Travel: Man is an island entire of itself: The Isle of Man is not part of the UK. It has its own parliament, and its own character. After a hitch-hiker's tour of the TT circuit, Simon Calder gave the island the thumbs up

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The Independent Travel
Ten minutes after touching down on the Isle of Man, I was pounds 1 ahead on the day. In two decades of hitch-hiking, I have never had anyone give me cash as well as a lift. But the woman in the Skoda who picked me up outside the airport insisted that I accept a Manx pound note. She had handed it over to demonstrate that the island was a separate country, and refused to take it back. I had not thought the financial advantages of this tax haven would be quite so tangible.

My mission was to hitch-hike round the TT circuit. Since 1911, the Tourist Trophy mountain course has been enticing motorcyclists to its treacherous twists and turns. Every summer, nearly 100,000 bikers converge on the island for 10 days of trials and races on a 37-mile circuit, the world's longest road- racing track. Expert riders describe the circuit as challenging - a euphemism for dangerous. I am inept enough when in charge of four wheels, let alone two, so hitching seemed the best way to travel it in safety.

I started with a practice run to the south of the island, where a craggy coastline protects lazily rolling countryside and charming fishing ports. Indeed, the island seems to specialise in pretty fishing villages, each with a neat crescent of stone cottages looking out over a steely sea, the view fractured by the masts and rigging of a fishing fleet.

Port Erin, by the south-western tip, matches this description perfectly. Climb east across the isthmus and you reach a similar harbour, Port St Mary. Castletown (description: see above), along the south coast, also (obviously) has a castle, looming over the middle of town. A picture of it accompanies the Queen on the island's pounds 5 note. Both are depicted in a misleadingly youthful light: Her Majesty looks about 18, and the castle is shown in deceptively good nick.

Douglas, the Manx capital, is in less graceful decline. Its seafront hotels peer over Douglas Bay in a vain search for tourists, and the shops are a fairly joyless straggle of peeling paint and special offers. Every now and then you come across the headquarters of an international finance company, taking advantage of the island's offshore banking status.

Before I arrived, the amount I knew about the island could have been written on the back of a Manx postage stamp (which, like so many things on the island, bears the familiar three-legged symbol thought to have originated in Sicily). But the Museum of Man in Douglas makes anyone an instant expert. The strangest chapter in the island's history, I discovered, occurred during the Second World War, when part of Douglas was an internment camp. If the detainees, most of them Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler, wished to communicate with the outside world, they were forced to use pre-printed cards ('Erase words not required. If anything else is added, the card will be destroyed'). Ominously, the card begins: 'I am (not) well.'

Within the camp, however, they were able to establish a university: the lecture timetable for one week included talks on the Constitution of the British Empire, Babylonia, and Instinct and Character.

Instinct and character: essential qualities for a hitching trip.

12.40pm: The start: the motorcycle race begins at a grandstand that pops up implausibly in a Douglas suburb; but most of the traffic there heads south, so I invented my own 'staggered start', and began thumbing half a mile into the circuit, where it turns on to the Peel Road. For the first five minutes I averaged a steady zero mph.

12.45: A white Montego stopped. As we trundled along at a contented 30mph, I noticed a succession of garish orange signs, planted to show TT competitors how the road behaves. I had assumed an influx of thousands of motorcyclists would cause friction with the locals, but the islanders seem happy with the event. 'It's the only time the island comes to life,' the driver told me. 'The bikers are much less trouble than the Young Farmers' convention.'

12.58: I failed to take the Ballacraine corner, a sharp right-hander where riders switch from the A1 to the A3. I sped past it because the Montego owner scolded me for planning - like the circuit - to bypass Peel, 'the prettiest place on the island'.

1.03: Pretty, yes; fishing port, yes; on a crescent bay, yes. And replete with a beach, a docile sweep of sand wrapping around the coast. At the heart of Peel lies the Creek Inn, which guards one corner of the port, and does a good line in fisherman's pie and Okell's Mild. Lunch is a luxury that serious racers forgo, but I figured even an increased blood-alcohol level would not impair my hitching faculties.

1.48: Back to the hitching - but I would have been booted out of the Warwick University Golden Thumb Club for what happened next.

1.49: A No 5 bus arrived, and I got on it. pounds 1.60 takes you the length of the 17-mile back straight to Ramsey. The great advantage the bus passenger has over TT riders is a fine top-deck view over the hedges. The bus sways across country, providing glimpses of a storm-swept shoreline on one side and austere highlands on the other. Such a brave panorama demands to be seen at a lot less than 120mph.

2.27: The bus arrived in Ramsey. I was not altogether amazed to find it to be a picturesque fishing port.

2.50: I ambled up May Hill to the ultimate hitching spot. An orange sign advertises 'Hairpin Bend'. Ordinary traffic has to slow to walking pace to edge around the corner, making motorists especially susceptible to an outstretched thumb.

2.51: A Peugeot with 'go-faster' stripes stopped, not because of my instinct for a good hitching spot but because its driver recognised me. I had been on the island for only a few hours, and found this a bit spooky. The driver looked at me quizzically. 'Didn't I see you walking past my house in Peel at about quarter to two?' When you sneeze in Port Erin, the local saying goes, they say 'Bless you' in Ramsey.

3.05: We breasted the summit of the circuit - a height of 1,384ft. So rapid is the climb that a few minutes after leaving Ramsey, we were coasting a quarter-mile above the Irish Sea, watching the island's fringes melt into the haze. Then we bounced over a level crossing of the Snaefell Mountain Railway; it hauls tourists to the highest peak, and its catchphrase is: 'View the six kingdoms, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Mann and Heaven.' From near the summit of Snaefell, I could see only the island, but I'm sure heaven was up there somewhere.

3.29: Back to stage 1. The course record by bike is 18 minutes 8 seconds, averaging 123.6mph. My journey had taken two hours 44 minutes - a mean speed of 13.8mph. I might as well have been taking part in a three-legged race.

Getting there: Manx Airlines (0345 256256) flies non-stop to the Isle of Man from Birmingham, Cardiff, Dublin, Glasgow, Liverpool, London Heathrow, Luton and Manchester. Lowest fare is pounds 60 return from Liverpool, if you book the day before you travel. The Isle of Man Steam Packet Company (0624 661661) operates year-round car ferries from Heysham and Liverpool and summer services from Fleetwood, Belfast and Dublin.

Further information: The Isle of Man Department of Tourism is based at Sea Terminal Building, Douglas IM1 2RG (tel 0624 686766; fax 0624 627443). TT Festival takes place from 30 May to 10 June; for more information on the races, contact the Auto Cycle Union, Wood Street, Rugby CV21 2YX (0788 540519).

(Photograph omitted)

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