Vintage railways of the Isle of Man with Great Rail Journeys

Mention the Isle of Man and immediately visions of T.T. Racing, banking and finance come to the fore, but there is far more to this island that sits in the middle of the Irish Sea between England and Ireland as I discovered.

Claremont Hotel Isle of ManMy journey begins at the small West Lancashire port of Heysham on boarding the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company ship Ben-my-Chree for the crossing. Relaxing in the comfortable lounge enjoying panoramic views across the sea to our destination provides an opportunity to immerse myself in one of the islands brochures and start to appreciate what it offers. The time passes quickly and a little under 4 hours later sees us alongside our berth at the sea terminal in Douglas, the islands capital. The sun has long set but the promenade is bright with festive lights as I make my way the short distance to what will be home, the 4-star Claremont Hotel.

Awake early the next morning it’s time for a pre breakfast amble onto the promenade, take in the warm sea air and surroundings. The sun, shining from a clear blue sky transforms the deep blue sea into a bed of twinkling lights, white painted Victorian houses, refurbished into hotels, guest houses and apartments make a picturesque backdrop to the sweeping bay of sand and rocks, the peace only broken by the cry of gulls and the clip clopping of hooves from horses as they tow old fashioned trams along the promenade. Yes, horse drawn trams that have been operating since 1876. No trip to the island is complete without riding on this iconic form of transport, trundle along from Derby Castle, past hotels and restaurants to the Sea Terminal at a leisurely 3-5 mph, the conductor vigorously blowing his whistle at the various stops. From early morning until late afternoon the service operates between March and November, choose between a single or double-decker tram and enjoy.

Douglas Laxey and Ramsey Electric TramwayThe Manx Electric Railway built between 1893 and 1899 operates from Derby Castle affording trains to the village of Laxey in the east and the town of Ramsey in the north. Board the Laxey bound train, again, it’s stepping back in time, open sided carriages built in the late 1800’s with their wood slatted seats and high roofs in pristine condition. Winding our way through twists and turns we ascend the inclines from sea level to cliff tops, sit on the right hand side of the carriage to take in the best views as we pass small secluded coves, sandy beaches, rocky headlands, level crossings where the train sounding its distinctive whistle to warn of our approach has precedence, increasing speed and onwards through leafy wooded areas where the only sounds are the birds before finally arriving in the old village of Laxey outside a small wooden building with ornately carved frontage and green corrugated roof that doubles as booking office, waiting room and cafe.

Snaefell Mountain RailwayOpposite a queue is forming to board the next train to the summit of Snaefell the highest point on the island, its name coming from the Norse for ‘Snow Mountain’. The railway, completed in 1895 takes passengers in the beautifully preserved original carriages on the 2036 ft ascent to Snaefells’ summit. All aboard we begin our journey, passing the Laxey Wheel, the largest water wheel in the world, built mainly of wood in 1854 to pump water from the mine shafts that abounded the area in those days. Often referred to as ‘Lady Isabela’ after the wife of the constructor, Robert Casement. A viewing platform has been added enabling the visitor to view the wheel in motion. Travelling on past hills and valleys, we slow as sheep have ascended the steep banks onto the line. They ignore us as we pass slowly by before increasing speed, passing a disused mine with the remnants of the managers house on the far side of a deep ravine before arriving at the only stop on the journey, Bungalow Station. A busy stop where some passengers alight to hike onwards via the narrow paths whilst others have driven and made use of the large carpark before boarding the train for the last leg of the journey. The Laxey WheelThe sun shines from a clear blue sky but the air is getting colder as we climb higher, snow is now visible, the large Sulby Reservoir covering 4,000 acres looks no bigger than a post card. Twisting, turning, higher and higher until finally we reach our destination where passengers eagerly head for the various viewing points from where it is said you can see the 7 Kingdoms, yes, 7, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, Mann, Heaven and Neptune. Clearly visible on the horizon are the mountains of Mourne 66 miles away but wouldn’t it be wonderful to be Mary Poppins with her umbrella, rise above the summit and take in the 360 degree vista with just a turn of the head. A small but excellent café is on hand for snacks, hot drinks and bottles of ‘fizz’ to keep the children happy but all too soon it is back on the train for our descent into Laxey and the electric train back to Douglas.

For those who want to step back to the era of steam, you are not forgotten. Douglas station in the heart of the town is still home to the Douglas to Port Erin steam train opened in 1874 and still maintaining the service between March and November. Board one of the original carriages where the doors are locked and unlocked via large brass handles outside the carriage, where windows are raised and lowered by means of a leather strap. The fire is well alight, steam is up and with a long blast on the whistle we slowly roll out of the station on the hour long journey to Port Erin. Douglas to Port Erin steam trainPassing meadows where sheep shelter their young lambs from the wind and cows give us an occasional glance as we steam by. It’s easy to see why steam trains are so popular as you become mesmerised by the beat of the engine and the rhythm of the wheels passing over the rails. Stations on route are busy, many have turned out just to see the train and chat with the driver and fireman, others board and hunt for a seat. All too soon we arrive in Port Erin where the locomotive takes on water ready for the return journey. Before leaving the station visit the railway museum, see rolling stock and utilities from a bygone age.

After a stroll around the town and admiring the beautiful large sandy beach it’s time for a coach transfer to Castletown the islands capital until 1869. A visit to the old House of Keys, formerly the seat of the Manx Parliament is recommended. Learn the history of the parliament and the members who over the centuries shaped the islands future. Visit Castle Rushton, completed it is believed in the 16th century. Feeling hungry, try the Tiffin Tea Rooms, excellent food at very reasonable prices.

There are excellent restaurants scattered around the island but two that deserve special mention are The Sound Cafe and Niarbyl Cafe.

Horse drawn double deckerThe Sound Cafe at Dolby with flush ceiling lights and clean stone back wall make for a very spacious and modern feel. Perched on the cliff top overlooking the Calf of Man, a small island occupied by seal colonies, separated by Calf Sound a small rocky stretch of water where in the past many ships have met their fate. The cafe with its floor to ceiling picture windows enjoys magnificent views of the rocky coastline and pristine beaches, sit with a glass of wine observing the seal colony as they bask in the sun, occasionally sliding from the rocks, entering the water to catch fish.

Niarbyl is a beauty spot off the beaten track on the west coast of the island dotted with thatched roofed cottages and is host to White Beach reached by secluded paths. Niarbyl Cafe enjoys spectacular views from its cliff top location across the whole area and is the place to be for witnessing dramatic sunsets. The cafe provides an extensive menu and posed me with a question, my steak was cooked to perfection, why can’t others be this good.

Coastline viewThis is an island that has much to offer the visitor. For those that always need to be in touch the buses are equipped with free WiFi. There are museums celebrating the islands heritage, beaches matching those to which holiday makers travel thousands of miles, restaurants serving excellent dishes, hotels and guest houses that are clean and comfortable at reasonable prices. The Isle of Man is a mix of the old and new and whichever is your preference you will not be disappointed.

More information

Experience Vintage Railways of the Isle of Man on an escorted group tour with Great Rail Journeys. (01904 734 812) 

From £780pp, the 6-day trip includes 4-star hotel accommodation, all rail and excursions and selected meals. More details

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Great Rail Journeys

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Alan Fairfax

Travel writer & cruise journalist

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