Walking: Llamas sighted off north-west coast: Paul Gosling takes in the spectacular scenery of the Isle of Man, which has evolved its own fauna and flora

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The Independent Culture
WALKING up the road away from Douglas, I passed a farm. Glancing casually at the livestock, I noticed they were llamas. I had heard that the Isle of Man, which separated from the British mainland soon after the last Ice Age, had evolved different flora and fauna to the mainland, but this was way beyond my expectations.

The Isle of Man's coastal path, Raad ny Foillan (the way of the gull in Manx Gaelic), is otherwise initially disappointing as it heads to Castleton - too much road walking, and scenery less spectacular than the coastal path in England's South West. Some of the coast is pleasant, although it is hardly worth the four-hour-long ferry journey.

But this changes on the second day's walking. A short jaunt to Port St Mary, then a slow stroll around the cliffs to Port Erin, and the walker is suddenly on some of the most spectacular coast to be found anywhere. I treated the path with caution, as a strong gale was blowing. This meant that I did not investigate the Chasms, which are famed for their guillemots as well as the ubiquitous gulls, ravens and choughs.

As I followed the coast onto Black Head, I kept looking back, transfixed by the beauty of the Sugarloaf - a large rock in the sea - and the shore below it. As I moved onto the next headland, Spanish Head, the Calf of Man came into view. This is an islet, off the south-western tip of the Isle of Man, maintained as a bird sanctuary, with a hostel for ornithologists. Boats bring people for day visits when the choppy seas allow.

I stopped for lunch at the cafe opposite the Calf of Man, relishing the magnificent coastline. Eventually I forced myself onward, and found the western coast almost as wonderful as the southern. Here, as with all the paths on the island, I met other walkers only rarely. The path down to St Erin passed the edge of a gulls' breeding ground, within a couple of feet of the chicks, but the gulls were unperturbed.

The next day I walked up onto Bradda Head. At its peak is Milner Tower, which can be climbed for an even more spectacular view back to the Calf of Man. The path then continued over more hill tops, where the farms below made a pretty picture, before heading down into a valley. I stopped for a biscuit break at Fleshwick Bay, a sheltered cove under the green hills, where I could just make out a couple of seals off the rocks.

After a short but arduous climb towards the peak of Cronk my Arrey Laa, the path then followed a heather-covered ridge which was like walking in the Pennines, but with the sea on both sides. This was hard work, but well worth it. As I looked back and down, I could see Port Erin on the west coast and Port St Mary on the south almost merge into one another.

I continued to climb on towards the peak, where I found the view was breathtaking. It was a sunny and misty day, but I could see almost all the southern part of the island. On a clearer day one can see the coasts of Ireland (which had just poked out from under the mist the previous evening), Scotland, England and Wales. There can be few better views in the world.

I had intended to stay overnight in the village of Dalby, but all the local guest houses were full. This was the only difficulty I had with accommodation (in contrast with England, where finding suitable accommodation on long-distance walks can be a real problem), but I only had to walk another four miles on to the town of Peel. Despite tired legs this proved a joy, with the warm sun setting as I came over the rolling rich green hills above the town.

The next morning I followed the beach for quite a way north. Where the path diverted onto the road, I was able to use sheep tracks to follow the cliff.

In one bay I came across another walker, who completely stripped off to enter the sea - presumably to wash, as the sea was too cold for swimming. The diversion provided other points of interest - first a colony of puffins, and then another of black guillemots.

The coastline becomes almost solid beach from here until the Point of Ayre, in the far north of the island. The beach was beautiful, and despite a hot and cloudless day it was deserted. There were, however, more oyster catchers than I have ever seen before.

At Kirk Michael I left behind the coastal path, and headed inland. My five days were almost up, and I had been told that from here the coastal path was monotonous. I headed instead for the mountains, which were misty, cold and bleak, even on a July day when England was sweating.

I followed a track rutted from motorbike tyres, which disappeared. There was suddenly neither path nor visibility, and I was forced to tramp across the heather, navigating by compass alone. I hit, as intended, the cairn at the top of Slieau Dhoo, and found a welcome shelter there.

I decided to check my bearings by heading into the valley, where two birds of prey circled above, occasionally diving towards me, squawking angrily. Presumably I was too near their young, and I cursed myself for not carrying binoculars to help me identify them.

I climbed back into the hills, found the path again, and then went down through Tholt-e-Will plantation, and stopped for lunch at an inn. The river was bathed in sun, but as I climbed up Tholt-e- Will I re-entered the cloud.

I had to follow the road for a couple of miles before reaching the base of Snaefell, the largest mountain on the island. There was almost no visibility here, but the path is short, well marked and straight, so finding the summit was not a problem.

The tea shop at the summit had just closed, and the Snaefell Mountain Railway's last train of the day was about to depart, so I jumped aboard to return to Douglas via Laxey. My ferry back to England left the next morning.

A guide to walking this path is available. The Isle of Man Coastal Path by Aileen Evans is published by Cicerone at pounds 5.99.

(Photograph omitted)

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