Starting mileage: 19795 km
Day started: 10:30
Day ended: 21:00
With no internet due to roaming charges and GPS stuck in “foreign” mode (not half as detailed as on the mainland), we were for the first time on this trip forced to use Ordnance Survey map and leaflets to find our way around Man. Thankfully, the Isle is small enough and its layout is simple. The main part of Man rises from the sea like a ship, in a high upland, brimmed by cliffs; to the north and south this upland comes down to plains which eventually slide smoothly into the ocean. The main road goes around the highland, and the A1 trunk highway goes right through the middle, connecting the two chief settlements.
Despite the cliffs, there are a few good harbours on the isle, and Peel was always the chief of those: the name of the city (and this is the only city on Man) means “The Port of the Island” in Manx,
Peel is set on the western coast, facing Ireland and Scotland. It was from there that came the settlers and invaders, including, according to the legend, St Patrick and his Christians, and the Norsemen who ruled the island for centuries. The Celtic Christians built a monastery on a small island in the harbour, and the Norsemen built a castle and cathedral upon its foundation.
The Peel Castle is absolutely enormous: the curtain wall encompasses the entire St Patrick’s island and could fit a small town inside. Several layers of Man’s history lie beyond the causeway and the gatehouse, starting with the monastery and its round tower – later turned into a watchtower to spot further invaders coming from Ireland; a few centuries later, the Vikings came and buried their pagan dead over the Christian cemetery. Still later, a Norse lord built the first castle, and what became St German’s cathedral – all now in ruins; the castle saw garrison expansion throughout the Civil Wars and eventually during the Napoleonic era, when the most recent layer of buildings was built: artillery positions and barracks. Like The Laxey Wheel, it’s under care of Manx National Heritage and as members of EH we could enter for free.
The castle is but one of the many attractions of Peel; right by the busy marina rise the chimneys of the kipper factories and curers – Man being the kipper capital of Britain – and the black-and-white House of Manannan museum, holding a replica of a reconstructed viking boat Odin’s Raven. In the harbour, we saw a fish bap van and since it’s a given that this kind of place will have the best food in town, we headed straight for it. Crispy, freshly fried kipper bap and herring in oatmeal were to die for, and only for £3.50 each.
Many of the yachts and boats in the marina bore the peculiar, colourful flag of the Celtic Nations (we bought one as well at the local chandlery); this is a brilliant coup of branding on the part of the Manx people: now instead of being just a single tiny 80-thousand strong island, they are part of a millions-strong conglomerate of nations. Branding overall is a strong point of Man, beginning with one of the coolest flags ever devised; the striking reds, whites and blacks used throughout the isle from logos and banners to house paint make the island easily stand out from the rest of the British Isles.
The rest of Peel is a pretty little town, again slightly reminiscent of what we had seen on Orkney a few years ago: neat narrow streets with pleasant house fronts, all named in the Manx language. The prominent shop on the high street was something called ShopRite, and it was shopping there that really brought the reality of being abroad home. ShopRite is a store which sells products from British shops like Waitrose or Iceland; this is something that we’d expect to see in Germany or Japan, not two hours ferry from Liverpool…
We left Peel and drove slowly back up the hills and then down again, to a small coastal settlement called Niarbyl. We knew Niarbyl was something special because one of the two cabins on our ferry was named after it (the other was called Manannan). Niarbyl turned out to be a tiny rocky cove, with a great view towards the Calf of Man in the south, and further to Ireland; several small thatched huts, beautifully preserved with their white-washed walls and bright red windows, overlooked the beach: a perfect resting place for a weary soul. A few eider ducks swam about among the rocks – we had seen these fluffy ducks earlier in Peel harbour.
A few steps from the beach there was a break in the rocks, and a fault; the stones on one side were black slate, on the other – a yellow-grey sandstone. This was Niarbyl Fault, a place where ancient continents met: on one side was Laurentia, from which spawned the Americas and Ireland, and on the other – Gondwana, the root of Africa and Europe. Isle of Man was born from the splitting and joining of these two great landmasses, millions of years ago.
We sped on from Niarbyl almost to the edge of the Isle; not far from Castletown, in the hamlet of Balladoole (the ‘Balla-‘ in Manx names is the equivalent of Irish ‘Bally-‘, and is equally omnipresent on the map. Both words stand for ‘township’.), we stopped by a sign pointing to Chapel Hill: a low grass-covered mound marked as a monument of national importance. On the top of the mound lay several non-descript piles of stone; like the Peel Castle, only in miniature, this hill also showed clearly the layers of settlement on Man, from a Bronze Age gravesite, through an Iron Age hill fort and a Celtic keeill chapel, to a Viking ship burial. The entire site is part of an island-wide tour of antiquities, called, punningly, “the Story of Man”.
Stopping off at Balladoole meant that we had too little time for Rushen Castle in Castletown. Castletown was Man’s previous capital city, and it still holds the island’s only airport; it is now a somewhat sleepy harbour town, with very winding streets, some of which lead to one of the most secluded urban car parks we’ve ever seen. The castle is fairly small and compact, but is one of the best preserved on the British Isles. We got a sense of it as we crossed the deep corridor leading to original gates and portcullis, where we were told the castle is just closing.
We felt we could have used one more day on Man, but we were already behind schedule – and the car badly needed to see the doctor; we still had a little of the next day to see a few sights along the A1 trunk road before getting on the ferry, and that was that – but I do feel we might be back one day, for Man is definitely a place worth a second visit.
Glenlough, set up not far from Douglas on the A1 road, is another of the big tent fields prepared for the racing day, but it also has about twenty hard-standing pitches for motorhomes, with electric and water. The facilities are adequate, and there’s free wi-fi in the small leisure room, a blessing in the land of roaming. They also have a couple of Pods to sleep in if you forgot to bring a tent.