Douglas train station.
Photos by: Glen Cowley
The past and present merged like a sepia photograph; time hung suspended.
With a “Thomas the Engine” huff and puff, our historic engine gave a blast and began its time-honoured 24-kilometre rumble from Port Erin to Douglas, where the isle-long rail journey was picked up by horse-drawn tram along Douglas' sea-side promenade to connect with the circa 1890s-era electric rail tram to towering Mont Snaefell (Snow Mountain) and Ramsay to the north. Much more than a nostalgic recall of bygone times, this unique national rail system remains a living part of the daily life of the Isle of Man. A star in the universe of attractions that is the Isle of Man.
It has been 20 years since I last visited this Eden of the Irish Sea, where my great grandfather once trod. Since 1874, the narrow-gauge trains have been pulling away from the ornate Victorian station in Port Erin and trundling through pastoral countryside, village and town; trailing whitish wisps of steam as they pass on their way to the Isle's capital and largest city, Douglas. From the sandy beach of Port Erin, our determined engine pulled through Port St. Mary, Colby, Castletown and Balla Salla before, an hour later, puffing into the majestic red-bricked Douglas Station, with its proud gilt towers.
Heeding the call of gulls and the breath of the sea, we strolled the short distance to the eye-popping expanse of the Douglas Promenade, still awash with its Victorian- and Edwardian-era structures, where we awaited the horse-drawn tram, an integral part of the stylish walkway since 1876. The buzzing traffic parted like the Red Sea as a methodically plodding Percheron emerged in solitary dignity towing an open-air tram. Unhurried amid the haste of worldly-busy Douglas, it seemed a silent reminder for us to slow down and smell the roses. The driver halted before reaching us allowing his aide to gather up the proud draught horse and lead him to the new front of the tram for the 2.6-km return trip to the electric tram station. Taking our bench seats, we made ourselves comfortable, cameras at the ready.
With seemingly casual ease, he put the tram in motion and we began our unhurried advance along the old rails. To our left spread the crowded, multi-storied townhouses and hotels alit with colour while, to our right, stretched the gardens and walkways of the promenade overlooking the bay with the lone Tower of St. John's refuge; a life-saving mini-castle haven for those awash at sea. No mere tourist attraction, it was constructed in the witnessed wake of men drowning within very sight of land.
My gaze fell upon a small notice speaking of the Home of Rest for Old Horses and when it could be visited; pastoral rest for these faithful servants when their working days are over (roughly 15 years). A short time later, just before reaching our destination, we stopped to have the horses changed and spied a nearby stable with a draft horse poking his curious head round the corner. The sense of caring for the horses added a pleasing aura to the tram experience.
And awaiting us at the end, the electric tram terminus from whence trams have been plying the 28km north to Ramsay since 1894. We opted for the enclosed car blessed with padded seats and offering a warmly wooded interior. Open-air cars were also available. An endless sea horizon opened to us as we began our climb out of Douglas to where rugged sea coast vistas fell away from verdant fields and leant startling contrast between the tended world of man and the wild power of sea and wind.
We climbed past the Groudle Glen Station, where a short side trip steams to a sea vista through a tranquil glen. A worthwhile trip to experience on its own. (Check out details at ggr.org.uk)
From there, the rail burrowed through groves, along field lines and past villages with the oft immensity of the sea commanding the horizon and the soothing clickety-clack of the rails as musical backdrop.
At Laxey (Norse for salmon), we transferred to the Mount Snaefell line. In operation since 1895, its heart-stopping 6.4-km ascent of the Isle's highest mountain gives forth a spectacular view of sea and land. Curious sheep watched our slow climb whilst overlooking a steep chasm, wending stonework fences and chattering stream. A restaurant crowns the 620-metre summit and offers both fare and respite from the wind, which on some days seems intent on blowing you to one of the seven kingdoms visible from the summit – England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Man, Mananan's (Celtic Sea God) and Heaven. Far below, the famed Laxey wheel continues its endless spinning; today but artistry yet once the great life-saving drawer of water from the long-closed mines. The isle's expanse flies away in all directions.
The slow return descent to the main rail line meets on time the trams going either back to Douglas or on to Ramsay. For us, the line to Ramsay awaited and we, once again, wheeled along the coast with hills to our left and sea to the right. Again came the pastoral fields, a million shades of green, and the penetrating blues of sea and sky. The music of the rails threw back veils of time and I imagined my Manx-speaking great grandfather similarly occupied those many years ago, perhaps on this very tram.
At Ramsay, with its face towards the sea, we were at the foot of the mountainous island centre and the beginning of the long flat sweep of land running the remaining distance to the Point of Ayr. Having but scant time to explore the town before beginning our return journey, we busied ourselves with explorations of the old city and a pleasant visit to a tea house. Enough to whet the appetite for a more leisurely later visit.
Taking a seat for the return journey all unfolded again with new vistas courtesy of a differing perspective.
There is much more to the heritage train service, including dinner excursions in a restored 1905 dining car and special events tours. Serious railway buffs will want to visit the railway museum in Port Erin, which has been displaying its wares and telling its story since 1975.
Oh, and as for the “Thomas the Train” connection: The Isle of Man was once part of a greater territory incorporating the title Sodor and the author, Reverend Wilbert Awdrey, was familiar with the hardly little engines and their stories.
This restored and lovingly tended rail service does not want for viability nor is it but an historical toy. Like some great steel ribbon, it ties the isle together in space and time leaving all who experience it wanting to share the experience and spread the word.
IF YOU GO
It is worthwhile to spread the rail experience over two or three days in order to enjoy it at leisure and visit intriguing destinations along the way. This may be a comparatively small Isle, but there is more than enough to fill a month-long holiday.
Fifty-three kilometres long and 19km wide, the Isle of Man is a National entity alive with ancient Celtic, Viking and Manx history, world famous motorcycle racing, hiking, water sports and much more. For details check out the website www.visitisleofman.com
Heritage explorer tickets offering multi-day passes are available with the added benefit of incorporating the extensive island bus service, which avails access to the entirety of the island.
For more details check out the website www.gov.im/publictransport/rail
JUNE 2016 INSPIRED SENIOR LIVING
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