Travelling back in time on the Isle of Man

Steam trains first arrived on the Isle of Man in 1873
Steam trains first arrived on the Isle of Man in 1873

Train journeys in mainland Britain are put to shame by the Isle of Man’s heritage railways.

It’s 10am and, right on schedule, my train pulls out of Port Erin station, announcing its departure with a cheerful blast of the whistle. Clouds of smoke billow past the window as we gather pace, adding to the magic of the scenery outside: all meadows, hedgerows and patches of woodland bright with purple foxgloves. It’s a landscape that can hardly have changed in the century and a half since trains first huffed and puffed their way through the Manx countryside.

Steam trains arrived on the Isle of Man in 1873, running firstly between Douglas and Peel and then, a year later, on the Port Erin line. By the 1920s and 1930s, some 100 trains a day were serving stations along four routes, carrying over a million passengers annually; but by 1968, only the Port Erin line survived.

The Isle of Man's many walking routes promise beautiful views
The Isle of Man's many walking routes promise beautiful views

It’s still plied by the original rolling stock that I’m travelling on today, with brightly painted locomotives pulling wood-panelled carriages whose red-and-orange upholstery references the flames that power the engine.

Along with electric trains and horse-drawn trams, these heritage services constitute a huge part of the Isle of Man’s visitor appeal. Their sense of romance perfectly chimes with the step-back-in-time appeal of a place that moves to a gentler rhythm than the UK (of which it is a Crown Dependency rather than a constituent part).

With up to six daily round-trip departures, the steam trains lend themselves to sightseeing as well as point-to-point journeys. Half an hour after leaving Port Erin, I jump off at Castletown to nose around its medieval castle, then hop on the next train to continue to Douglas, the capital, with glimpses of the sea adding to the scenery en route.

Snaefall Mountain Railway is the only electric mountain railway in the British Isles
Snaefall Mountain Railway is the only electric mountain railway in the British Isles

From Douglas’s red-brick station, it’s a pleasant, two-mile stroll down the promenade to reach the electric railway’s terminus, passing seafront hotels built to welcome Victorian-era holidaymakers.

The vintage electric railway, which opened in 1893, ambles northwards towards Ramsey via the east coast’s wooded glens. I alight halfway at Laxey to connect with the mountain railway. As it clickety-clacks out of the village, we get a good look at Lady Isabella, the world’s largest working water wheel, before climbing up through moorland grazed by herds of hardy sheep.

Nearing the summit, however, clouds descend across the view. By the time we cross Mountain Road (where motorbikes scream past at 200mph during the TT races, the Isle of Man’s signature event) visibility is down to mere metres. It’s a pity, the conductor tells me, because on a clear day you can see England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales all at once.

Be sure to stop by the Foraging Vintners, a working winery and bar overlooking Port Erin
Be sure to stop by the Foraging Vintners, a working winery and bar overlooking Port Erin

“We call it Manannan’s Cloak,” he reveals, alluding to tales of a sea god who conjured up mists to shield the isle from invaders. “It’s said that’s why the Romans never conquered the island – but it’s rather less welcome nowadays when fog closes the airport!”

I wake the following morning to find that Manannan has shrouded the island, but cloudy skies are no impediment to exploring by bike. Though the original Douglas-Peel railway is no longer in operation, its route has been transformed into an 11-mile cycle trail.

Thanks to the Victorian engineers who built this track along river valleys – the Dhoo, which flows towards Douglas Bay, and the Neb for the western watershed – this cross-island, elevation-free route makes for very easy riding. With a rented e-bike, I pedal along past waysides rife with wildflowers, via level crossings and station platforms that have not seen a train for more than 50 years.

Spot wildlife on the Calf of Man, an islet half a mile off the southern tip of the Isle of Man
Spot wildlife on the Calf of Man, an islet half a mile off the southern tip of the Isle of Man

The mist lifts by late afternoon, leaving the next day ideal for coast walks. From Port Erin’s harbour, I pick up Raad ny Foillan: the 90-mile coast path that encircles the island. I follow it across cliff tops colourful with grasses and bright green bracken interspersed with patches of heather that add purple to the palette. A brisk breeze whips up white-crested waves, hampering efforts to spot marine life. Gulls, however, are enjoying the updraughts and are my constant companions, accompanied now and then by jet-black ravens and their far rarer cousins, choughs, who flap past on raggedy wings.

I reach the bottom of the island to find much more sheltered conditions, which bodes well for my lunchtime kayaking excursion. At The Sound Café, I have a coffee with kayak guide Andy North, who points out the mournful song of the seals drifting across from the Calf of Man islet. “I’ve brought a whistle, so we’ll play them a song and see if they sing back,” he says as we slip on life jackets and paddle into the channel.

Stay at self-catering property the Arches Holiday Haven in Port Erin
Stay at self-catering property the Arches Holiday Haven in Port Erin

What ensues is simply magical. Intrigued by Andy’s gentle music, the inquisitive seals gather around, diving with dramatic splashes before surfacing with a snort. Looking down through the clear-bottomed kayak, I can see one underneath me, blowing silvery bubbles through his nose and then trying to catch them in his teeth as, trapped against the craft, they move around like liquid mercury. And all the while, seals still on the rocks seem to sing in response to Andy’s flute.

Our plan had been to discover lonely sea caves and secret beaches, but the seals prove too compelling. When they tire of us and head back to their haul-outs, we paddle on to the Calf of Man and go for a barefoot stroll, enjoying the sensation of cool grass and sunshine-warmed pebbles underfoot. I feel very in-the-moment, which Andy reckons is no surprise. “Time spent in nature is good for the soul,” he says. “It really charges our batteries.”

The interaction leaves me hungry for further animal encounters, so for my final day on the island I book a wildlife-themed coastal cruise. According to the leaflet, we might spot anything from porpoises and puffins to basking sharks. But will our luck be in? Like much else on the Isle of Man, that’ll most likely be down to Manannan.

How to do it

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.