Saturday, June 16th 2007
I had set my phone’s alarm for 6:30 am but awoke at 6:20 so I got up and made tea and then washed and dressed ready to leave. Tigger was ready in a flash and we left home at 7:30 – good going, I thought. Off we went on our next adventure!
We took the 476 bus as this goes right into the forecourt of Euston Station – useful if you have a heavy suitcase. Having bought sandwiches for the journey, we had a modest breakfast, watching the Departures board for news of our train. Here we found ourselves victims of the Platform Dilemma.
The Platform Dilemma is experienced sooner or later by all travellers using big stations. It doesn’t occur in small stations for obvious reasons. It works like this: the Departures board shows a list of trains, together with yours, and gives their departure times and the platform numbers – except for yours, of course. For your train there is no platform number. All trains before and after yours have numbers but yours is blank.
Your train creeps steadily up the list as departure time approaches and you begin to feel anxious: you have a heavy suitcase and, for all you know, your train might be at the other end of the station but you can’t go anywhere because the platform number remains blank.
You ask a member of the station staff but he just shrugs. They’ve obviously been sworn to secrecy. Then with 5 minutes to go, the number finally appears. You have to run to the other end of the station, board the train with your heavy case, stow this in the inadequate luggage area and find your seat… along with hundreds of other people trying to do the same thing.
Things settle down at last and off we go. We must change at Birmingham.
We scramble aboard the train at Birmingham. This time I have no trouble storing the suitcase, surely a sign that something else will go wrong. It does. Our seats are occupied by a party of woman, a “hen party”. They have already been drinking and are aggressive because another passenger is complaining about them, but reluctantly gather themselves together to move. They take their time about it, blocking the gangway and preventing passengers from getting seated. I hear one of them say “We got the wrong carriage, that’s all. What’s the big deal?”
Normality restored, we relax and watch the countryside pass by the windows. It was raining when we left Islington, then it cleared up but once again the sky is threatening rain. We pass through flooded areas which match the watery theme.
Lancaster is where we change again.
At Lancaster we have 30 minutes to wait and I buy cups of insipid tea. Our train arrives, a battered suburban cuckoo, that runs as a shuttle between Lancaster and our next changeover point. After a couple of stops, including one at the quaintly named Bare Lane, we arrive at Heysham Port. Now it is the sea that separates us from our destination.
The cuckoo chugged into Heysham Port station and we followed the small number of passengers along the platform to the entrance to the Steam Packet company terminal.
By now you will have guessed our destination: the Isle of Man. It is possible to fly there from Heathrow but this time we took the rail and ferry route. I imagined that the ferry crossing would be fairly quick but in fact it takes over 3 and a half hours. The ferry sails at a slow pace quite at odds with modern notions of travel and I can’t help wondering whether this is a deliberate ploy to get people to spend money in the cafeteria and bar.
The ferry was supposed to sail at 2 pm and we reached the check-in at 1:45 to find only two staff on duty, both occupied with customers whose cases required protracted transactions. Our queue wasn’t very long but it didn’t move at all as the hands of the clock moved inexorably towards 2 pm.
At the last minute we heard that they were delaying the ferry’s departure to allow us to come aboard.
We found seats in the Quiet Lounge which faces the stern. You avoid the rowdy boozers in shorts and football shirts but you also see how slowly the shore retreats, indicating the excruciatingly slow speed of the ferry. It might be considered uncharitable to suggest that they send old ferries to die on the Isle of Man run but it is an almost irresistible thought.
It was raining in London but the temperature was mild and we were lightly dressed. As the voyage progressed, the temperature in the Quiet Lounge dropped until I felt uncomfortably cold. I noticed that most of the other passengers were wearing anoraks or warm jackets. I hoped it was over-active air conditioning rather than the ambient temperature that was making me cold.
When we finally disembarked, it did seem warmer. We now had to find the hotel, the Devonian, whose Web site claimed it was 5 minutes’ walk from the port. I think they must have timed it by someone who walks at 30 mph.
The next thing we discovered was that there were 8 steps from the street to the hotel lobby then another 61 steps to our room. By the time we leave we’ll be either fit or frazzled.
Last time we were in Douglas, it was our first trip together and we stayed in a much nicer hotel, the Welbeck. We also had several meals in an Indian restaurant a short way up a side street off the promenade and thought to go there again this evening. Unfortunately, it was all boarded up.
We walked along the promenade looking at menus and prices. In the end we stopped at the Four Seasons. They were offering vegetarian mushroom strogonoff but the waitress came back to say it was unavailable. We ordered “vegetarian pasta”. The waitress came back to request that we have a word with the chef.
The chef was very amiable and helpful and put together a very good dish with tasty fresh mushrooms in a cheese sauce. We had sticky toffee pudding for desert.
We walked back along the promenade, enjoying the evening and reminiscing about our first visit. At last we reached the hotel and had to steel ourselves for the 69-step climb to our room. “You go ahead,” said Tigger, “and get the kettle going.”
So I did, feeling like someone climbing Everest who is forced to leave an ailing colleague behind. By the time I had filled the kettle and plugged it in, Tigger arrived at the door, tired but unbowed in spirit.
“I’ve thought of a name for this place,” she said and paused for me to ask what it was.
“What is it?”
“Stairway to Devon!” said Tigger.
Not the best pun in the world, perhaps, but at least as good as my Pen’s Ants, and it had been a long day.
Sunday, June 17th 2007
In view of the 61 steps, we took all our kit with us when we went down to breakfast and went straight out afterwards.
These days, hotels are becoming readier to accommodate vegetarians so we were a little shocked when we asked what was available for vegetarians and received the curt reply “What’s on the menu.”
After breakfast, we went to the tourist information centre and bought 5-day travel tickets. These give us unlimited travel on buses, trams and trains for 5 days. Good value at £35 each.
The first thing we did with them was to to travel from Douglas to Port Erin by rail. First, we had to find the station. We could see where it was on the street plan but that is less than half the battle because in Douglas they are curiously reluctant to put up street names. We had to ask the way and finally found it.
The station is beautful with a magnificent gateway. To go inside is to step into the past, into the Victorian era. There is a museum attached but the station itself is already a living museum.
The railway is the Isle of Man Steam Railway, another magnificent piece of living history. The important point to grasp is that while there are other steam trains and steam railways in the British Isles these have been restored after ceasing to run whereas the Isle of Man service opened in 1874 and has run continuously ever since. It is a functioning transport service, not merely an “attraction” run for tourists, and we certainly used it as such.
The small but well made locomotives and the old slam-door carriages, still divided into compartments, are a fascinating sight and a joy to behold for railway enthusiasts.
Port Erin is small and on Sunday nearly everything is closed. We had a cup of tea in the station cafe, then went looking for lunch. When ended up back at the station cafe eating “toasties”. Nothing else was open.
We took the train back to Douglas and explored a bit more of the town. We then took the horse tram along the promenade to its terminus. Having patted the horse and met a cat called Elvis who lives in the tram shed, we decided it was time for dinner.
Nearby was a Chinese restaurant called Chinatown, so we entered and asked for a table. The service was efficient and polite but I would say the food was no more than average.
As we didn’t yet feel ready to climb the 69 steps to our room, we sat on a bench until a bus turned up and boarded it for the round trip. This reminded me of what I only half jokingly referred to as our white-kuckle bus rides around Newquay in Cornwall. As then, the bus jolted and rattled along narrow roads, suddenly turning right or left to visit outlying communities, until we lost all sense of direction.
Back in Douglas, we were not sure where to disembark. As a result, we ended up in the bus depot and surprised the driver who had no idea anyone was still aboard.
Outside the depot was a bus stop so we waited there about 40 minutes. On Sundays, even in Douglas itself, buses run at a frequency of 1 an hour.
When the bus eventually came, it was the same driver. We explained where we wanted to go – our hotel – and he kindly dropped us off at the nearest point on his route. We walked down the hill to the hotel, took a deep breath and, 69 steps later, were back in our room brewing up.
I am writing this over a second cup of tea while Tigger reviews on her laptop the photos she took during the day.
Monday, June 18th 2007
The plan was to take the horse tram to Derby Castle and there travel to Ramsey on the famed Manx Electric Railway, built in 1893 and still running today.
Arriving at the Jubilee Clock Tower near the port, I crossed the road to the public toilets. On emerging, I saw Tigger at the stop a hundred yards away and the horse tram rapidly approaching. There was only one thing to do: I took to my heels and proceeded to race the horse tram to the stop! A horse tram may not be not the fastest vehicle on the road but neither am I an Olympic sprinter so I think I did well to get there in time, applauded by Tigger.
At Derby Castle we caught the first MER train of the day. Though called trains, the vehicles are designed like trams and are the oldest electrical vehicals still in use anywhere in the world.
It was a picturesque ride with views of coast and the countryside. We were lucky to travel in one of the more beautiful carriages with padded seats and fine wooden panelling.
After our experience at Erin Port I jokingly said I would avoid coming to the IoM at the weekend. This joke was turned back on me when we found most shops and eateries in Ramsey close on Mondays! Even having lunch was difficult but in the end we found a cafe called “The Parliament”. A feature of this meal (egg and chips) was that my plate contained the longest chip I have ever seen. Manx potatoes must be gigantic.
The carriage on the return journey was less classy than first train, having longitudinal wooden benches and less pristine panelling. We had found the upholstered seats hard on the bottom, so it was as well that we had to endure the wooden benches only as far as Laxey.
The name Laxey, incidentally, comes from the Manx Gaelic words meaning “Salmon stream”.
We enjoyed tea and icecream at Laxey station and then visited the town. Its most famous feature is the Great Wheel, alias the Lady Isabella, which was designed to pump water out the deep mine workings. It uses flowing water to pump water and is a triumph of Victorian ingenuity.
We just missed a train back to Douglas so we took the bus instead. Tigger had forgotten to bring her sun hat so we went shopping for one. This proved difficult but in the end she found something suitable. We celebrated with tea and toasted tea cakes at Copperfields Olde Tea Shoppe & Restaurant, a rather stylish tea rooms in Castle Street.
Once again we rode the horse tram to the Derby Castle terminus. I recognized the horse from the day before, called Mark. We sat for a while watching Elvis, the tram shed cat, surely the laziest cat on the Island, and the horses. Mark apparently like Polo mints.
Tigger noticed a French restaurant so we walked over to take a look. It is closed until Friday which effectively removes it from our sphere of interest. From where, I wonder, comes this Manx prediliction for closing businesses rather than opening them?
Instead, we ate at Chillies, an Indian restaurant. We had our usual vegetable thali and it was very good, served with a bowl of pulao rice.
It felt as if it had been a long day and so we were content to take the bus back to the hotel and reward ourselves for the long climb by making tea and watching a video on the Island’s unique trains and trams. This is much more interesting than it sounds, especially as we recognized Albert, one of the tram horses we have come to know.
Tuesday, June 19th 2007
Today started damp with wet pavements and spitting rain. We waited for a bus on the sea front, watching a heavy tractor removing seaweed from the beach. I did wonder where the much vaunted sandy beach of Douglas was. Under a layer of smelly seaweed, apparently.
The bus took us to steam train station,where we had tea, before boarding the 10:15. It being a Tuesday, there was every hope that Port Erin would be open. Moreover, it was supposed to be market day.
On arriving, we found that Port Erin was indeed open for business. We asked an elderly lady where the market was and were directed to the sea front. We found the market which consisted of a few stalls selling tee shirts, sunglasses and other miscellaneous goods, nothing apt to detain us for long.
The answer to the question “What now?” seemed to be Roberto’s, a corner cafe in Anglo-Italian style offering drinks and snacks. We started with drinks and graduated to food, which qualified us to sit in the dining area as opposed to the drinks area.
The eventual plan was to visit the Cregneash Village Folk Museum, a bus ride away. Our travel skills, honed and sharpened in Cornwall where transport is as desultory as here and goes to bed as early, made us plan very carefully as we did not want to miss our last connection back to Douglas.
Having exhausted the delights that Port Erin (Purt Chiarn in Manx) has to offer, we repaired to the bus stop to await bus number 1. Even finding the bus stop was a typical Manx puzzle. We found a notice telling us that the stop was “Across from the Orchard.” We found the Orchard – a hotel – but there was no bus stop “across from” it.
Eventually, we discovered that the Orchard has two entrances in two different streets and that the bus stop was “across from” the second, less obvious entrance.
The ride to Cregneash took us along country roads with beautiful views, perhaps the best we had seen so far. From the bus we took a signposted footpath to the village. Cregneash is a “living museum”, a village largely preserved as it was in earlier days. There are brown sheep with multiple horns and whitewashed cottages thatched in traditional style. This includes projecting stones all along the eaves to which are attached cords typing down nets protecting the thatch from stormy conditions.
In the village tearoom, we enjoyed a bowl of soup before walking the the bus stop, via the museum shop. We were intending to catch the last bus out and although we were at the stop in time, the bus failed to appear.
At first we assumed the bus was late (as was the bus that brought us here) but after 20 minutes it was obvious that the bus had passed early, probably while we were in the museum shop.
What we were to do? We seem to have such an adventure on every trip. I walked down to one of the houses where I heard voices talking in the garden. I entered and found three ladies – one of whom was wearing what I took to be traditional Manx costume – engaged in conversation. I asked if there was a local taxi service.
“Yes,” said one, “but you will have to phone them.”
“If you’re going to Port Erin,” opined that lady in costume. “then it’s a 20-minute brisk walk downhill.”
The third lady’s advice won the day, however: “If you don’t mind waiting until 5 o’clock, I’ll give you a lift as I’m going that way.”
I thanked her fulsomely, as you can imagine. She did indeed take us into town where we took a bus (again “across from the Orchard”) that carried us back to Douglas.
In Douglas, we visited the Jubilee Cafe, for a modest supper before taking the bus to our hotel. We climbed the 61 steps to our room where we made tea and settled down, Tigger to watch a DVD about Manx curiosities and your Tiger to write this blog entry.
Wednesday. June 20th 2007
Every holiday has a day like this. If you are lucky, there will be only one.
We took the horse tram to the port and walked to the bus station. We were going to Peel (Purt ny Hinshey) and to visit the cat sanctuary on the way back. We duly took the bus to Peel. The day had started fine but clouded up during the journey.
Having reached Peel, we had tea in a cafe smelling of burnt fat and checked the bus timetable. The infrequency of buses caused us to rush off for the next departure in a few minutes.
The bus took us to the train station at Ballasalla but there was no train due for 1.25 hours. In fact, a workman had parked a van partly across the line!
We therefore took the number 2 bus which goes to the cat sanctuary. I asked to be told when we were at sanctuary and the driver, who startlingly resembled Peter O’Toole, replied. “If I remember”.
In the event he did remember. We got off and the bus roared away leaving us in the middle of nowhere. And now it began to rain, at first gently, then with increasing intensity. We found the cat sanctuary but now realized that it was open only from 2-5 pm. It was now about 11:30 and there was nothing to be served by standing in the rain. We found a bus stop and travelled to Castletown when we had lunch at the Bowling Green Cafe.
The plan now was to take the first bus from Castletown that would get us to the sanctuary after 2 pm. We waited for the 13:51. At 13:51 a bus arrived and we climbed wetly aboard. After some time we realized that the bus was not going where we wanted to go but to Port Erin. So we revised our plan again.
At Port Erin we took the steam railway. We asked to be dropped off at Santon, a request stop and the nearest station to the cat sanctuary. By now we were beginning to feel a little discouraged, especially as Tigger is suffering from cold and not at her best.
We got out of the train and into the rain at a deserted Santon station. There was no indication where to go, not even how to get to the road. We made a guess that turned out to be right but when we reached to road, there was no indication where the cat sanctuary was or even which way to go to get back to Douglas.
This illustrates a curious lack of follow-through that we have noticed many times on the Island. They want you to visit places (or so we assume) but give you so little help in finding them – or telling you useful things such as towns that close on a weekday – that you could be forgiven for thinking the opposite is true, namely that they are deliberately making them hard to find.
We at last worked out which way it was to the cat sanctuary but it was going to be a longish walk in the rain and so when we reached a bus stop with a shelter, we decided to give up and return straight to Douglas.
Back in town we stopped for hot chocolate at the Al Capone cafe then discussed what to do next. It was only 4:30 but we were tired and there was little to do in the grey rainy weather. On the other hand, it was too early to go back to the hotel.
The plan that emerged was to have a snack (we had “toasties” made of cheese without any trace of taste at the Alpine cafe) and then to buy sandwiches to take back to the hotel. We bought cheese and tomato baguettes at Copperfield’s.
As a finale, we took a ride on the horse tram, almost two complete runs. They finally dropped us off at the bottom of our street. We then climbed the hill and then the 61 steps to our room, where we had tea and baguettes and relaxed at last.
Thursday, June 21 st 2007
The day started bright but soon closed in but it didn’t rain so there was hope that the day would go better than yesterday.
It being too early for the horse tram, we took the bus to Derby Castle and waited for the first departure of the Manx Electric Railway. They were readying the tram horses and in the distance we could see them shuffling the MER carriages. I greeted Elvis the tram shed cat, aka The Laziest Cat in the World.
At last we boarded the electric train and set off. The ride was as enjoyable as the first time, especially as we made sure to grab the front right seats where you can look ahead through the driver’s window.
On this leg of the journey, we were going only as far as Laxey where we would take the Snaefell Mountain Railway (Raad-Yiarn Sniaul) to the summit of Snaefell. The Manx consider Snaefell to be a mountain so you should accord it the appropriate respect. Jokes are not appreciated – the Manx have heard them all.
As the single carriage climbed higher and higher, the weather closed in. When we reached the summit, the fog was too thick to see more than a few yards. It was a pity to come all this way and not enjoy the view but these things happen.
The descent was quite enjoyable and it was noticeable how the air suddenly cleared below a certain height. Back at Laxey station we had time for hot chocolate and cheese toasties before continuing by train to Ramsey where we caught the bus for Peel.
The sun now came out and it became a beautiful day. The bus ride was very scenic, one of the best so far, but the mood enhancing sunshine no doubt played a part.
Peel is a quiet little town. We had a cup of tea and went rambling. I think there are more antiques shops and art shops in Peel than in Douglas and Ramsey together. There is an upmarket feeling about Peel which strikes one as odd given that it is so small and quiet (there were about half a dozen people at most on the whole sandy sweep of its attractive beach and we watched terns diving for food just offshore. I am told there isn’t even a hotel in Peel and that the locals are not sure they want one.
We sat for a long time on the sea front enjoying the sunshine and the calm atmosphere. Finally we took the bus back to Douglas.
We intended to have supper at the Four Seasons but the bus we took veered left up the Broadway where our hotel is. So we got off and went to the Millennium Saagar, an Indian restaurant a few doors down from the hotel. They tidied us away on the first floor but served a good vegetable thali with a jug of lassi made to order
Then it was up those stairs – all 61 of them – to our room.
Friday, June 22nd 2007
This being our last day, we had two items planned. The first, more general, one was to spend the day out and about and the other, more specific, was to meet an old friend for dinner.
For the last time, at least on this trip, we took the bus to Derby Castle for the 9:40 train to Ramsey. We had enough time to say hello to Elvis (not that he seemed to care) and to take a nostalgic last look at the horses getting ready to pull the trams.
We read that the horses make no more than two round trips a day and that when they are too old to work they are moved to a retirement home which is open to the public. We would have liked to visit it but maybe we will do so on a subsequent trip here.
At Ramsey, Tigger had the idea of extending our coverage by visiting Jurby. So we took the bus. There is little to be said about Jurby other than that it is home to the famous Jurby Junk emporium. In the event we stayed on the bus and returned to Ramsey.
We decided to go to Peel for lunch and again enjoyed the beautiful views from the bus. Along most of the route the track of the old defunct Peel railway can be made out, with bridges and tunnels though only ramblers travel along it now.
Lunch at the Marine Hotel on Peel sea front was forgettable, its memory further dimmed by two large icecreams from Davison’s Icecream Parlour. We sat on the sea front for a while and then explored the town for the last time before catching the bus back to Ramsey.
I had left it that I would phone my friend and arrange where to meet or, if all else failed, to meet up at the Spices Indian restaurant where he had kindly booked a table.
In the event, all the cafes and coffee lounges were closed so we settled for Bar Logo which had comfy settees in the window bay and telephoned my friend to invite him to meet us there.
I should explain, that this friend and I have known one another for 16 years but this was the first time we had met in person. We first became acquainted in the days of the computer bulletin boards (bbs) and the friendship which started in those forums continued later through the medium of email. Over the years we have sent one another hundreds of thousands of words in long emails covering many topics.
Meeting a “familiar stranger” in this way is an odd experience. Years of interaction soon overcome the strangeness, however, and before long you feel as if you have met many times before, which in a sense you have.
After our Indian meal, served rather curtly, we adjourned again to Bar Logo for coffee and chatted about many things. At last it was time to go to the bus station for the last bus back to Douglas, then to climb the 61 steps to our room for the last time.
Saturday, June 23rd 2007
The alarm went off and I sprang out of bed, full of energy. Not really. It was more a case of “Oh no, not getting-up time already!” followed by a slow slither out of bed into the cold reality of a new day.
I will spare you the details of getting ready, stuffing the remaining bits and bobs into the suitcase, tobogganing this down the 61 stairs and a breakfast spent alternately eating and check the time. I remarked to Tigger that it will be some time before I eat waffles again.
Our taxi arrived on cue, we checked in and went aboard the Ben My Chree which proceeded to dawdle its way across the sea with annoying slowness.