The Isle of Man: steam trains, horse trams and mountain railways

To non-natives, the Isle of Man seems a curious little place. It’s known for fairies, kippers and tailless cats. Its flag (and ubiquitous national symbol) is three disembodied legs. It has a festival dedicated to scallops, and annual races involving tin baths and snakes. And despite attracting adrenaline junkies from around the world with its motorbike racing TT track, it is equally beloved by visitors seeking slower-paced, nostalgic modes of transport powered by steam and by horse.

We were drawn to the island for the first time this summer, to go to the wedding of two of our friends. This post covers my favourite discoveries made on our short trip – and as the title suggests, transport features heavily!

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Horse trams

This is no misnomer – these are genuinely trams pulled by horses. Only found in the island’s capital and largest town, Douglas, they’ll take you from the ferry port at one end of the promenade to the electric railway station at the other (or to one of the few request stops in-between). It’s certainly not the fastest way to travel – the trams tend to hold up the rest of the traffic – but there’s no better way to see Douglas’ picturesque seafront than with the sea breeze on your skin and the jaunty clip-clopping of hooves in your ears. Plus the horses have names like Ian and Steve!

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Queenies

This is the local nickname for queen scallops, the Isle of Man’s smaller alternative to king scallops. Whether they’re eaten in a bap on the beach in Port St Mary, or with bacon and garlic butter in a fancy restaurant, they’re sure to be delicate, juicy and delicious. I very much enjoyed eating them breadcrumbed and deep-fried with chunky tartare sauce in Coast Bar and Brasserie in Douglas.

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Snaefell Mountain and the electric railway
Going up the island’s only mountain on the electric railway is a joy that shouldn’t be missed. Don’t let the ‘electric’ part of the railway fool you into thinking this is some kind of modern train – the carriages used are still the original wooden boxes built in 1895. You can feel the wall panels sliding against the frame as the carriage ascends the steep track, and feel the rails rumbling beneath you.

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Sliding open the wooden windows grants spectacular views of Laxey’s historic zinc mine and Lady Isabella water wheel, as well as vast stretches of untouched green countryside. A few bits of recorded commentary tell you about the journey’s most notable sights. Once you get to the top, you can walk around and take in the panoramic views of the ‘Seven Kingdoms’ – England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, the Isle of Man and the kingdoms of Heaven and the sea – or nip into the casual café for tea and cake or a light meal. Just be careful you don’t get blown away by the very strong winds you can get up there, as we almost were!

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Bradda Glen

The Isle of Man has many glens – basically, preserved natural areas such as forests – but we only had time to visit one. We chose Bradda Glen on the island’s southern coast, a short walk from the centre of Port Erin, for its panoramic sea views. Walk along the cliffs to the glen’s highest point, Bradda Head, and you can climb up Milner’s Tower, a small, abandoned stone tower overlooking the nearby islet of the Calf of Man.

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Fairy Bridge

While you probably won’t actually see any fairies on the Isle of Man, you will likely hear about them. Along the road between the old capital of Castletown and the new capital of Douglas there’s a bridge called Fairy Bridge where the island’s magical residents are supposed to live. It’s tradition to greet the fairies as you go over the bridge in order to avoid bad luck, and some people even write to the fairies and leave them gifts around the bridge. We didn’t realise how serious the island’s residents are about this folklore until we rode a bus over the bridge and heard THE BUS ITSELF say “Hello fairies”!

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Steam train

While the north of the island’s east coast is served by the electric railway, the south is served by the steam railway. At 15.5 miles long, this is the longest narrow gauge steam line in Britain that still uses its original locomotives and carriages. Like the electric railway, what the steam railway loses in speed and efficiency it makes up for with nostalgia and charm. The carriages are polished wooden boxes with plush padded seats and sliding wooden windows that are held in place by leather belts. The doors are impossible to open from the inside, requiring you to reach out of the window to work the handle. We were lucky enough to get an entire carriage with four rows of seating to ourselves, allowing us to stretch out and pretend we were Victorian nobility. The best part of all, of course, was watching the beautiful rural scenery and vintage stations stream past our windows, all dressed with trails of billowing white steam.

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Tower of Refuge

Like all the best parts of the British Isles, the Isle of Man isn’t short of castles. There’s the viking Peel Castle in Peel, the medieval Rushen Castle in Castletown, and – our favourite – the tiny Tower of Refuge, located on an island just off the coast in Douglas. It looks so small that we thought it might be the winning entry of a sandcastle building competition! But my Manx friend later confirmed that it is a real building, and one that you can shelter at if you get marooned on the island at high tide.

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Douglas promenade

By day, Douglas promenade appears as the typical British seaside town: charmingly old-fashioned white buildings, a long windswept beach and an ice cream parlour. By night, the seafront is illuminated by strings of festive coloured lights. Staying at a guesthouse far from the ferry port and town centre meant I lost count of how many times we had to walk the length of this promenade, but I found the surroundings so charming that we always enjoyed the walk.

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Starry skies

The Isle of Man has 26 official dark sky sites spread over a relatively small island area, making it easy to go stargazing. I think we must have found one by accident, simply because our friends’ wedding reception was held near St Johns and outside of any major towns. What struck me most upon going outside and looking up was that it wasn’t a dark sky at all, but one lit with a million stars and, in consequence, far lighter than our pitch black surroundings down on Earth.

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I’m sure there’s much more still to see on the Isle of Man, and I look forward to seeing it all when we inevitably return.

Have you been to the Isle of Man? And if so, what was your favourite discovery on the island?

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11 thoughts on “The Isle of Man: steam trains, horse trams and mountain railways

  1. Really interesting as always. I especially like the tiny castle and the posh Victorian railway carriage you had to yourselves! I am jealous of that amazing starry sky picture – I have yet to experience a truly ‘dark sky’ but it’s something on the bucket list! XXX

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  2. I see Torrin took a liking to you in the photo.
    Torrin is one of the new horsetram horses.
    Little Mark not sure if you did see him on your visit is the horsetrams oldest horse he is also the smallest and he is also the fastest.
    I hope you did enjoy your visit to the Isle of Man.

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      1. The Isle of Man has so much to offer and yet is so poor at publicising itself. In contrast, islands like Jersey are very good at promoting themselves when, although beautiful, in my opinion do not have as much going for them as the IoM. It is so good then to read your positive article promoting such a positive image of the Island. Thank you!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Agree with every comment above. The Isle of Man is a special place that I first visited in 1974 and have been back many times since. I’ve also visited many other countries but still keep being drawn there, I’m on my way back in May for the TT as well. Our grandkids had their first holiday with us last summer in Peel and they too are now in love with the island, it’s fairies,trams, castles and horses! If you haven’t been there you are really missing out.

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  4. Used to visit the Isle of Man for the TT as a child with my family in the late 50s and early 60s then in 1974 with the girl who is now my wife of 41 years.
    We returned in 2010 after an absence of 34 years and again this year. It has changed little and has not lost its character. I always feel there is something magical about the island.
    It seems much quieter now as it doesn’t get the many holiday makers it used to. Yes, it doesn’t promote itself like the Chanel Islands, it should!
    Give it a try, you may be pleasantly surprised, I fully recommend it. Maybe I’m biased or is it childhood memories but the Isle of Man will always have a special place in my memories.

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