Posted by: mike on Oct 21, 2013

Category:Transports of delightManx HeritageLife-enhancing experiences

Groudle Glen Railway:  Sea Lion Rocks

Many of the Manx glens remain open to the public, but one above all recaptures the atmosphere of its late-Victorian heyday because of the restoration by a team of ten volunteers of the Groudle Glen Railway.

Richard Maltby Broadbent, the owner of Bibaloe Farm, Onchan, built the Groudle Hotel, and opened Groudle Glen as a resort to coincide with the opening of the Manx Electric Railway in 1893.

He added to the glen’s amenities by opening a miniature railway in 1896 to carry visitors to see the imported Californian sea-lions at a zoo at Sea Lion Rocks.  The service became successful enough to justify supplementing the original locomotive, Sea Lion, with a companion, Polar Bear (1905).

After the First World War battery-electric locomotives were used for six years, but proved to be so unreliable that the original steam locomotives were overhauled and returned to service.

The Groudle Glen Railway reopened after the Second World War in 1950, but a landslip made the terminus inaccessible.  The line was abandoned in the late 1950s, briefly reopened in 1962, but was then closed and lifted.

In the 1980s it was rebuilt by the Isle of Man Steam Railway Supporters Association:  diesel-hauled trains as far as the Headland began running in May 1986, until Sea Lion, fully restored by BNFL Sellafield apprentices, was ready for service in October 1987.

The line was restored to Sea Lion Rocks in May 1992, and a tea-room with spectacular views now stands at the terminus.

The railway has gone from strength to strength in the past twenty years and is well worth seeking out:

The Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes an optional visit to the Groudle Glen Railway if the 2014 timetable permits.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 19, 2013

Category:Transports of delightManx HeritageLife-enhancing experiences

Snaefell Mountain Railway:  Laxey

The Snaefell Mountain Railway really shouldn’t exist – a line to a bleak mountain top, using barely altered Victorian technology, built to a different gauge to the line it connects with.

While Alexander Bruce was engaged in constructing what became the Manx Electric Railway he was also driving an electric-powered mountain railway, the first in the British Isles, to the summit of Snaefell, the “snow mountain”, just over 2,000 feet above sea level.

For this he enlisted the engineer George Noble Fell, whose father, John Barraclough Fell, had developed an Incline Railway system, involving a central third rail to provide extra adhesion.  Because of this additional rail, the Snaefell Mountain Railway has a gauge of 3ft 6in.

The line was built with astonishing speed, beginning in January 1895:  despite the “Great Snow” and a navvies’ strike, the 4½-mile route, climbing at an average gradient of 1 in 12, was complete and ready to operate – with track and overhead in place and a coal-fired power station halfway up the mountain – in less than eight months.  The opening ceremony took place on August 20th 1895.

It turned out that the six 100hp electric cars, the most powerful in Britain at the time, could cope with the gradient without the Fell drive, but the centre rail was retained for braking.

In 1896 a hotel, which became known as the Bungalow, was built at the halfway passing loop and a further battlemented hotel was constructed at the summit in 1906.

Through all the political uncertainties that threatened the island’s railways as traffic declined from the 1950s onwards, the Snaefell cars have run up and down the mountain.

Car 5, destroyed by fire in August 1970, was rebuilt and returned to service within a year;  the entire Snaefell fleet was equipped with new bogies built by London Transport and electrical equipment from Aachen tramways in the mid-1970s.

The Summit hotel was burnt down in 1982 and rebuilt two years later, and new car sheds were built for the Snaefell fleet in 1995.

Now, in the twenty-first century, the Snaefell line has more purpose than ever – the Summit Sunday lunches, sunset dinners, astronomical suppers (branded “Pie in the Sky”) with telescopes provided.

Only in the Isle of Man…

The Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes a trip to the Summit on the Snaefell Mountain Railway.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 17, 2013

Category:Transports of delightManx HeritageLife-enhancing experiences

Manx Electric Railway: Groudle Glen

When the Manx Electric Railway was developed in the 1890s it brought the best and newest transport technology to the Isle of Man and opened up the east of the island to property development.

It was masterminded by energetic engineers and financed by smoke and mirrors.

In 1889 the manager of Dumbell’s Bank, Alexander Bruce, and a civil engineer called Frederick Saunderson bought land north of Douglas and sold it on to Douglas Bay Estate Company for housing development. 

They consulted leading experts in the new technology of electric traction, Dr Edward Hopkinson and Sir William Mather of Mather & Platt, Salford, over the construction of 2¼ miles of 3ft-gauge track from Douglas to Groudle, with gradients of 1 in 24 at each end of the route.  The initial service, using three electric cars, began on September 7th 1893, and carried over 20,000 passengers in the first three weeks.

The following year the original company was renamed the Douglas Bay Estate & Groudle Glen Company Ltd, and it promoted the Douglas & Laxey Coast Electric Tramway Company to extend the line to the harbour town of Laxey.

The company, having taken over the Douglas horse-trams and promoted the Upper Douglas Tramway, was renamed the Isle of Man Tramways & Electric Power Company Ltd.  It subsequently took over Bruce’s Snaefell Mountain Railway which ran from Laxey to the top of the island’s highest peak.

By the time the line reached Ramsey – 17½ miles from Douglas – in 1899, the Isle of Man Tramways & Electric Power Company had become an established and powerful force in the Island’s economy.  The company was carrying well over two million passengers by 1896, a quarter of them on the partly-completed electric railways, and 2,500 tons of goods, including quarry traffic.

However, expenditure up to early 1899 amounted to £518,000, which was covered by capital of only £336,000.  Half-yearly dividends of up to 8½% were paid, and the company secretary, quietly and understandably, resigned in January 1900.  When in February 1900 Parr’s Bank foreclosed on a loan of £150,000 to Dumbells’ Bank, the bank, and with it the tramways and the power company, were finished.

The electric railway, along with the Douglas horse and cable trams, continued to operate in liquidation, and the Douglas-Ramsey and Snaefell lines were purchased in 1902, first by a UK syndicate for £250,000, and then sold on to the London-registered Manx Electric Railway Company for £375,000.  This new owner put the electric railways back on their feet, repurchasing in addition the Dhoon quarry and the original company’s string of hotels.  It also opened the Snaefell Summit Hotel in 1906 and owned or operated the Laxey, Ballaglass, Garwick and Dhoon glens as resorts.

In 1906 the electric railways carried 535,021 passengers, generating £34,279 profit.  By 1913 over 700,000 passengers were carried, and the undertaking was solvent and paying dividends.

So the Isle of Man gained a superb late-Victorian transport facility which earned its keep well into the twentieth century and remains as a much-loved government-owned tourist attraction that has repeatedly escaped closure by the inimitable twists and turns of Manx politics.

The Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes a workshop visit to the Manx Electric Railway depot at Derby Castle, and uses the railway repeatedly as a means of travel.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Sep 11, 2013

Category:Manx Heritage

Great Laxey Wheel:  Lady Isabella

The Isle of Man’s most distinctive industrial structure is the decorative but entirely practical Great Laxey Wheel, which is properly named Lady Isabella after the wife of the Lieutenant Governor, the Hon Charles Hope, at the time of its construction, 1850-54.

On an island entirely devoid of coal, the spectacular 72½-foot diameter backshot wheel was the economical solution to the need to drain the Laxey mines to a depth of 1,200 feet.

The wheel is driven by the waters of the Glen Mooar river led by gravity from an upstream cistern to the top of the tower behind the wheel.

In turn it drives a crank connected to a rod-system, carried on a 200-yard viaduct of 34 arches to power the pumping gear.

Because of its prominence in the valley, it was given an elaborate architectural treatment, with a vertiginous spiral staircase leading to a viewing platform above the supply aqueduct. 

The Great Laxey Mining Company became hugely profitable.   Peak production was achieved in 1875 – 2,400 tons of lead, 107,420 ounces of silver (worth over £90,000) and 11,753 tons of zinc-blende. In 1876 £4 shares yielded a 50% dividend.

From then on production declined, until flooding bankrupted the company in 1901, and attempts to revive the mine finally gave out in 1929.

The Lady Isabella, on the other hand, has been a consistent success as a tourist attraction.  In 1877 16,445 visitors climbed to the top of the Wheel.   The miners’ wives did good business providing ham-and-egg teas for visitors, so that Dumbell’s Terrace became and remains known as Ham and Egg Row.

Admission charges (£200 in 1887) were donated to the Miners’ Poor Relief Fund until 1897, when they were diverted to the Mining Company’s own increasingly depleted funds.

The Lady Isabella continued to operate as a private tourist attraction until in 1965, when it was sold to the Manx Government.  After a thorough restoration it reopened in 1967, and the derelict mining remains of Glen Mooar were investigated and conserved to form the Mines Trail which opened in 1986.

There is a vivid if haphazardly shot video of the Wheel at, and tourist information about visiting is at

The Lady Isabella is a destination on the Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour.  For details please click here. 

Posted by: mike on May 13, 2013

Category:Transports of delightManx Heritage

IMR 15 Caledonia

Photo:  John Binns

Isle of Man Railway no 15 (as Manx Northern Railway no 4):  Caledonia

The Isle of Man Railway has more locomotives than it really needs, and to the untutored eye they look very much similar.  In fact, there are three different varieties, and each of the survivors has its idiosyncrasies.

Only four of the eighteen original locos have completely disappeared:  of the remainder, a couple haven’t moved for decades and others are in private ownership.  One of the original 1873 fleet, No 3, Pender, is sectioned and exhibited at the Manchester Museum of Science & Industry.

Enthusiasts look forward to new events on this great little railway.  The 2013 star turn is the rebuilt No 15, Caledonia, one of two locomotives surviving from the Manx Northern Railway, which ran from St Johns to Ramsey and was originally independent of the Isle of Man Railway.

Since the Manx steam railway was nationalised in 1977, its locomotives have worn a variety of liveries in order, according to rumour, to prove that there are more than two locos in the fleet.

Caledonia is turned out in the attractive Manx Northern livery of “Metropolitan Carriage red”, a darker shade than the standard IMR red.

Built in 1885 to work the steeply graded Foxdale Railway, serving the zinc mines in the heart of the island, Caledonia was required to work a ruling gradient of 1 in 49, but proved capable of climbing at 1 in 12 when she visited the Snaefell Mountain Railway in 1995.

Over 125 years old, the second newest loco in the fleet – Caledonia proves that Victorian steam locomotives were built to last.

The Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes a workshop tour of the Isle of Man Railway as well as journeys along the line to Castletown and Port Erin.  For details please click here. 

Posted by: mike on Apr 27, 2013

Category:Manx HeritageFun Palaces

Falcon Lift, Douglas (2009)

The Isle of Man is an astonishing repository of archaic technology that has survived against the odds.

Only now, after fifty years of neglect, is the Cunningham’s Camp Escalator being dismantled as dangerous.  I trust that the admirable Manx Museum will rescue as much of its parts as possible to restore as a static exhibit sometime in the future.

Another relic lingers on Douglas seafront, high up on the cliffs.

The Falcon Lift was constructed in 1927 by William Wadsworth & Co of Bolton to connect a hotel and dance pavilion with the promenade:

It was the second lift on the site:  an earlier funicular on a different alignment, built in 1877, had been transported to Port Soderick at the far end of the Marine Drive in 1898.

The existing Falcon Lift isn’t a funicular with two balancing cars.  It’s simply a lift, and it’s been sitting at the top of its track since the hotel closed in 1990:

It’s simply not possible to preserve everything that might be interesting, but for the moment the Falcon Lift remains, like much else on the Isle of Man, because no-one has seen the need to get rid of it.

For details of the Douglas-based Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour please click here.

Posted by: mike on Feb 22, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureManx HeritageFun Palaces

Douglas IOM Gaiety Theatre

A couple of years ago I was invited to the Gaiety Theatre, Douglas to see the Douglas Choral Society’s production of Les Misérables, which is not my favourite piece of musical drama.  After three hours of Gallic posturing and carrying on (which theatre-folk refer to as The Glums, in tribute to the 1950s radio-programme Take It From Here), I commented to my host, my Isle of Man friend John, that though it wasn’t my favourite show I imagined we’d seen the best theatrical production on the Gaiety stage for at least ten years.

The Gaiety is a delightful theatre, one of Frank Matcham’s best survivors.  Dating from 1900, the heyday of the Manx tourist boom, it has superb fibrous plasterwork by De Jong & Co, extravagant house-tabs dripping with ropes and tassels, and the only surviving example of a Corsican trap – an essential requirement for Dionysius Lardner Boucicault’s melodrama, The Corsican Brothers (1852), which doesn’t often get an airing.

This gorgeous jewel of Victorian entertainment struggled for years to earn its keep as a cinema, and was rescued by the Isle of Man Government in 1971.  It might have been pulled down, but was restored in 1976.  It’s by far the most attractive cultural venue on the island, and it serves local communities and holiday visitors in conjunction with the adjacent Villa Marina [see Manx Mighty Wurlitzer].

Early this year John’s then-teenage son, Matthew, texted me to ask if he needed to see Miss Saigon.  Yes, I said, most definitely.  Indeed, I said, I’d get on a boat to see it if it was performed by the Douglas Choral Society.

Miss Saigon (1989) is the follow-up work to Les Misérables (1980), and was Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s second successful assault on the West End and Broadway.  It’s based on Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.  It’s a Kleenex job.  Complete with helicopter.

So I enjoyed a captivating evening in Frank Matcham’s stalls, watching the best of Manx theatrical talent pull out all the stops.  Rebecca Lawrence (Kim), Jonathan Sleight (Chris), David Artus (Engineer), Alex Toohey (John) and Kristene Sutcliffe (Ellen) gave performances which were utterly indistinguishable from the professional theatre, and they were backed up by scores of on-stage, back-stage and front-of-house workers.

What more could anyone ask of a Saturday night? – Matthew’s twentieth-birthday dinner at the excellent Coast Bar & Brasserie of the Claremont Hotel [], the best show in town in a Frank Matcham theatre, and walking home along the gently curving Loch Promenade looking out to Douglas Bay.

This is what Dr Johnson meant by “the harmless stock of human pleasure”.

The Gaiety Theatre website is at  The Douglas Choral Union is at

The Douglas-based Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes a tour of the Gaiety Theatre and a demonstration of the Villa Marina Wurlitzer next door.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 17, 2011

Category:Manx HeritageFun Palaces

Cunningham’s Douglas Holiday Camp Escalator, Isle of Man

Margaret, one of the guests on the recent Liverpool’s Heritage tour, asked me out of the blue what I knew about Dodd’s holiday camp at Caister, Norfolk.  Absolutely nothing, I had to admit.

I promised to check it out, and found that I’d missed an important landmark in the history of twentieth-century British holidays.

John Fletcher Dodd was a 44-year-old grocer and magistrate and a founder-member of the Independent Labour Party who bought a couple of acres of land on the Norfolk coast to set up the Caister Socialist Holiday Camp in 1906.

This was by any standards a spartan affair – teetotal, segregated and entirely tented (though wooden chalets appeared from 1912, and a later picture shows fifteen Great Yarmouth tram bodies lined up on the cliffs, open-toppers which must have been ideal for sunbathing).

The entertainment consisted of camp-fire sing-songs and lectures from such figures as Keir Hardie and George Bernard Shaw.  There were blanket bans on alcohol, mixed bathing, swearing and children under two.

Over the years, the regime softened and the socialist ethic was moderated.  John Fletcher Dodd stayed firmly in charge until he died, aged ninety, in 1952, the year after the camp reopened post-war.  It’s still in business as Caister Caravan Holiday Park:

Its centenary produced a plethora of celebratory news features in the Daily Express [], the Daily Mail [], the Daily Mirror [], The Sun [] and the Black Country Bugle [], among others.

Though Dodd claimed to be the founder of the British holiday camp, there was an earlier pioneer in the Isle of Man.  Joseph Cunningham was a Presbyterian baker from Liverpool who established a tented camp for single men only at Howstrake, on the newly-opened electric railway line, in 1894.

After a devastating storm in 1903 Joseph Cunningham relocated to a five-acre site in Little Switzerland, in Upper Douglas, where he provided 1,500 eight-man tents and a dining pavilion.  The regime was teetotal and the camp was largely self-sufficient, growing its own fruit and vegetables and maintaining its own herds of cows and pigs.

To the annoyance of Douglas hotel and boarding-house proprietors, the tented camp was rated as agricultural land, so the entire property was valued at only one-seventh the value of a forty-room boarding house.  Joseph Cunningham justified this by arguing that his thousands of visitors could not otherwise afford to visit the island and yet contributed significantly to the summer-season economy. 

Cunningham himself could afford to fly his own monoplane between the wars, taking off and landing at a field near the camp.

Cunningham’s Camp survived into the post-war period, but the site is now redeveloped.

A surviving curiosity is the Cunningham’s Douglas Holiday Camp Escalator, installed in 1920, duplicated in 1938, and abandoned in 1968.  To practical purposes a sedentary paternoster, this noisy device to give campers a lift from the promenade operated free of charge until 1963.  It is still in position, and is illustrated in Charles Guard’s video/DVD, More Curiosities of the Isle of Man (Manx Heritage Foundation 2004) [].

Update:  A press-release in February 2013 announced the imminent demolition of the chairlift:

For details of the Douglas-based Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Aug 13, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureManx HeritageFun Palaces

Queen's Pier, Ramsey, Isle of Man

The Isle of Man used to have a thriving holiday industry.  Well into the twentieth century the island was regarded as more exclusive than the Lancashire resorts of Blackpool and Morecambe, not least because it cost more to reach it.

The Manx holiday economy disappeared astonishingly quickly at the end of the 1960s, and the island economy has since been reinvented.  Tourism survives, up to a point, and many visitors to the island bring their motor-bikes.

It's a pity that one of the grandest mementos of the Manx seaside, the Queen's Pier at Ramsey, has been steadily neglected for twenty years.

Designed by Sir John Coode and constructed by Head, Wrightson & Co of Stockton-on-Tees between 1881 and 1886 at a cost of £40,752, it extended 2,241 feet out into the bay.

A new landing-stage was added in 1899, and before the First World War the pier brought around 35,000 visitors a year from what Manx people call "across".

It ranks highly as a historic and engineering monument among the surviving seaside piers of the British Isles, particularly for its unusual cruciform steel piles [].  There is a collection of images of the pier at

The contractors' three-foot gauge tramway was kept for a hand-propelled baggage van to load and unload passenger steamers.  In 1937 a small petrol locomotive was introduced, and in 1950 this was supplemented by a passenger railcar.

The steamer service stopped in 1970 and though the tramway continued until 1981, after repeated vandalism the pier closed completely in 1991.

In 1994 Tynwald, the Manx Government, decided to mothball the pier, and in the same year the Friends of Ramsey Queen's Pier was formed to safeguard and promote the pier as an asset and a national monument.

It's no accident that on the Friends' website [], three quarters of the chronological history is given over to the post-1994 controversies over whether to restore the pier or demolish it.

Now, as an indication of positive intent, Tynwald has voted £1,800,000 for minimal maintenance to safeguard the structure for future restoration.

It's a start...

The most romantic evocations of this wasting asset come from the photographer Ray Collister:

The Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes visit to Ramsey with time to see the Queen's Pier.  For details please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jul 7, 2011

Category:Manx HeritageLife-enhancing experiencesCountry Houses

Milntown House

The Isle of Man's latest historic site to open is Milntown, a country house and garden on the outskirts of Ramsey.  (This is a reversal of history, for Ramsey was, until the late 1880s, on the outskirts of the Milntown estate.)

The house is a delightful early-nineteenth century Gothick confection, built around a seventeenth-century core on an estate that belonged to the McCrystyn, later Christian, family from the early fifteenth century at least.

This was the birthplace of the great Manx hero, William Christian, otherwise Illiam Dhone or Brown William (1608-1663) [See].  Fletcher Christian, the instigator of the mutiny on the Bounty was of the same family.

After the Christian family left, Milntown was a school, a hotel and then a private house belonging to the owners of Yates' Wine Lodges.  The last owner, Sir Clive Edwards, left the estate in trust to the Manx people, and it's now gradually opening up for public enjoyment.

In an interesting reversal of UK National Trust practice, visitors enter through the tea-shop to reach the proudly organic gardens, which provide produce for the kitchen and an array of the sort of flowers that the monochrome photographer Cecil Beaton sourly described as "retina irritants".

Designed by Richard Lucas, the garden is a vivid, crowded, complex place to wander, with woodland walks, seats and a mill-pond.  The waterwheel of the 1794 mill turns idly, and the mill will one day open to the public.

This will be a site to return to – not least for the serious catering.  When you walk in to pay your admission, you see satisfied customers tucking into the full cake-stand for afternoon tea.  It's difficult to resist the temptation on the way out.

Details of Milntown's opening arrangements are at

Posted by: mike on Jun 19, 2011

Category:Transports of delightManx Heritage

Douglas IOM Derby Castle

Derby Castle horse-tram terminus trackwork, Douglas, Isle of Man

In the Isle of Man, if something works it doesn't need fixing.  That's why the island is a treasure-house of Victorian transport.  Eventually, though, even the simplest engineering wears out.

So Douglas Corporation, confronting its decaying promenade road-surface, has to make a decision about its unique horse-tram service.  Like-for-like replacement of the present double track is estimated at between £3 and £4½ million.

2010 passenger figures for the summer-season service are up slightly over the previous year at 54,286.  Last year's annual loss is similarly down slightly to £207,700.  In 1938 the horse trams carried 2¾ million passengers and contributed to the transport department's clear profit of nearly £10,000 (over £350,000 at current values).  As late as 1955 they still carried 1½ million people.

The tramway dates back to 1876, when it was built by Thomas Lightfoot, who moved to the island after inaugurating Sheffield's horse trams.  The Douglas horse tramway survived because the seafront hoteliers objected to overhead electric wires in front of their premises.

Because there's an efficient, faster bus service alongside the horse trams they are in effect a tourist ride.  The £3.00 flat fare means that nobody in their right mind uses them to travel a few stops.  Their only practical use is to travel from the Sea Terminal to the Derby Castle terminus of the Manx Electric Railway.

Alternative plans being discussed include building a replacement track for the horse-trams on the broad pedestrian seaward side of the promenade, segregating them from motor traffic.  Whether this would result in fewer or more collisions on the promenade is open to question:  the trams would no longer provide an obstruction, enabling the boy racers to accelerate.

Deciding to get rid of horse trams is a decision most towns made 120 years ago.  Maybe the 1890s proposal to electrify the line as a continuation of the Manx Electric Railway and to extend it to the railway station is worth looking at.  Not only would it integrate the three rail systems and delight enthusiasts, but it would still allow the horses and horse-trams to survive as a heritage feature.

This worked well in San Francisco, where the temporary suspension of the cable-car service in effect saved the surviving electric streetcars [See Streetcar Survivors].

Indeed, a 2013 proposal specified that the relocated single-and-passing-loops horse-tram track should be designed to carry Manx Electric "or more modern rolling stock":

There are detailed instructions for catching a Douglas horse tram (and for patting the horse) at  Further information about the Douglas horse tramway can be found at

The Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes a visit to the Douglas Corporation tram-depot at Derby Castle and, of course, a ride on a horse tram.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on May 30, 2011

Category:Sacred placesManx Heritage

Our Lady Star of the Sea & St Maughold RC Church, Ramsey

The Isle of Man lacks a volume of Pevsner's great buildings series:  Sir Nikolaus spent much of his life compiling the first edition Buildings of England, and since he completed the original series in 1974 his successor editors have additionally laboured at the Buildings of Wales, Buildings of Scotland and Buildings of Ireland.  The Isle of Man belongs to none of these territories, and so far has no comparable catalogue of its architectural heritage.

This is a pity, because the island contains a wealth of structures, from pre-medieval crosses and chapels, called keeills, to high-quality nineteenth- and twentieth-century churches and public buildings.  Among the nationally-known architects who have worked on the island are George Steuart, Peter Paul Pugin, John Loughborough Pearson and his son Frank Loughborough Pearson, Ewan Christian (based in England but descended from an old Manx family), Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott and the theatre-architect Frank Matcham.

Alongside these luminaries, Giles Gilbert Scott built Our Lady Star of the Sea & St Maughold RC Church on the seafront at Ramsey in 1908-10.

It's immediately recognisable as by the same hand as Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral [see Younger architect in Liverpool] by its simple, sheer surfaces, tricked out with decorative features high up, including a crucifix high on the liturgical east wall (which actually faces west) and a balcony at the top of the hip-roofed tower.  Carving dies into the stonework, exactly like the Lady Chapel of Liverpool Cathedral.  Much of the Horsforth stone tracery is obscured on the outside by protective glazing.

Within, the interior is lit only on the (geographical) south:  the opposite wall is blank except for a low Gothic arch opening into the Lady Chapel and the windowless wall behind the altar is dominated by a dramatic full-height painted triptych.

Designed when Scott was in his twenties, shortly after he began work on his great cathedral, Our Lady Star of the Sea is an unexpected, precious piece of architectural genius in the wide-open spaces of the under-developed resort-town.

The Isle of Man is full of surprises.

Service times for Our Lady Star of the Sea & St Maughold are available at  Background information on all the Catholic churches on the Isle of Man is at

The Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes a visit to Ramsey with time to see Our Lady Star of the Sea Church.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on May 4, 2011

Category:Transports of delightManx HeritageLife-enhancing experiences

Isle of Man Railway Port St Mary

My Isle of Man host John and I watched the Royal Wedding, toasted the happy couple in Sauvignon Blanc (because the island – or at least the island's co-op – had apparently run out of champagne) and wondered what else to do for the afternoon, rather than watch Huw Edwards busking while waiting for something to happen.

We caught the steam train one stop, from Port St Mary to the end of the line at Port Erin, and went for tea at the utterly seaside Cosy Nook Café [], walked back up the hill and took the same train back an hour later.  For £4.00 return, rather than £3.20 on the bus.

It is of course a delight to travel, even for a few minutes, in a wooden railway compartment with windows that let down on leather straps.

Even more, it's satisfying to be able to use a Victorian heritage line as practical transport.

As we watched the red locomotive and carriages chug off towards Douglas, I remarked that this railway wasn't designed to be cute.

When it opened in the 1870s this was practical modern transport, scaled down to the geography of the island.  It opened up towns like Port St Mary and Port Erin, and enabled people to travel across the island quickly and relatively cheaply for the first time.

The system of four lines, run by two companies, survived because it worked, and because the manager between the wars surreptitiously subsidised the steam trains from the revenues of the bus routes.

The routes to Peel and Ramsey eventually expired in the 1960s, and the remaining Douglas-Port Erin line was in effect nationalised in 1977.

It's now heavily marketed as a tourist attraction, which rivals the bus-service in speed though not in frequency.  When the TT annually blocks the island's road-system, it provides a much-needed commuter service.

Meanwhile the Peel and Ramsey trackbeds remain substantially intact as footpaths [see Walking the Manx Northern Railway].

Details of the Isle of Man Railway services appear at

The Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes a workshop tour of the Isle of Man Railway as well as journeys along the line to Castletown and Port Erin.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 18, 2010

Category:Manx Heritage


On the pretext of fish soup at the excellent café at Niarbyl, on the west coast of the island, my Isle of Man host-with-the-most John insisted we walk down from the café to the beach to see the point where North America joins on to Africa (see and Florrie Forde's cottage.

I tried to sound as if I knew at least something about Florrie Forde, but in fact I had to consult the wisdom of Wikipedia to discover that she was one of the most interesting – and now too much forgotten – figures of British entertainment in its transition from music-hall to variety.

Born in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy in 1875, she ran away to the Sydney music-hall at the age of sixteen, and five years later came to Britain where she started her music-hall career, thrice nightly, on August Bank Holiday 1897, began her recording career in 1903, and appeared in the first Royal Command Variety performance in 1912.

What attracted my particular interest was the list of her "hits":  these are the songs my grandmother sang as she did her housework – 'Down at the Old Bull & Bush', 'She's a lassie from Lancashire', 'Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag'.  One of the most poignant songs in Joan Littlewood's Oh! What a Lovely War is 'Goodbye-ee', originally made famous by Florrie Forde.  Most people would link the Blackpool organist Reginald Dixon with 'I do like to be beside the seaside', but it was Florrie's tune first.

And this towering figure in British entertainment, whose summer season for much of the 1930s was in Morecambe, apparently sailed across the Irish Sea on the Steam Packet, and must have used a motor-car to reach this remote spot, virtually beyond even Manx bus-routes, to gaze across the sea at sunset.

She died on tour, entertaining the troops in Aberdeen, on April 18th 1940.

Florrie Forde's cottage is strictly private property.  When visiting Niarbyl, please do not disturb the owners.

Posted by: mike on Jun 17, 2010

Category:Manx HeritageFun Palaces

Douglas IOM Villa Marina

The Manx Government acquired their magnificent Wurlitzer organ in 1989 and initially installed it in the now-demolished Summerland centre.  At last it has been meticulously restored and rebuilt in the Villa Marina arcade, sandwiched between the Gaiety Theatre and the Villa Marina concert hall.  This 1929 instrument came originally from the City Cinema, Leicester, rescued by a wealthy organ-enthusiast, Allan Hickling, and installed in his home, Dormston House, Sedgeley [see].

Len Rawle, who led the renovation project, demonstrated its range and power in a Saturday-evening concert in May after a week of maintenance work and before running a seminar for the island's aspiring organists.  (Len's website is at

You can't argue with the power of the mighty Wurlitzer.  There is something unmistakable in the bravura playing-style that the instrument demands – accelerandi, rallentandi, arpeggii, swells and swirls and, as Len pointed out, early in his presentation, contrast.  People sometimes assume incorrectly that a theatre-organ is amplified, and Len showed how its core works perfectly well as a church organ playing classical pieces.  He gave an admirable conducted tour of the Wurlitzer specification – the stops designed specifically to create a "unit orchestra" to accompany silent movies, the additional keyboard links that provide bells, xylophone and vibraphone and the special effects for film accompaniment such as the motor-horn, the fire-engine and the birdsong which, he gently pointed out, should be used with discretion.

Noël Coward's petulant line in Private Lives, "extraordinary how potent cheap music is" has the ring of truth.  Popular classics such as 'There's No Business Like Show Business' and 'When I Fall In Love' scrub up to a high polish on a Wurlitzer, and Len's repertoire included less familiar music of the period.  He brought his evening to a close with both the Manx national anthems, the nostalgic 'Ellan Vannin' and the staunch 'Arrane Ashoonagh dy Vannin' ['Land of our birth, gem of God's earth, O Island so strong and so fair...'].

There's no following that with an encore.  What Len actually did was to shoo the audience away so that a young girl could have privacy to try out the Wurlitzer on her own.  As he said, that was what got him started a few decades ago.

The Douglas-based Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes a demonstration of the Villa Marina Wurlitzer and a tour of the Gaiety Theatre next door.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 16, 2010

Category:Manx Heritage

If it's not possible to ride a railway line – because someone removed the track – the best way to understand it is to walk it.  When the Manx railway-system was reduced to a single route in the 1970s, the Manx Government had the prescience to preserve much of the disused trackbed as footpaths.

My Isle of Man host-with-the-most John and I walked the stretch of the former Manx Northern Railway from St Germain's (where the station is now beautifully restored as a house) to Kirk Michael (where the railway station is now the fire station).

The Manx Northern was built to take mineral traffic from the Foxdale mines directly to Ramsey harbour, using the only route possible for steam locomotives round the west side of the island.  When the Foxdale mines eventually failed, the MNR became part of the Isle of Man Railway.  Meanwhile, passengers between Douglas and Ramsey had gained a more direct route when the Manx Electric Railway was built along the precipitous east coast of the island.

The Manx Northern route is spectacular.  Walking up to the summit at Ballaquine and down to Kirk Michael is not strenuous, but the gradients are palpable.  The ivy-covered piers of the major viaducts, Glen Wyllin and Glen Mooar, remain without the lattice deck that carried trains:  you feel the height involved while crossing from one abutment to the other by steep paths and flights of steps.

Travellers who are disinclined to walk the line can follow much of its course, and appreciate its spectacular views of the island's west coast, on the Peel-Ramsey double-deck bus [routes 5 and 6], which is what John and I did – travelling in eight minutes the distance we'd walked in 2½ hours – when the pub in Kirk Michael proved unable to provide any kind of lunch.

Instead we went to the excellent Creek Inn in Peel [], where we were served by a star barman called Chris, and ate smoked salmon wrapped in asparagus and spicy chicken wraps with excellent beer and friendly service.

The Manx Heritage (September 9th-15th 2014) tour includes a workshop tour of the Isle of Man Railway as well as journeys along the surviving line to Castletown and Port Erin.  It also features a top-deck bus-journey along the route of the Manx Northern Railway and lunch at the Creek Inn.  For details please click here.

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