Travel: Take the slow train to the past

David Foster picks his way through the Isle of Man mists and discovers a fickle ancient god and gentle seaside resorts

The tide splashes listlessly on the seashore and washes against the tiny harbour breakwater. There are pebbles and a small patch of sand where a woman and a little girl are building castles.

Somehow, I have stumbled out of a bright spring afternoon and into a sepia postcard. Perched on a low wall behind the beach, I am looking out over a small, gently curving bay. A few scattered families sit with their ice-creams, bought from the stone-built beach cafe across the road. Two Scottie dogs size one another up, tails wagging. Nothing else stirs. Laxey is digesting its lunch.

Like the Isle of Man itself, this is a quiet place. A mile inland, visitors to the world's largest working water wheel arrive on the electric tramway, as they have for more than a hundred years. Up the road, distinctive Isle of Man tartans are still woven by hand amid the clutter of the old- fashioned Laxey Woollen Mills, founded by John Ruskin in 1881.

But all this is modern history by Manx standards, as I discovered soon after touching down at Ronaldsway airport. Visibility had dropped to a couple of hundred yards during our short flight, and it looked as though the pilot would be taking us back to Manchester. Fortunately, a higher authority intervened. "Manannan obviously thinks you're friendly," said my host Daphne Williams, as we met in the arrivals hall. The ancient Manx Sea God, she explained, shrouds the island in mist when danger threatens; this evening, he'd rolled back the fog and allowed us to land.

The old boy was less accommodating as we plodded up the slopes of Snaefell a couple of days later. At just over 2,000ft (609m), this is the highest point on the island, and in the summer months, the Snaefell Mountain Railway will lift you to the summit in 30 minutes. From here, the guidebook prattles cheerfully, you can see England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland in one vast sweep. Well, on a clear day, anyway. In thick cloud, it is a dispiriting place.

Peering out through misted-up specs, everything was a dampish shade of grey. I could just make out the deserted railway terminus beside the boarded- up Summit Hotel; a few yards further on, a stainless-steel direction plaque pointed optimistically to faraway places beyond the Irish Sea. Manannan, I had discovered, is a fickle sort of God.

Perhaps that is why the Manx Celts ultimately embraced Christianity. Their beautifully incised stone crosses dot the island, nowhere more thickly than the easternmost landfall at Maughold, a mile from the tramway station at Ballajora. Tiring of Manannan's games, I dropped clear of the mist and made a pilgrimage to the little parish church of Kirk Maughold, said to be the oldest on the island. In the ancient churchyard, formerly the site of a Celtic monastery, the Manx historian and naturalist PMC Kermode lies buried just yards from the collection of Celtic cross-slabs which he assembled here during the early years of this century.

Close by, the Raad ny Foillan or Road of the Gull, soars around Maughold Head for the last few miles into Ramsey. I followed this 95-mile coastal path over the rugged Maughold Brooghs as far as Belle Vue, where I had planned to catch the tram towards Douglas. But would it stop for me? Belle Vue station is plain enough on the map, though it is too small to qualify for an entry in the timetable. On the ground, there is little to give the game away; no platforms or station name-boards, not even so much as a bus stop. I waited beside the narrow 3ft-gauge track, more in hope than expectation.

I shouldn't have worried. Five minutes later, car number 21 trundles around the corner, shudders to a halt, and I climb into a living museum of ancient varnished woodwork and newly trimmed red plush seats. "This was one of several cars built at Birkenhead in 1899," conductor Nick Pascoe tells me as he checks my ticket and the motors whir into life. The maximum speed is just 18mph, he adds - though it seems much faster. No one would describe this as a smooth ride, but the scenery along these gorse-covered cliffs easily makes up for the bumps in the track.

The electric tramway was once part of a system of narrow-gauge lines that linked every town on the island. The charming little steam railway from Douglas to Port Erin still survives and, although the lines to Peel and Ramsey both closed in the late 1960s, most of the old trackbed has been absorbed into the island's 150-mile network of long- distance paths.

First of these was the Millennium Way, 20 years old this year. Ahead of the game? No, not all. "We had our Millennium of Tynwald in 1979," said Tourism Minister David Cretney as he showed me around the compact Manx parliament building in the heart of Douglas. The island swears allegiance to the Crown but, explained the Minister, "we've had our own parliament for 1,000 years". Upper and lower Houses sit together once a month in Tynwald Court to debate finance and policy issues.

Although the finance sector is the bedrock of the island's economy, says David Cretney, tourism and the film industry both have an important role. "We're hoping that the success of Waking Ned - shot entirely on the Isle of Man although set in Ireland - will encourage more holidaymakers to come and see us this year."

Waking Ned's fictional community of Tullagh Mhor was set amongst the low, thatched cottages clustered around the chapel at Cregneash folk village, south-west of Port St Mary. Cregneash, with its craft demonstrations and displays of rural life, is one of a network of historic sites and museums woven together by Manx National Heritage to form "The Story of Mann" trail. It is a wonderful tour, but I couldn't help feeling a bit overpowered by so many Celts and Vikings, fairies and folklore. I needed an afternoon out. "If you hear something hitting the ground it will be the wallabies; they've been living out here for the last 20 or so years," said John Kneale, my guide through the boardwalks of the Ballaugh Curragh. "It's the largest wetland area on the island," he told me, "and possibly the largest winter roost in Europe for hen harriers." This wildlife sanctuary also encompasses the Curraghs Wildlife Park, dedicated to the conservation of endangered wetland species from around the world.

But I couldn't leave the island without saying cheerio to Manannan. I caught up with him on the waterfront at Peel, where the new House of Manannan presents the sights, sounds and smells of 10,000 years of Manx history. You could easily spend a whole day strolling through this award- winning pounds 6m complex without ever setting foot on one of the island's real- life heritage sites.

That's not good enough for Manannan. "Go," he commands, as his image fades from a giant video screen, "and see them for yourself." Forgive me, old chap, I just have.

ISLE OF MAN

GETTING THERE

David Foster flew with Manx Airlines (tel: 0345 256256) and stayed at the Stakis Hotel, Douglas (tel: 01624 662662).

Everymann Holidays (tel: 0345 023568) offers a range of packages to the island. A three-night break, including return flights from Luton and b&b accommodation at the five-crown Stakis Hotel costs from pounds 234.

Manx airlines flies daily from Heathrow, Luton, Birmingham, Liverpool, Glasgow, Dublin, Jersey and Manchester. There are also regular services from Leeds/Bradford, Southampton, Aberdeen, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Guernsey. Return flights from Luton start at pounds 79.

GETTING AROUND

Isle of Man Transport (tel: 01624 663366) can supply full details of the Electric Trams, Snaefell Mountain Railway, Steam Railway and island bus services. Car hire is available from Mylchreest's Car Rental (tel: 01624 823533) and costs from pounds 20 per day.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Ordnance Survey Landranger map no 95 covers the Isle of Man. It includes Manx National Heritage sites and long-distance footpath routes. A comprehensive 1999 Isle of Man Holiday Guide is available free from the Isle of Man tourist information centre (tel:01624 686766; brochure line: 0345 686868).

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