Starting mileage: 19731 km
Day started: 07:30
Day ended: 20:00
As the peak of Snaefell, Man’s tallest summit, emerged from the haze, our phones switched suddenly to roaming mode. That was the first sign that something was amiss. Suddenly, we were going abroad.
Isle of Man is one of those peculiar entities that, while British, do not belong to the United Kingdom, like Channel Isles or Gibraltar. But Man is taking their alleged independence somewhat to the extreme, with separate mobile networks, separate health service and currency which, though tied to the British Pound, is not a legal tender anywhere outside the island.
The Belfast ferry moored in the port of Douglas – Man’s most recent capital – in the afternoon, and so we embarked on a difficult journey towards our first campsite. Man is known for many things – far more, in fact, than is expected of such a tiny place – but what brings the most tourists here are the TT races, a motorcycle grand prix event taking place once a year on Man’s roads: “famously winding and steep” as the leaflet put it. That wasn’t encouraging, considering the state of our engine.
Once warmed up, the van did manage to putter up the road leading from Douglas towards the upland that makes up the most of the island, and not long after – everywhere is near on the Isle – we’ve reached one of, if not the main tourist attractions of Man, one that is shown on its coins and banknotes, and has a model in the main hall of the ferry terminal; surely, someting the people of Man are most proud of: the Great Wheel of Laxey, also known as Lady Isabel.
“The largest working water wheel in the world” doesn’t quite say it. The strikingly red and white wheel of wood and metal rises high above the tallest trees and buildings in the neighbourhood, slowly and majestically moving a giant beam back and forth with every rotation. There are steps to the dizzying top, from which spreads a great view up and down the river valley that holds the Laxey Mines. The wheel was an answer to an age-old technological problem of providing plenty of steady power to the mine pumps and lifts; Isle of Man not being connected to the mainland transport lines, it had to rely on its own resources, so coal-fired steam engine was out of the question. Instead, a complex and enormous hydroengineering system was devised using the plentiful rivers sprouting from the Snaefell mountain.
The Laxey mines used to produce lead and zinc in great quantities, but even when they were still manned, the wheel created a significant additional income from tourists coming from all over England to marvel at it. The numbers of Victorian tourists visiting Man are astonishing: in one record year, 600,000 of them visited the island; it was the holiday destination of choice, ever since the ferry and railway connection to Liverpool was established, and it was this connection, based in Douglas, which turned a small fishing village into the capital. It wasn’t until the advent of cheap holidays in Spain and Portugal that Man lost some of its splendour, and had to refocus its economy, mainly by becoming a tax haven.
It is now an obviously affluent place; all the houses are big and attractive, all the roads are well maintained, all the tourist attractions well marked. In its mixture of Norse and Celtic influences – always a good combination – it closely resembles the Northern Isles, or maybe even Iceland, only not as empty and desolate.
Not far from Laxey, the sign points to an ancient site called King Orry’s Grave; in what is, as we later learned, typical for the overcrowded isle situation, the site – two substantial neolithic burial chambers – lies partly on private ground, simply in somebody’s back garden. As might be expected, Man is filled with ancient ruins of various periods, the most characteristic – and plentiful – being foundations of tiny individual chapels-hermitages known as Keill in the Manx language.
The language, the money, the cats... after a few hours spent on Man we quickly learned nothing is quite normal on the Isle. The cats have no tails; the Queen on the money has no crown; the sheep, most creepily, have four horns, which must make their skulls a main export for Satanist rituals the world over; Manx Gaelic is like Irish Gaelic, but written using plain English ortography (a plus for the Manx here). For an island that tiny (it takes about forty minutes to drive from one end to another, along winding and narrow roads), and this close to strong, powerful neighbours (on a good day from the top of Snaefell you can see all four parts of the United Kingdom) Man retains strict individuality, feeling at times not just like a different country, but a whole different planet altogether.
The campsite we arrived at was set up next to the TT course; have I mentioned TT race before? Good, because it’s something everyone here talks about constantly. Man is bikers’ paradise – it must have the most bike shops per capita in the world; for a couple of weeks in May and June every year, everything here turns around the race – a bit like Monaco during the Grand Prix, only for an entire month. I can only imagine how crazy it gets; the roads we drove were all adjusted for racing, with bumpers on trees, racing lines on the tarmac, and marshall booths on the side. One day we might visit Man during the race just for a day, just to see how it looks like.
(And if you are fan of slower – much, much slower – sports, Man also hosts a major bowling tournament).
The Silly Moos campsite is an enormous rectangle of grass next to a farm; during the day there is a large kids’ activity playground attached to it, but after 6pm it turns perfectly quiet.
Like all campsites on Man, it’s mainly designed to accomodate the huge crowds coming to see the races, so it may feel a bit empty outside that time, but that’s only because it’s so vast. A walk to the facilities (two decent bathrooms and dishwashing room in an old farmhouse) is an expedition, if you stand on the wrong side of the field.Thankfully, at least the water points are close by. The campsite costs £18 IMP (Manx Pounds) per night.