that great annual biking invasion that starts with practice sessions today, but Man cannot live by speed alone. The trains, being celebrated in a Heritage Transport Festival in July, offer a nostalgically slow-and-steady way to get around between the main towns.
The steam railway covers the 15 miles south from Douglas to Port Erin, a smart Edwardian resort with its own railway museum, in an hour or so, calling at Castletown, the island’s handsome former capital.
The train’s original 1870s cream-and-red carriages have cosy compartments with comfortable padded seats and windows that let down on leather straps.
For some on board, this revives long-dormant memories of British train journeys in the Sixties. Actually, the atmosphere of much of the whole island is Sixties-going-on-Fifties.
As the train fills up with excited children and their even more excited parents and grandparents, Steve Peverall, the ebullient guard, keeps checking his watch. Who uses the trains, I ask. “We get a mixture of locals and regulars. Plus people like yourselves from the adjacent island – we don’t say the mainland – and from all around the world,” he says. “The trains’ appeal is their age, their quaintness and overall condition. The rolling stock are like pets, really. If I’m in as good shape when I’m their age, I’ll be very happy.”
He blows his whistle. The Toytown-scale engine, all gleaming paintwork and polished brass, gives two blasts on its hooter and we’re off. We chuh-chuh-chuh past banks of gorse, rhododendrons and primroses, though it’s too early in the season for the island’s ubiquitous crimson fuchsia.
We pass shepherds whistling to their dogs, men in flat caps playing bowls, gulls wheeling around a ploughing tractor. Lambs frolic, calves canter to keep up with the train (not hard), a swan takes off from a field, and there are glimpses of sun-sparkling sea beyond the woodlands. It all looks idyllic, like a real-life Ladybird book, perhaps called “What to Look for on a Train Journey”.
Next day, we’re out and about with a vengeance. We start with a clip-clopping horse-drawn tram along Douglas promenade to the terminus of the Manx Electric Railway. We pass hotels called the Grosvenor, the Empress, the Marlborough, the Savoy, the Edelweiss – memories of the great seaside days. Inside, late risers (“We’re on holiday, Hilda. There’s no rush”) are tackling their Manx kipper breakfasts.
Sitting behind us is Richard Pryke, a rail enthusiast from near Harwich with a camera slung round his neck. He’s been coming to the Isle of Man for 51 years. “I must have been 30 to 35 times,” he says. “There are lots of steam railways, but there’s nothing like the horse trams. And nothing like the Manx Electric.”
Well, no. For 75 minutes, the panelled railway coach rattles and trundles us the 17 miles north to the coastal town of Ramsey. We climb steadily past bungalows with telescopes trained on the horizon, twist through villages, past picturesque glens, sometimes hugging the coast. As a Victorian poster put it: “Continuous Panoramas, Rugged Cliffs, Sylvan Glades, Unsurpassed Mountain and Marine Scenery”.
We still have another railway to sample, so we take the next train back from Ramsey. Sitting in front of us, a man with a briefcase and four pints of milk is well into The Daily Telegraph crossword.
George Hobbs runs Loaghtan Books, whose publications include one about the Manx Electric. There’s a station halt at the bottom of his garden, so most days he uses the train to go into Ramsey for shopping and errands. “It saves getting the car out and the train’s a much nicer ride,” he says. “You can either rush around in 15 minutes before the next train back, or have a leisurely hour and a quarter. I’ve just been to the supermarket, the bank, the bookshop and the charity shop. And this is my stop.” He waves us off as he opens his garden gate.
We get off a few minutes later at Laxey, whose striking bright-red water wheel is a long-established tourist attraction. But we’re here for our final rail trip, on the Snaefell Mountain Railway. The single carriage spirals its stately half-hour way to the top of Snaefell, the island’s highest point (a modest 2,000 feet). At the top, says the brochure, “breathtaking views await." On a clear day you can apparently see England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
This is not a clear day. We see a lot of mist and fog. It’s bitterly cold and we shelter in the café. It’s playing tapes of Needles and Pins (The Searchers, 1964) and My Old Man’s a Dustman (Lonnie Donegan, 1960).
The period atmosphere is complete. No wonder Betjeman, great rail enthusiast that he was, loved the Isle of Man. Such fun, eh, Betch?
The Mannin Hotel (01624 602555) just off Douglas promenade is the island’s newest hotel and has 54 smart, unfussy bedrooms, some with partial sea views, and an excellent restaurant; doubles from £100 a night, including breakfast.
The convivial Courthouse (01624 672555) combines bar and restaurant and has dinner main courses from £10 and a wide range of vegetarian options. The more intimate harbourside 14North (01624 664414) has a relaxed atmosphere and six mains from £15.25.
The Isle of Man’s railways and trams operate until Nov 5 and resume next spring. Go Explore cards offer unlimited travel on all rail and bus services. A one-day card costs £16; three days, £32; five days, £39; seven days, £47. The Manx Heritage Transport Festival (July 26-30) celebrates the railways and trams with tours, displays and commemorative trains.
Further information: visitisleofman.com.