Holly Cave explores the wealth of heritage offered by one of the most popular island destinations for groups.
Quirky, beautiful and bursting with a unique culture, the Isle of Man has everything your group needs for a getaway with a difference. Squeezed into its 200 square miles of gorgeous rolling countryside are quaint Victorian railways situated a short drive, or a walk, apart.
The Celtic and Norse influences are obvious across the island, along with its antique Victorian heritage. During the reign of Queen Victoria, the Isle of Man became an incredibly popular holiday destination. In the year of her Jubilee in 1897, there were over a hundred hotels playing host to over 300,000 summer visitors. With the Industrial Revolution came the growth of the towns and resorts, and steam trains criss-crossed the countryside. Two gentlemen – Mr Maxwell and Mr Tuke – were the architects who designed the Blackpool Tower and devised a grand, electric tramway to run along the cliffs of the Isle of Man. Inaugurated in 1893, the open-topped, double-decker trams of Marine Drive were ideal for taking in the sea air. After falling into disrepair, Marine Drive has now been re-opened to walkers and cyclists via the kissing gates, which retain a hint of its former Victorian atmosphere. Nostalgic journeys on other versions of Victorian-era transport are available elsewhere on the island. The Manx Electric Railway runs for 17 wonderfully scenic miles, connecting the capital of Douglas with Laxey in the east and Ramsey in the north.
Railway enthusiasts will love the fact that two of the trams in use on this line are the oldest regularly operated in the world. Hop on and off at the many stops available to explore the more remote parts of the island. Before leaving Douglas, call in at the Grand Union Camera Obscura on the hillside above town – an eccentric reminder of the area’s Victorian past. Built for astronomical purposes, the eleven-lensed site projects views of the surrounding hills, horizon, lighthouse and harbour onto a circular table. Please note that disabled access to this spot is rather limited.
The Isle of Man Steam Railway – complete with the original locomotives and carriages – is yet another Victorian introduction and remains one of the longest narrow gauge steam lines in Britain. It transports visitors and locals alike from Douglas, down to the attractions and settlements to the south of the island. If you’re seriously drawn to train journeys, hop aboard the Snaefell Mountain Railway to the highest point on the island, enjoy a trip on the Manx Electric Railway, the Groudle Glen Railway or take the old mining train to Laxey. It’s here that you’ll find the candy cane-coloured Great Laxey Wheel – the world’s largest remaining watermill. Designed by Victorian engineer Robert Casement, the wheel originally pumped water from the nearby mining complex.
A group permit will allow you into the building to glimpse into the mine, to climb to the top of the wheel and to wander through the lovely surrounds of Glen Mooar. To the west, the Victorian resort of Peel remains the island’s only city. Fishing boats bob in the harbour where fishermen haul in the herring used to make Manx kippers and little shops, cafes and restaurants line the narrow streets. Walk along the beach and promenade where Victorian holidaymakers would have stretched their legs. The Grove Museum of Victorian Life in Ramsey is a perfectly preserved slice of Victorian life. Group visits can be booked in advance for a discounted rate or pre-arranged for a private out-of-hours experience. The museum is a family home that tells the story of the Gibb family through its decorated rooms and gardens. Stop for a game of croquet if you have time.
Norse Crosses pop up in churchyards all over the island. For a more Viking vibe, seek out the Iron Age fort of Cronk ny Merriu (Hill of the Dead) near Port Grenaugh. The Balladoole Viking burial site contains a Viking ship built in the 1040s. Similarly at the House of Manannan, visitors can get close to fascinating reconstructions, including a Viking longhouse and Viking longship.
The atmospheric Peel Castle dates back to long before the Victorians, having stood since 1392. The site is renowned as the burial site for the famous Pagan Lady – one of the most significant female burial sites outside Scandinavia. There’s a panoramic view of Peel from the Gatehouse Tower and seals and basking sharks can sometimes be spotted from the headland here. Castle Rushden in the old capital of Castletown dates back to the time of Magnus, the last Norse King.
Amazingly well-preserved, the vaulted rooms of this limestone medieval castle echoes with history, which isn’t surprising when you consider that it’s been used as a fortress, home and prison since 1265. Ghost tours are a popular pastime here. You may also consider visiting Rushen Abbey, where a brilliant Interpretation Centre recounts its history from 1134 to the present day. Formerly a monastery, Rushen Abbey became the Isle of Man’s seat of religious power. If it’s glimpses of authentic Viking gold you’re after then you could call in at the Viking Gallery within the Manx Museum. There’s also an art gallery, interactive exhibits and many other exhibitions that recount the history of the island. Admission is free.
Walking is a popular activity on the Isle of Man. The ‘three legs of Man’ are joined at the thigh and are of unknown origin, but it’s certain that the locals like to trek around their home as much as they like to jump aboard the railways. There are a number of pretty villages worth exploring around the island, in addition to rugged cliffs and beautiful glens. Dhoon Glen is one of the steepest with 190 steps and a gushing waterfall. Curragh’s Wildlife Park covers 50 acres. It is home to over 300 animals and 70 species, such as Humboldt penguins, spider monkeys, lynx and lemurs.
Beyond the animal enclosures, wooden walkways lead through to an extensive nature reserve that is internationally recognised as a wetland of scientific interest, where you could spot wild wallabies amongst the undergrowth. These wetlands give the park its name; the Manx word “curragh” meaning bog. 2015 is the 50th anniversary of Curragh’s Wildlife Park and the team will be holding various events to celebrate. Groups are welcomed with special rates if in a party of 10 or more.
The night sky is a stunning sight here. In fact, the Isle of Man contains 26 Dark Sky discovery sites in the British Isles. Onchan Park is a convenient spot, located just two miles north of Douglas where the stars shine over the sea. It’s worth staying up late on a clear night to enjoy the astronomical sights—even with the naked eye the Orion Nebula is often visible. You may even be lucky enough to spot the mystical flicker of the Northern Lights. There’s nine golf courses on the island with the Venture Centre organising archery, abseiling, kayaking, orienteering and many more physical activities. Go-Mann Adventures create walks, challenges and skill-building courses for groups visiting the area. Plus, they can build bespoke activities to suit your group.
PLANNING YOUR VISIT
To really get to grips with the character of the island, it’s vital to get local insight. The Guild of Manx Registered Tour Guides are eager and willing to introduce visitors to the amazing stories and wonderful eccentricities of their home. All are passionate professionals with qualified ‘Blue Badge’ level guides and a breadth and depth of knowledge about the history, geology, and folklore of the island. They’re also likely to be full of recommendations for drinking holes and places to eat. Complete tour planning can be arranged and the guides can join you in your own transport or can arrange local vehicle hire if required. If your party anticipates visiting a lot of the attractions, its excellent value to buy a Holiday Pass, which provides admission to multiple sites and offers discounted rates for groups. Holiday Passes are available from all Manx National Heritage Sites.
A combined Heritage and Transport Pass is also available for larger groups of 20 or more, which also includes unlimited travel on the heritage railways, buses and horse trams in Douglas. Popular times to visit include the Yn Cruinnaght Inter-Celtic Festival, which will be held from July 15-19, 2015. It’s a vibrant celebration of the Isle of Man’s heritage, complete with costumed characters, music, dancing, parades and battle re-enactments. Another international event is the annual Isle of Man Tourist Trophy Race. This major motorcycle road race is a huge affair with an associated festival, and takes place over a couple of weeks in late May and early June.