Douglas Harbour

Isle of Man-y Mysteries

25th March 2016

From its ‘small’ contribution to transport history, to its big impact on the mining industry; as well as its wealth of ghostly and romantic tales, Neil Matthews discovers all this island has to offer...

‘Why not open the door and look inside?’ The invitation could come from a salesman in any car showroom, anywhere. Except it is neither a sales showroom nor an ordinary car. The car is the Peel P50, the world’s smallest production car, and this is the Manx Transport Heritage Museum: sixty square metres of nostalgia in Peel, on the western coast of the Isle of Man.

The P50, which is 54 inches long and 39 inches wide, first saw production in 1962 and its makers envisaged it as a city car. A contemporary review in Motorcycle Mechanics magazine enthused: ‘A housewife going into town for her shopping or a businessman commuting into the city centre would have a job to find anything more suitable…’ .Quite where the housewife would put her shopping seems debatable and that businessman’s punctuality for meetings might be unlikely; the P50 has three gears, no reverse and a top speed of 37mph. But it’s small, bright, charming and manouevrable: a perfect metaphor for the island.

Transport is an Isle of Man motif, whether it’s the steam railway connecting the city of Douglas to the south or the Manx Electric Railway from Douglas to Laxey and Ramsey up the eastern side of the island. You can view classic cars, lorries, steam engines, buses, motorcycles and more, depending on whether you visit the Manx Transport Heritage Museum in Peel, the Motor Museum further north near Jurby or its near-neighbour the Jurby Transport Museum, which sits in a World War II hangar.

Or you can hire a car and seek out some stunning scenery along the east coast, returning inland through mountainous terrain for a dramatic contrast. The island’s ‘green hills by the sea’ have long been celebrated, perhaps most famously in Ellan Vannin, a poem written in 1854 by Eliza Craven Green and set to music by, among others, the Bee Gees, who hailed from the Isle of Man. (‘Ellan Vannin’ is the island’s Manx language name.)

That east coast drive brings you to Ramsey and, just outside the town, the island’s most historic estate. Milntown may have been the site for a dwelling as early as the 16th century. The current house dates from the 1750s and, thanks to a 19th-century makeover, boasts a spectacular white Strawberry Hill Gothic front. It was the ancestral home of the Christian family, many of whom were Deemsters, the Manx term for senior judges. The estate went bankrupt in 1886 and briefly became a hotel. The oak-lined library now houses bound copies of Autocar to which Sir Charles Edwards, the last private owner of Milntown, contributed. The guide on the regular house tours will tell you that Sir Clive was an early version of Jeremy Clarkson – who, as it happens, now owns property on the island. Sir Clive bequeathed the estate on his death in 1999 to the nation: not the government, whom he didn’t trust. (The presence of a derelict ‘Bleak House’ on Ramsey seafront, sardonically named to mark its fate at the hands of prolonged legal wrangling, suggests Sir Clive was not alone in this view.)

Milntown’s mill still operates, fed from a mill pond with a militant platoon of ducks. The walled garden provides colour contrast to the white house, from camelias in spring to dahlias in September, and the kitchen garden supplies ingredients, including courgettes and rhubarb, for the cafe.

A sense of the island’s many histories is everywhere. One large red and white example is the Great Wheel at Laxey, south from Ramsey on the east coast. Laxey was a quiet hamlet in the 18th century, but lead mining eventually began and the Great Laxey Mining Company was formed in 1842 to exploit the area’s zinc deposits. At one point, more zinc was produced here than every other mine in Britain combined. Almost every home in Laxey was connected with the mines, and a tourist industry grew up, with summer visitors keen to see and climb the wheel. The tradition continues today, with visitors exploring the mining trails, the tunnels and even the top of the wheel – at least, those with nerves strong enough to climb the spiral stairs without fear.

Elsewhere the past is implied or suggested. Tales of ghosts abound, from Lady Valerie Edwards, Sir Clive’s wife, at Milntown, to a spectral dog at Peel Castle. Other tourist attractions do their best to bring the ghosts, almost literally, to life. Sitting snug in Peel harbour is the House of Manannan, named after the Isle of Man’s legendary sea god. It reveals the island’s Manx, Celtic and Viking history through presentations narrated by a white-bearded Manannan – closely resembling the late Irish actor TP McKenna – and reconstructions of items such as a Celtic roundhouse and a Viking longship, Odin’s Raven. Interactive ‘maritime encounters’ enable you to hear the stories of individuals such as Mrs Elizabeth Karran, whose husband was a merchant seaman shipping goods on major international trade routes.

At the southern end of the island, you can even become a part of the action – as a parliamentary representative in the Old House of Keys in Castletown, the Isle of Man’s parliament until it moved to Douglas in the late 19th century. You are one of up to 22 representatives voting on a series of parliamentary measures. The Chairman (a waxwork whose face is animated) and the Secretary, a real human being and volunteer, keep matters in order. The paintings either side of the committee room table spring to life as pre-recorded messages from the island’s Victorian ‘great and good’ seek to persuade you to cast your vote in favour of their arguments. It pays to stay alert, or the Secretary may blame you for encouraging radical elements to enter the building…

The Isle of Man has parliamentary traditions dating back over a thousand years but, until the mid-Victorian years, the House of Keys remained a self-perpetuating oligarchy. Nonetheless, once it chose to widen the franchise, it gave the vote to women over a generation before the mainland parliament did so. The decisions of a future Isle of Man parliament – whether to join the EU, for example – remain to be made.

The island offers many possibilities for active holidays, with walks such as the Raad Ny Foillan (Way of the Gull), 95 miles of coastal footpaths, and cycling challenges including the Microgaming Lighthouses Challenge, in which you cycle round the entire coast in one day. The highlight of the full motorsport calendar is, of course, the TT (Tourist Trophy) racing in late May and early June. Or you can simply wander round at your own pace, waving at the statue of Sir Norman Wisdom – another Man resident – on the Douglas seafront, and sampling the island’s famous smoked kippers.

For an island only 33 miles long and 13 miles wide, the Isle of Man packs a great deal into a small space.

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