This is the first post from the Isle of Man. It has several shots from around the island, including the route of the TT motorcycle race. Other posts will deal with the Manx Steam Railroad, Douglas, Peel, Castletown and Port Erin.
There‘s a sign when you leave the arrivals area of the Isle of Man Airport that reads “Travelers who are not citizens of the EU or the EEA and are arriving from the Republic of Ireland are required to register with the Isle of Man immigration and passport office.” It gives an address in Douglas, the capital. I was hauling a bag and didn’t have anything to write the address on. I asked the lady at the airport information desk about this requirement. She said “Don’t worry; I don’t know why they even have that sign.” I asked our cab driver on the way into town, he said no one he knew ever registered, but if I wanted to do so I, perhaps, should go to the “Wedding Cake” building in Douglas. The landlady at our B&B had no idea, in 14 years no one had ever asked her. She directed me to the tourist office. They never heard of such a requirement. So we ignored it but curiosity kept nagging at me. I asked every Manxman or woman I ran into. The most amusing response was at the Manx Museum where two docents got into an argument. One said that that rule didn’t apply to planes from Ireland because Ireland, the UK and its dependencies (The Isle of Man is NOT part of the UK or the EU but is a dependency) had a common border but it did apply to planes coming directly from the Schengen area of the EU since Ireland, the UK and its dependencies were not part of Schengen. This actually makes some sense. The other docent said, no, it applied to people coming from Ireland who were not European.
Suzi and I left the museum after spending more time than I usually spend in a museum and ran across a building that looked like a wedding cake. The main entrance was actually in the adjacent building. This was the Tynwald, or Manx Parliament which has two houses, the directly elected House of Keys and the appointed Legislative Council. The Tynwald is the world’s oldest continuous parliament, meeting since 979. The man in the “Wedding Cake” was very nice but did not know anything about our need to register but he said he would take us through passages to another building so we would not have to go outside in the rain. We arrived at the passport office. Two of the three windows had a curious sign saying “Due to unforeseen circumstances, we are closed, please come later.” The third window said “immigration.” No one was there, but there was a button to press. Suzi pressed it. A man in a sparkling white shirt and tie came to the window. We explained why we were there. He looked puzzled and said. “Well, yes, it is the law that you do need to fill in a landing card and get your passport stamped but I think you are the first people, since I have been working here, to EVER actually come.” He paused “THANK YOU FOR BEING SO NICE AND LAW ABIDING. I will stamp your passport, it’s a nice stamp, it’s a lovely stamp. It has three legs!” (The symbol of the Isle of Man.) Here let me find my stamp.” He rummaged through his desk, another desk, and under the counter until, five minutes later, he produced his stamp and with great flourish stamped our passports, right in the middle of a blank page with a lovely three legged stamp and said, “You are legal, you can even go to Britain, but you can’t work, promise me you won’t work?” We promised. “Or (with a smile) go on public assistance,” we promised. “If you are going back to Ireland from the Isle of Man and you don’t have a stamp you could have gotten in trouble. Although I’ve never heard of it happening…. But anyway it’s a good thing you got this stamp.” As it turned out Irish immigration could care less about my lovely three legged stamp. Of course Man being a small island word spread about the Americans who actually got their passport stamped. When I mentioned it to our landlady and I said “It’s a lovely stamp” we both said, together, “It has three legs!”
Making the story better for the locals was our surname, McClear. The mythical “protector” of the Isle of Man was Manannan MacLir. Lir is the old Irish word for Sea, so MacLir is “son of the sea.” Manannan was the Celtic equivalent of Poseidon. He protected the Island from the Romans and the Anglo-Saxons by his use of fog, wind and seas. It didn’t work so well with the Vikings. Mannin McLir (after whom the island was named) was a sea pilot, merchant and the island’s first king. He is often equated with Manannan. His name is on the list of island rulers at the Rushen Castle. So the name McClear (or McLir) stands out. The docent at the Manannan Museum in Peel, which is pretty much based around MacLir, told us we should go meet the Manx McClears. It wouldn’t be hard. The island’s most noted publicans are McClears. Although the docent told us not to mention his name, he is a former McClear brother-in-law. But being McClears he insisted on giving us a lift to our next destination. (He was a nice guy and I think he would have given us a lift anyway.)
We visited the Thirsty Pigeon, run by Robert McClear Jr. (Sr. Runs the Victoria up the street.) Robert tells us that the name was useful in impressing girls when they went up to Rushen castle to park. He (and his dad before him) pointed to the list of kings and said “I’m Royalty.”
The Kingdom of Mann was an important trading kingdom in ancient times. The Vikings came and introduced the parliament which ruled with a Viking king. But other than the form of government the Vikings were almost completely assimilated by the Celts. They took on the Manx Christian religion, their language, and many customs. The Kingdom of Mann ruled the Hebrides, Orkneys and other islands. In the 1200s the island was pawned off to King James of Scotland to raise money for a dowry. The debt was never paid so the Scottish King claimed the islands for himself, but they were never incorporated into Scotland, or England when the island passed to them. The island is, technically, independent. For almost 3 centuries the Stanley family were the “Lord Protectors of Mann,” appointed by the British Monarch. One of the Georges took the title “Lord of Mann” for himself and appointed a Lt. Governor as his representative. Apparently there was a lot of smuggling that the King wanted to tax. The Lt. Governor used to have power, but over the years the position has become ceremonial. Since 2010 the Manx government has nominated the candidate for the queen to appoint. The loyal toast on the island is “The Queen, Lord of Mann.”
Lord Raglan was Lt. Governor from 1902 to 1918. He is known for pressuring the House of Keys to insure were no speed limits to entice motor racing to the island. The main tourist event on the island is the annual TT (Tourist Trophy) motorcycle race. Today Mann has speed limits, but not during the race. The TT is one of the most deadly races in the world riding over mountain roads and through villages. It had been part of the Grand Prix World Champion circuit but was dropped because it was too dangerous. In this century 21 people have been died in the race, and the century is only 13 years old. The race is a matter of pride for the Manx. On the 50p coin the Queen is “Heads” and a big honking motorcycle is “tails.” There’s a festival built around the race all of May. We took a bus along most of the TT route, winding, climbing, running through towns — yeah.
The other major tourist attractions on the Island are people visiting their money in their offshore accounts and railroading. The steam railroad was one of my three reasons to visit (the other two were Manannan MacLir and my love of geopolitical oddities.) Mann (note on spelling, the country is Mann, the on the Isle of Man) has 4 different rail lines but only one was running when we were there, the Manx Steam Railroad. It’s a narrow gauge road from Douglas to Port Erin. The train was used in the movie “Thomas Tank Engine.” It is beautifully maintained and it is a real kick to watch the engineers care for the locomotives, oiling them, watering them, feeding them. The trip from Douglas to Port Erin burns one ton of coal per locomotive. I look at the fireman and realize that in the four round trips a day he is shoveling 8 tons of coal. For 500 pounds the railroad will train you to run the steam engines and actually allow you to drive the train on a run. They have 25 one day classes a year, three students to a class. For an extra 50 pounds you can take a guest, who will not ride the locomotive footplate but will be in the “guard car” right behind. The railroad advertises it as “The Ultimate Driving Experience.” Safer than motorcycles.
While the train is maintained as part of the tourist infrastructure Tesco has a big new store right next to the Douglas Railway station and it has become a shopping train for residents on the south of the island.
The ride is a sensory experience. The sweet smell of coal is nice for a short time. I am not sure how I would feel if I lived along the line in summer, with open windows and 7 round trips a day. The sound of a steam locomotive is at the same time, heavy metal industrial and somehow soothing. The steam whistle sounds before every grade crossing. The train rattles and bumps along and the views are gorgeous shrouded in a mist created by the locomotive, riding through hedge rows, along the coast, past castles and ending up in lovely Port Erin with its beach, harbor, lighthouse and row houses. It used to be a fishing village, like many on the island. Now, with the depletion of stocks there are, according to one cab driver, only 12 permit holders left in the island. We visited several ports and saw mostly pleasure boats.
We stayed at a B&B run by Cindy, born raised in Zambia. She is a telecommunications specialist. Her father was a British Mining Engineer. She raised her family in Africa (two daughters still live there) but the Chinese have taken over the mines and communications so she “retired” to Dublin, a place she never lived, but found that she could not deal with city life after living in a small “enclave” community all of her life. So more than a dozen years ago she moved to the Isle of Man. She laughs at herself because of the attitudes she grew up with about English tourists in Africa. She says she finds English tourists really rather nice. She put us in her best room, overlooking the Douglas harbor and promenade with great views of ships coming and going, perfect for sunrises. We kept the curtains open so we could watch every morning. One strange feature of the harbor is a “castle” on a rock very near the harbor entrance, the “tower of refuge.” Many ships foundered on that rock trying to make safe harbor. The lifeguards could only watch, not able to reach the wrecks. So Douglas built the tower, stocked it with, as Cindy puts it, “fresh water and tinned meats.” We were there during the monthly ebb and flow tides. At ebb you can actually walk to the tower, at flow the island completely disappears and the tower rises right out of the Irish Sea.
The Airport road crosses the “Fairy Bridge,” a little bridge where “The little people” congregate. Folks leave their requests and presents to the fairies. This may seem like an ancient custom, part of the “Celtic connection” with Ireland but according to a book on Manx myths it started as a tourist attraction in the 19th century. The practice took on a life beyond the life of that particular tourist trap and now is part of the island folklore.
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Looking forward to the dispatch from the Kella Distillery.