Explorations of the Manx CoastlineMay 14th, 2010
Last July, I popped over to a rainy Douglas on a day trip from Dublin but my only being in one place and and time limitations meant that the Isle of Man remained one of those places that to me are terra incognito. However, I did come away with guidebooks and travel timetables that would come in useful for a longer visit like that I made over the Mayday bank holiday weekend. One thing that they revealed was that there was no way that I could make the best of all of the island’s attractions in a few days; I’d have to pick and choose.
It’s as if there’s a little something for everyone from gentle promenade strolling to railway heritage to hillwalking. Spending time around the likes of Castletown, Laxey or Ramsey would easily fill up a few days, it appears. If my memory serves me correctly, there was a music festival ongoing in Ramsey over the course of the weekend for those seeking a bit of culture. The islands’s steam railway was running extra services on the Sunday too so they were aiming to please.
Of course, I was after a simpler pleasure: going for a walk in alluring countryside. It so turns out that there’s plenty to offer there too and the mix is of coastal and hill country exploration. A collection of long distance trails give structure to any planning and there are quite a few from which to choose. First up is the island’s main coastal trail, Raad ny Foillan in Manx Gaelic (and on all signs) or Road of the Gull as it is in English. After that, there’s the Millennium Way that passes through the hill country at the heart of the island as it goes from Ramsey to Castletown (or vice versa, if you prefer) either shadowing or following the route taken by the Manx Kings in olden times when Castletown was the island’s administrative centre. Complementing its north-south direction is an east-west trail called the (Steam) Heritage Trail that follows the former railway alignment from Douglas to Peel. Then, there’s the Bayr ny Skeddan (the Manx Gaelic again is what you’ll find on any waymarks) or Herring Way that follows an old route taken by fishermen between the posts of Peel and Castletown. As if these weren’t enough to keep anyone busy, there are other public rights of way too so there’s nothing to stop you creating your own long distance trot if you so desired it.
Given that there are enough options to keep anyone busy for a few weeks, I needed to select something for my few days. That ended up being a part or two of Raad ny Foillan with the main piece being the section between Port Erin and Peel on the Sunday. Saturday was taken up with travelling but there was some poking around of Douglas and Onchan later in the day. Given that the most recommended part of Raad ny Foillan in my reading was between Port Erin and Port St. Mary, I was tempted to walk this shorter stretch on Monday before I left for home. However, fatigue following the previous in conjunction with the attractions of Peel on a sunny day drew me back around there for a final fling and some photographic action.
While flying would have made a tempting travel option, I stuck with the rail and ferry combination that served me so well in July. That made my starting time a more civilised affair and it was 14:00 when I arrived in Douglas. The fact that I had left sunny weather after me on the British mainland could have been troubling but the situation was put out of my mind because there was plenty of time for the sun to make its appearance. Given that the air was dry anyway, there could be no complaint as I set about locating facilities such as the bus and railway stations (there are two of the latter with a steam railway serving the south as far as Port Erin and electric trams serving the north as far as Ramsey; the island has more of a railway heritage than you’d expect). My trots took me along the promenade (part of Raad ny Foillan; the coastal path offers variety) and around the town of Douglas before heading out the coast around Onchan before returning through its main street. Save for the cliffs that I admired, there wasn’t so much of a wild feel to this daundering but the next day was to address that deficit. Given my unfamiliarity with the place, it probably was just as well that I made a stronger acquaintance with my whereabouts.
Overnight, cloudiness had given way to blue skies and sunshine. The pleasant start to the day wasn’t wasted even if it meant a late getaway to Port Erin. By that time, any white streaks in the sky may have come to be replaced by wads of clouds but they did nothing to dispel the sense of satisfaction already granted by the day. Travel on the upper deck of a double decker bus allowed wider views over the surrounding countryside and road works meant a stop to progress that allowed me to cast an eye and even aim a camera lens in the direction of Snaefell, the island’s highest summit. The bus called at Ronaldsway Airport before negotiating the narrow and appealing streets of Castletown, once the island’s capital and still in possession of its castle. The place certainly looked deserving of a longer visit but my plans were set, even if they meant leaving some of the sun after me.
Port Erin was cloudy and overcast when I arrived so there wasn’t much camera activity on my part as I sought out the start of my walk. Signs for the Road of the Gull were conspicuous by their absence so paying close attention to a map was unavoidable. While taking a break between sessions of map studying, a friendly local pointed me to Bradda Glen without my asking; it was to lead me in the right direction. Whatever thoughts I may have had regarding the navigational ease of coastal walking, doubts remained in my mind as to the correctness of my course. Nevertheless, Milners Tower was a useful landmark as I made my way towards it and that act granted views south towards the Calf of Man. On a sunnier day, I might have been struggling with lens flare but the largely overcast conditions still condemned any photos to being record shots. It was a turning into day for walking and not photography.
Leaving Milners Tower after me, I gained height on the way up Bradda Hill. As I did so, the path took me sufficiently close to the cliff edge as to concentrate my mind and it was breezy at the time too. Eventually, the path pulled in from the edge to allow any vistas to be enjoyed in a more relaxed state of mind. Not only did they feature what lay behind me but also what lay ahead of me with Lhiattee ny Beinnee and Cronk ny Arrey Laa looming to the north with less taxing rolling countryside lying beyond them again. Looking east drew my eyes to less wild parts from my wilder outpost with even Port St. Mary coming into view.
Bradda Hill felt loftier than its more than 200 metres of altitude might suggest and I felt every metre of that on the steep descent to sea level. The worn surface of the path wasn’t the most confidence-inspiring either but I had been in that situation so many times that I just got on with the job with Fleshwick Wood to my right. After dipping my boots in the Irish Sea at Fleshwick Bay, I soon started to pay for all that loss of height on the first of the Carnanes. Apart from the toll from all the exertion, patience was tested too and time felt as if it was speeding by on me without much in the way of distance covered.
Eventually, the gradients eased and it was gentler ambling to the top of Lhiattee ny Beinnee before I lost 100 metres again; the first half of my walk was having lots of ups and downs but this probably is the hilliest part of the coastal trail and my choice of route was guaranteed to keep me busy for the day. Looking to my right, I could see how much flatter the land was and I could make out the eastern coastline of the island. the day. There were easier walks if I so desired them but I’d be wondering if I was missing out then.
After coming down from Lhiattee ny Beinnee, I spotted a track that skirted its lower slopes. For those wanting a less taxing stroll, this may have been an option with an off-road start from Surby, not so far from Port Erin. In fact, I spotted a mountain biker heading exactly for that end as I was stopped for some food by the side of the A36. From there, it was on up the slopes of Cronk ny Arrey Laa, the highest point of my hike and where patience was needed again on the ascent. Skies darkened over me as I kept gaining height and I wondered if I was in for a wetting. Luckily, it never developed beyond a few drops that were gone by the time that I reached the summit so I could stop and take in the surroundings, among which was the hill of South Barrule and a triangulation pillar placed away from the summit of the hill. The latter seems to be the Manx order of things if finding the same arrangement on two different tops is typical.
Getting down from Cronk ny Arrey Laa required due care and attention so as to go in my intended direction and not another. Once I avoided any navigational pitfalls, I found that my ascent had taken me up the hill’s gentler side because it’s no walk in the park if you are coming at it from the north as I suspect many do. Going downhill as I was meant that I wasn’t so concerned about gradients but there were boggier stretches and sunken paths to negotiate later on. Even so, it didn’t take me too long to come to a junction of paths near Eary Cushlin. Things looked less certain so I invented my own route using the Isle of Man Survey 1:25000 map that was in my hands rather than poking around near cliff edges even if the land was owned by the Manx National Trust. Also, increasing time consciousness had its own contribution to the decision too.
My alternative took me onward via a good public footpath and a bridleway that really didn’t merit the classification. It was so rutted that anyone taking a horse, bicycle or motorcycle over it without having to rethink their plans would amaze me. Even with the diversion, I never was far from the coast and I met up with Raad ny Foillan gain to look back about saw how clear the way looked from that end. From there, I followed the trail onto tarmac where it passes through Dalby and didn’t leave the A27 until near Glen Maye. If I was following the OS Landranger map for the Isle of Man, my route might have been slightly different with a diversion around by Niarbyl. Apparently, its southern views are very pleasing but I was getting plenty of those anyway.
Leaving the road, I picked up a well signed path that was to drop me to sea level and take me along a little of Glen Maye before I gained height again though it was nothing tortuous or like the stiffer climbs that I encountered earlier in the day. From there, the trail really hugged the coast but I dealt with that and any undulations that came my way without any real drama. Corrins Tower still lay ahead of me as it had done since commencing the descent of Cronk ny Arrey Laa but steadily came nearer and nearer.
At this stage in the walk, I was keeping an eye on the time to see which bus would taking me from Peel back to Douglas again. Even so, my mind was concentrated by the proximity of cliff edges and views towards the hill country not far to the east of me. Knockaloe Plantation drew nearer in its own good time as did Corrins Hill. Eventually, I was go along the seaward slopes of the latter and that proved to be the most unsettling part of the journey; seeing a path (even a wide one) following a shelf over nearby cliffs does tend to set you mind racing… Nevertheless, I did scuttle along that shelf to reach more friendly surroundings and a vehicle track for a nearby transmitter.
Views over Peel opened out before me with a passing shower making a rainbow without even nearing where I stood. For the way down, I ended up eschewing the coastal trail for the vehicle track and was rewarded with ample views over Peel Castle and up along the coast in the fading evening light. It was a just way to end a walk that had taken its toll with all those ups and downs. The last act was to navigate through Peel’s narrow winding streets to get to a bus stop in time; that nearly was the toughest navigational test of the day and with a tired head too. As I journeyed east again, I counted myself lucky to have avoided any rain while out on the trail because the rain showers through which the bus passed weren’t the lightest. In fact, the only real wetting of the weekend was from light rain while I walked the last stretch to my lodgings and that didn’t bother me so much at the time. On a weekend with an uncertain weather forecast, you cannot decry things like this.
After the previous day’s endeavours, I decided on an easier morning before I returned home again. Having not had much sun while wandering the west coast, I decided on a return to Peel when it looked like a day of blue skies and sunshine. Rushing around the coast, if that’s even possible, between Port and Port St. Mary didn’t sound far and I was carrying all of my kit for the trip anyway. As it happened, I ended up taking in a short circuit around Peel.
What I had in mind was to mount Corrins Hill and take in the surrounding vistas and make some photos of them if I was careful with lens flare. To do that, I picked up the bit of Raad ny Foillan that I missed off the evening before and took a relaxed approach so as to soaking in the views. Sharing some words with a talkative chap taught me that the Mull of Galloway could be seen to the north. There was little sign of the Mourne Mountains of Northern Ireland but I reckon that I got to see them the evening before anyway.
After staying a while on Corrins Hill, my little trot took me downhill to pick up a piece of Bayr ny Skeddan before meeting up with the Heritage Way, part of the former railway between Peel and Douglas. Back in Peel again, I headed towards the castle and followed the promenade while en route to the stance for a bus back east. Seeing a lad with rucksack and other paraphernalia must have looked strange to anyone after gentle seaside fair but Peel is quite a mixture anyway. First, there’s heritage with the ruins of a castle, narrow winding streets and a cathedral. Then, there’s industry with an electricity generating station and fishing. Following all of that is pleasure, be it from sailing, gentle strolls by the waterfront or more taxing ones around nearby hills. Might it be a worthwhile base for a walking trip? That may remain to be seen but it’s an idea.
A Place to Return?
Funnily enough, someone who I met on my wanderings did ask if I’d be coming back to the Isle of Man. While I couldn’t give a definite answer to that query because the future is not anyone’s to see, there are plenty of reasons for a return. After all, I only could sample a small piece of the island’s delights in the few days that I was there. When it came to weather, it was kind to me even if I chose what probably is the toughest part of the coastal trail. The Isle of Man may not be the largest of locations but it is packed full of quiet corners as I found, even when you aren’t far from built up areas. You could say that my long hike on Sunday brought me into no conflict with anyone and most of its length was nearly as quiet as what you’d find on South Uist too. Douglas wasn’t as busy as you might expect either and there was plenty of space on the headlands of Port Erin and Peel for all of us. The Isle of Man feels like a good place for a quiet getaway; that certainly is how it came across to me. While I’d avoid the time around the TT, I’d have no qualms about returning to savour the coast between Port Erin and Port St. Mary or places like Castletown, Laxey or Ramsey.
Return train journey from Macclesfield to Liverpool with changes in Stockport. Isle of Man Steam Packet Company ferry between Liverpool and Douglas. Bus travel from Douglas to Port Erin or between Douglas and Peel.