Robert Hampton

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9th November 2013

Isle be Back
Posted by at 8.43pm | 1 response | Out and About

Isle of Man Railway Company CrestOn 21st September, I went for a day trip to the Isle of Man. Now, just nine short weeks later, I’m writing about it. Sorry, I’ve been busy or something.

This was all Andrew‘s doing. He likes his planes, and will find any excuse to go for a flight or two. When he suggested a quick flight to the Isle of Man and back, I was up for it. All I knew about the place was that it’s the home of the TT Races. Also, there are various heritage railways there, and I was keen to see them for myself.

Doing the Isle of Man in a day is a bit of a fraught process. On paper, it’s perfectly feasible: FlyBe operate several flights a day from Liverpool to Isle of Man Airport. In practice, it’s a little more difficult. In fact, this was our second attempt to reach the island. Our original day out was scheduled for 10th August. However, we got as far as the departure lounge before discovering our flight had been cancelled. We were offered the next flight, but it would have given us almost no time in the Isle of Man.

Two hours of hanging on the phone later, and Andrew had successfully got our flights rearranged. Six weeks later, we were back at the airport to try again… only for our flight to be delayed. At first it was 30 minutes late, but more and more minutes were slowly added.

There’s only so long you can hang around in an airside Wetherspoons. We sat, surrounded by twentysomethings off to Ibiza to “large it”, who were already on their third pint. At 8am.

Eventually, over 75 minutes late, our gate was called, and we were soon climbing aboard “Adam Stansfield”.

Flybe Plane "Adam Stansfield"

I’m a little bit suspicious of propeller aircraft. We’ve been spoiled as a race by jumbo jets – propellers seem just a bit… primitive by comparison. It may just be too many episodes of Stop the Pigeon when I was a child, but I had visions of the propellers snapping off and us plummeting to a fiery/comical death.

That didn’t happen, but we did spend an awful lot of time circling over Isle of Man airport, as fog prevented us from making an approach. We finally touched down roughly 1 hour, 50 minutes late. I’m guessing that’s a reason FlyBe are often nicknamed “FlyMayBe”.

All this meant that we had to compress our itinerary for the day. The plan was to do a bit of sightseeing and ride some of the island’s famous heritage railway lines, but we had to curtail our plans a bit. Still, we managed to cover an impressive amount of ground in the time we had.

We bought an Island Explorer ticket from the information desk at the airport. It’s a bit expensive at £16, but it gives you full reign over the island’s buses, trains and trams for the whole day. Best thing about it was the design, which has more than a bit in common with Merseytravel’s Saveaway ticket. Suddenly I felt right at home.

Saveaway and Island Explorer

We waited outside the airport for a bus to take us to nearby Castletown. The departure time came and went without it appearing. I grew anxious – we had very little time, and this further delay was annoying.

The bus finally arrived. We took our seats and set off. Four (count them) stops later and we were in Castletown. Total journey time: less than five minutes. We could probably have walked it. Oops.

Our plan was to head to the town’s station and pick up the steam train to Douglas, but we had about an hour to wait for the next one, so we explored the town a bit. Towering over the town centre is Castle Rushen, a medieval castle believed to date from the 12th century.

Castle Rushen

We had a quick look at the castle, but there wasn’t time to explore it properly. Instead we walked down to the Harbour, where the former offices of the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company are tastefully restored. We had ample time to get a cheesy tourist photo down at the harbour entrance.

You will note that the turquoise and orange manbag has made another appearance. Stylish.

Isle of Man Steam Packet Co Hampo Lighthouse

Then, it was back to Castletown station. The Isle of Man’s railway network exists in something of a time warp. It’s a nationalised undertaking, owned by the Isle of Man Government. But with the original Victorian steam locomotives and rolling stock still in daily use, it’s very much a tourist-oriented operation.

Everything is extraordinarily well-kept. Castletown station is spotless, with a cosy waiting room that comes complete with coal fire.

Castletown Station

Robert at Castletown Castletown Waiting Room

There was another small thing to delight me: amidst all the other period posters on the station was this (slightly faded) Liverpool Overhead Railway poster.

Liverpool Overhead Railway

The tranquility of the station was soon interrupted by the sound of a whistle in the distance. Anticipation grew as the faint chuff-chuff sound grew gradually louder. Finally, locomotive no. 14 rolled into the station in a cloud of steam, hauling a rake of compartment coaches.

We found an empty compartment and sat down for the short ride to Douglas. Check out the “Legs of Man” moquette on the seats!

isle-of-man-moquette Isle of Man Steam Railway Locomotive Number 14

I’m not a steam fan, but there is something to be said for the experience of being hauled by a steam locomotive, working hard to get up to speed after leaving the station. I was a bit naughty and leaned out of the window to get a picture. The smoke drifted over the gardens of the houses next to the line; I hope nobody had hung their washing out.


Douglas station is a grand affair, with this elegant signage at the station entrance. There is a cafe in the station, but it was rather busy, so Andrew and I left the station and found a coffee shop overlooking the harbour. It had excellent toasted sandwiches, and free Wi-fi, meaning Andrew and I could catch up on our essential tweeting (the Isle of Man, of course, is not part of the UK, so international roaming charges apply for mobile internet use).

Isle of Man Steam Railway Locomotive Douglas railway station

Suitably refreshed, we set off in search of the Manx Electric Railway’s terminus station. Our plan was to ride the railway to Laxey, then take the Snaefell Mountain Railway up to the summit. Unfortunately, we had miscalculated how far the Electric Railway station was from the Steam Railway. As it turns out, Derby Castle MER station is at the opposite end of town from the Steam Railway.

The Douglas Bay Horse Tramway (yes, they have a horse-drawn tramway too!) provides a link for most of the distance, but it didn’t seem to be running on the day we visited, so it was a brisk walk along the promenade for us. Still, we were able to enjoy some good views.

Douglas seafront Douglas seafront

We strolled along the promenade, passing hotels of various sizes, cafés, shops selling all manner of tat souvenirs. It was all rather nice; even late in the season, they seemed to be doing good business. The Gaiety Theatre was offering a production of Beauty and the Beast. We didn’t stick around to explore any of this, however. Instead we pressed on towards the Manx Electric Railway station.

Gaiety Theatre

Finally, we reached Derby Castle, terminus of the Manx Electric Railway. A “train” (OK, it’s a tram) was waiting for us at the terminus. The interior was pure Victorian, all wood panelling and thinly-upholstered seats. It amuses me that, in my part of the world, Northern Rail is regularly lambasted for running “ancient” (i.e. mid-1980s) rolling stock. In the Isle of Man, on the other hand, it’s just part of the charm.

Manx Electric Railway

next-car-leaves manx-electric-railway-interior

We set off, a few minutes after the scheduled departure time, as the driver and conductor had an important conversation to finish. I did my best to remain charmed by the railway, as we bounced, juddered and swayed our way along the road. We climbed out of Douglas, getting some fine views over the sea as we did so. We crossed over numerous minor level crossings – most of which had no warning system other than the tram’s whistle (at one point, a car had to hastily reverse out of the way as we approached).


Finally, we rolled into Laxey station, interchange point for the island’s third railway, the Snaefell Mountain Railway. The Mountain Railway car was waiting for us, and just a few minutes later we were off, steadily climbing the steep slope.

As we ascended, there was a good view of the Laxey Wheel, a giant waterwheel built to pump water out of the mines in the area. The mines are long-closed, but the wheel itself remains, preserved as a tourist attraction.

Laxey station Laxey Wheel

We climbed… and climbed… and climbed… until finally we disappeared into the cloud layer and were shrouded by an eerie fog on all sides.

The summit of Snaefell is 2,036 feet above sea level and is the highest point on the whole island. On a clear day, I’m sure the views are stunning. On the day of our visit, unfortunately, the visibility was awful. We walked around the summit building and determined that were wasn’t much to see, other than a few disinterested sheep.

There is a transmitter here, which I have since discovered is a Civil Aviation Authority installation. I may have breached some sort of terrorism act by taking a picture of this. If GCHQ are intercepting this blog’s traffic like they seemingly do for everything else… hi there! *waves*

Snaefell summit Snaefell transmitter

Time grew short, so we headed back down to Laxey on the next tram. From there, we got a bus back to Douglas rather than the slower Electric Railway service, and then got a further bus from Douglas back to the airport. This was a double-decker, and I managed to nab the Best Seat. Result!

Best Bus Seat

Our return journey went without a hitch. The bus dropped us off at the airport where our homeward flight was right on time. By about 8pm we were safely back in Liverpool, after a fun, but very long and tiring day.

I would definitely go back to the Isle of Man, but probably earlier in the year when the weather is better (the Snaefell Mountain Railway is probably a lot more enjoyable when you can actually see things from the window). I would also try and stay for a few days; we managed to cram a lot in during the few hours we had, but a longer stay would mean a less frenetic pace and therefore more relaxing.

Still, it was a good day and I was glad to finally make it there. A fun time is always guaranteed when I go places with Andrew. Look how much fun we’re having here!

Robert and Andrew on the Isle of Man railway

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One Response
  1. Comment by Maynard T. Cummings
    25th November 2013 at 1:47 am

    The railway is now marketed as the Steam Railway to differentiate it from the Manx Electric Railway , operated by the same department. It was marketed as “Isle of Man Railway” until closure in 1965. From 1969 to 1972, it operated as the Isle of Mann Victorian Steam Railway Company Limited, reverting to Isle of Man Railway. When nationalised in 1978 it fell under the banner of “Isle of Man Railways”, along with the Manx Electric Railway . Re-branding to Isle of Man Passenger Transport took place from 1984 but the steam line was not affected, and this reverted to Isle of Man Railways from 1990, when a re-branding exercise took place with the emphasis on the Victorian origins of the railway.