Scaling the heights in Famous Five country

With its dramatic scenery and unique history, the Isle of Man is a welcome refuge from the rest of the world, writes Colin Dallibar

ON A CLEAR DAY, they say you can see England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales from the top of Snaefell, the highest point on the Isle of Man. When the fog rolls in, however, you'll be lucky to see 10 yards. According to folklore, the sea-god Manannan, from whom the island takes its name, shrouds the island in mist to protect it from invaders. Another legend relates how the island's own Steam Packet Shipping Company met competition from a rival operator around the turn of the century. On the competing ferry company's maiden voyage, it circled vainly for eight hours in the Irish Sea fog, gave up and returned to Liverpool with a boatload of disgruntled passengers.

Any islander will proudly tell you the island has not been overrun since the Vikings came. But then I suppose you have to discount the marauding Scots and English, who spent most of the 13th and 14th centuries squabbling over it, not to mention the Victorian tourists who "discovered" it in the late 1800s, thus initiating their own kind of invasion. In its heyday, the island pulled half a million tourists annually, but the bucket and spade brigade have long since trooped off to the Mediterranean, leaving scores of boarded up guesthouses and a tourist industry that sells itself on Man's heritage, its predilection for motorsport, and, of course, its natural beauty.

No wonder the Victorians fell in love with this rural idyll. This is proverbial Famous Five country - steam railways, glens, heather-swept hillsides, sandy beaches and perpetual coastline. To cap it all, there are archetypal sleepy fishing villages like Peel where you can wander up to the folly on the hill and take in the coastal views, or Port Erin where you can watch the sun drop into the sea with a jar of Manx Ale in your hand.

In many ways, the island is a refuge from the rest of the world. Imagine a place that feels essentially British but is free from the National Lottery, Westminster political bickering, and the Spice Girls officially opening every new retail outlet in your locality. The island has attracted famous, if not very dynamic, residents like Nigel Mansell, Norman Wisdom and Rick Wakeman. A renowned tax haven, it is now a major offshore banking centre. And if you are a motorcycle enthusiast, it is one of the few places where you can pull back the throttle on your Ducati and fly along valleys and mountain passes at speeds that would be illegal on the mainland.

Not all cycling here involves a 100-break horsepower engine, though. If you're feeling particularly energetic you can take to the tracks on a mountain bike. These can be hired at reasonable prices from Pedal Power in Douglas and Peel, along with helmets and camping equipment. The management is very chatty, and will tell you where to find the best campsites and cycle routes.

I must confess I did question my fitness - and sanity - as I struggled up the steep inclines on the west of the mountains. Fortunately the bikes are light enough to push, which gave me ample time to get to grips with the country sights and smells, as well as collapse pathetically on the grass verge every couple of hundred feet. The ride is certainly worth the effort, and when I eventually got to the higher reaches, the panoramas were breathtaking. Also breathtaking was the speed at which I plummeted down from the mountains towards the east coast, saddle-sore and hands clasped for dear life on the brakes.

For a more pedestrian pace of exploring, Man is prime walking territory and boasts a landscape rich in desolate mountainsides, wooded glades, and busy farmsteads. The island has three official long distance paths: The Millennium Way, a 28-mile trek running north-south; the coastal Path; and a short route from Peel to Ballasalla, called Raad ny Fallan or "The Herring Road".

With a brief consultation of an OS map, it's simple enough to concoct your own little adventure. I followed the road from Creg Ny Baa to the aptly named Windy Corner, before cutting across the hills to Baldrine, taking in my fair shake of babbling brooks and sumptuous valleys.

If you want to marvel at the mountains without burning up shoe leather, let the train take the strain. A mountain railway runs to the peak of Snaefell from Douglas, the island's capital, but it can be easily reached on foot and is just a day's hike from nearby Laxey or Ramsey. It is possible to lose yourself inland and pretend you are miles from anywhere, safe in the knowledge that, owing to the size of the island, civilisation can only be a mile or two away.

If you get caught out, hitching is a reasonable option. One passing motorist took pity on me and offered a lift even though I wasn't holding out my thumb - or facing the right way, for that matter. Whether or not this is par for the course, it's certainly some indication of how relaxed people are here. Things are so informal, you can even drop in on your local MP for a chat. So I did.

"Most people catch me on the telephone - some nights I get about eight calls," says John Shimmin, MP for Douglas West. Like most parliamentarians on the island, he is an independent candidate. "From my point of view, if they call me up, they want an answer from me personally, so I don't mind finding out myself. Most people are very polite. Because of the geography of the island and the numbers involved, you're a lot closer to the people you represent."

The Manx constitution is over 1,000 years old. Tynwald - the parliament - was introduced by the Vikings. They may have raped, pillaged, and generally laid waste to much of northern Europe, but when it came to government, they were model law-abiding citizens. Wherever they hung their horned helmets, they created an open air assembly to legislate, give judgement and punish lawbreakers. Tynwald means "parliament field", and at St John's on 5 July every year the significance of this is repeated on Tynwald Day, a popular outdoor jamboree with pomp and ceremony.

Constitutional differences inevitably extend to the island's politics. There is never a budget deficit, thanks to a law forbidding the government from spending more than it earns. There are free TV licences for pensioners on benefit, and there are no ties to the European Union, although the island does tend to shadow UK policy.

Manx elections are carried out on a variation of the Single Transferable Vote system used in Ireland. The most recent vote took place in 1996, so while messrs Blair, Major and Ashdown were grovelling their way round Britain last April, Manx residents slumped back in their armchairs and watched the spectacle unfold on telly. "There is an atmosphere and culture on the island that is subtly different from the UK," says Shimmin. "Being an island, you tend to be different, and protect your differences."

This tranquil isolation is shattered twice yearly with two of the biggest events in the motorcycle roadracing calender - the Tourist Trophy Races in late May and early June, and the less high-profile Manx Grand Prix in late August.

Budding bikers, both amateur and professional, have been swarming to the island for 90 years. In the early days they covered the fabled 38- mile Mountain Course at a death-defying 35mph. Technology has since fine- tuned the bikes, which now clock up average lap speeds of 120mph, devouring tarmac on the fastest stretches at 180mph. Unfortunately, the course has adapted little over time, and the sharp bends, kerbs and dry stone walls claim victims annually. This year's TT death toll was seven, including tourists and residents.

The Manx Grand Prix attracts barely a quarter of the 45,000 visitors who swell the island's population of 70,000 during TT fortnight, but the crowds are increasing every year. A homestay programme set up for TT visitors to stay with island families is being extended to the Grand Prix.

In Douglas during race week, the pavements are lined with glistening chrome exhausts and leather saddles. Any effort to walk along the prom is subject to a constant stopping and starting as tourists pause to inspect the workings of the next 600cc Honda. And while some may argue that serene, bleak landscapes are easier to reach in North Wales, the Lake District or Scotland, the island life throws up some eccentric images. If you miss the Manx Grand Prix, you can instead enjoy the sight of ruddy-faced bikers with trolleys of groceries, politely overtaking blue-rinsed biddies in supermarket aisles.

isle of man fact file

Getting there

By Train: All-in-one "Rail and sail" Apex fares, subject to availability, offer return to Douglas - book seven days in advance. Prices from eg London are around pounds 50. To book, call 0990 523523.

By Boat: For ferry details from Liverpool, Heysham, and Belfast, call The Isle of Man Steam Packet Company on 01624 661661.

By Air: Manx Airlines flies to Castleton from Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, Luton and Manchester. Call 0345 256256.

Cycle and Camping hire:

Pedal power (shops in Peel and Douglas), 01624 662026.

TT Races 1998

24 May-5 June. Make travel and accommodation arrangements well in advance

Accommodation

TT Fortnight Homestay programme, call 01624 686828. For other accommodation details, call the Isle of Man Tourist Board on 01624 686766.

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