Stepping back in time
The mystical Isle of Man feels like a different world
Fiona Reynolds enjoys the simple peace of the Isle of Man
‘We wouldn’t have been surprised to hear the howl of the Moddey Dhoo’
THE ISLE OF MAN is a mystery to many of us, but, for family reasons, I’ve been visiting the island on and off over two decades, so I seized an invitation to return, to talk about my book to Manx National Heritage. A place of heather-clad mountains, craggy shores, deep tree-clothed glens and characterful mining and fishing villages, the island has a feel of 1950s England, in which the pace of life is slower (except, of course, when the TT is on) and less competitive and where people stop to say hello. I felt a thrill as we flew in on a clear, frosty night across the blank Irish Sea towards the twinkling lights of Douglas and the distinctive shoreline of Langness.
The Isle of Man is small enough to drive around in a day and you can walk its 95-mile coastal path in just a few more, but I only had a morning before my talk in Douglas, so we set off early from our base in Peel, a fishing village on the west coast.
Although a sea mist had moved in overnight, it remained bitterly cold with a fierce wind blowing. Shafts of light broke through the clouds as we walked through the village, heading for the harbour. Peel is no clone town, but has an eclectic mix of indigenous shops and the distinct whiff of smoking kippers.
We passed the harbour and approached Peel Castle, perched on the almost-separate St Patrick’s Isle. It’s one of the island’s oldest continuously occupied sites and its earliest buildings, the round tower and St Patrick’s church, date from the 10th and 11th centuries. Its walled surrounds are of black, gnarled and wave-battered stone and, as we battled around it against a stiffening wind, we wouldn’t have been surprised to hear the howl of the Moddey Dhoo, the legendary black dog said to haunt the castle.
Turning south, we launched ourselves onto the coast path, thankfully out of the wind’s full strength. This is a glorious stretch of coast, with the path taking us high above the sea cliffs of Cashtel Mooar. Once we’d passed the scallop-shell dump, a place of gorging for what seemed like thousands of seagulls, we had the cliffs to ourselves and could admire the view to the south: an ever-unfolding series of sea-ridges—dalby Point, Bradda Head and the Calf of Man, framed by whipping waves in a choppy sea.
At Contrary Head, we turned inland, reluctantly leaving the sea path as it continued enticingly southwards. Here, we hit the full force of the wind, so, gasping, we pushed on to the high point of this little promontory, Peel Hill, where there is the Isle of Man’s distinctive Corrin’s Tower, which is tall, square and formidable (it needs to be, against this wind).
It was built in 1806 by Thomas Corrin, a local landowner, to remember his wife, Alice, who died in childbirth. He and their other child, a daughter who lived until her thirties, are also buried in the small enclosure below the tower. It’s a poignant and hauntingly beautiful place, with views north-east to the island’s high point, Snaefell, north-west to the Mulls of Kintyre and Galloway and—we were lucky—southwest to the Mourne Mountains of Northern Ireland. We battled on over another summit and down to Peel. At the bottom, there was a queenie bap and a cup of tea: bliss!
As I gave my talk about beauty and why we should protect it, I reflected privately on why the Isle of Man has been able to sustain its mystical and distinctive character. Partly it’s because the development pressures are less intense, but it seems to me that the island has another asset: it believes in its spirit and history and wants to sustain it. Would that more places felt the same. Fiona Reynolds is the author of ‘The Fight for Beauty’ (Oneworld)
A wood engraving from 1885 of the idyllic Peel harbor, with the castle in the background