“These what you’re looking for?” A local shouted as I sipped a pint of Okells outside The Mitre, reportedly the oldest pub on the Isle of Man, in the quaint village of Kirk Michael.
They sure were, frightening creatures with four horns jutting out from their skulls in all directions. Once thriving across the island, Loaghtan sheep now number around 2,000, prized for their wool and meat. The unusual creature was one of the reasons I came to the Isle of Man.
It’s not as famous as the tailless Manx cats. Manx pigs called purrs used to roam the hills and made a sound like a cat purring before they became extinct in the 1800s. Manx cattle resembled large pot-bellied pigs or hippos before they, too, became extinct. Today, mountain goats jump from outcropping to outcropping on the north end of the island, where Australian wallabies also roam free. Off Man’s west coast in the summer, tourists boat out to be among 24-foot-long basking sharks gorging on plankton.
I was in Kirk Michael not only to see the Loaghtan, but because the village was the birthplace for the Manx palm tree. At the turn of the 20th century, British Field Marshal Thrumplock O’Crackerley successfully developed a palm tree that could grow in any climate. The stated purpose was to give British troops camouflage wherever they went. The real truth was the well-connected field marshal had gone insane, and the British high command gave him this assignment believing he would live out his days among the Celtic crosses of Kirk Michael. They were shocked when he succeeded. The Manx palm is the world’s most northern palm tree.
Down the road in the port town of Peel, I toured a museum housing the Peel automobile. Built in the 1960s, it essentially was a chair surrounded by steel with the motor under the driver, three wheels and one headlight.
The Manx national flag of three armored legs set against a red backdrop flies everywhere. The only sign of the British is a Union Jack flapping over a war memorial in the capital of Douglas. Man is not part of the United Kingdom. Instead, the British royal family is the landlord of Man. Britain provides for Man’s defense.
The Manx are Celtic, with their own language, and they number fewer than 85,000 in population. Their island lies in the middle of the Irish Sea halfway between Britain and Ireland. The 221-square-mile island surprisingly has 29 towns and eight ghost towns. Some are of Manx origin, some are Norwegian, some Scottish and some English — each at one time the invader. There are farm villages, fishing ports and mining towns. A logging mill is near St. John, as is the world’s oldest parliament, a four-tier grass hill called Tynwald that is still in use.
In the late 19th and 20th centuries, the English flocked to Manx beaches for the summer before cheap airfares sent them to the Mediterranean. Today, Douglas, Port St. Mary and Port Erin’s beaches are lined with Edwardian hotels along palm-lined promenades providing inexpensive accommodations. I stayed at Silvercraigs in Douglas at $45 a might. Rooms in Douglas range from $39 to $195 a night.
A horse-drawn trolley will take you to the end of the Douglas Promenade, where you can catch an electric train to the northern town of Ramsey. If you get off at Laxey, a mining town by the sea, you can transfer to a tram that will take you to Man’s highest point, Snaefell, at 2,000 feet. On a clear day, you can see Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland from its peak. At the south end of the promenade, you can catch a steam locomotive to the south end of the island. If you want, you can even stoke the engine.
The Manx countryside is dotted with Neolithic ruins, Celtic ruins, Viking ruins and Scottish ruins to explore. There are 17 fairytale-like national glens set aside to see what Man was like before man arrived. Streams provide excellent brown trout and salmon fishing. The Manx Museum is well worth exploring; it hammers home the point that up to the late 1800s, the Manx lived fearing black magic, evil elves, witches and wizards. The bus from the airport plays over its intercom a thank-you to fairies for allowing it to cross the fairy bridge.
There are three very important things to remember if you go. First, Manx currency is worthless off the island. No nation honors it. Second, the Manx international motorcycle race, the TT, in late May draws huge crowds, taking all the available hotel rooms. Third, in the middle of winter, the Irish Sea becomes so turbulent that ferry and airline service may be canceled for weeks at a time, leaving the Manx and visitors alone to themselves.
Mike Coppock is an Oklahoma-based freelance writer.