‘THE Isle of Man? Why?’
‘One of the perks of a pandemic.’
‘But the Isle of Man? They’ve got a great flag and motorcycle race but…’
‘The flag has a triskelion on it, a symbol popular with ancient cultures including the Scandinavians. Lots of history.’
The pause hangs.
‘Yes, but what will you do for four days?’
‘The guys are playing golf – eight courses. I’ll… I’ll look… I’ll look for a… for a… Viking.’
And the conversation crumbles as if pounded by Thor’s Hammer.
We had been due to take a trip up the Norwegian fjords in March but had only got as far as Bergen airport. My long-anticipated search for a Viking had been thwarted by a virus as invasive as anything the Vikings ever did.
Geographically, it is suggested that the Isle of Man was a piratical hub for seafaring skullduggery. All the UK countries are within sight and sailing distance. In about 800AD, the first Viking longboat would have glided through the mist, oars slicing the water and the carved dragon on the prow curling its tongue as if licking the spray. No one is sure exactly where they landed but Peel Castle on the west coast has onion layers of history, one of which is evidence of a wooden fort built by the Viking king Magnus Barelegs in the 11th century.
The resident Celts had much to offer the Vikings, especially sheep and pasture. It took industrial quantities of wool to produce all their ships’ sails and the Celts had flocks of their very own Manx Loaghtan; a sheep sporting four horns that must surely have impressed the invading pagans whose lives were shaped by ‘otherly’ beings: dwarfs, elves, females spirits and valkries. The Manx Celts were Christians by the time the longboats were dragged up the beaches but they, in their turn, had a healthy respect for ‘The Little People’. To this day, descendants of Celts and Vikings pass myths, like family recipes, from generation to generation.
On our way from the airport our guide, Ged, a cross between Jeremy Clarkson and Seve Ballesteros, issues an order.
‘Get ready to greet the “Little People”. We’ll cross the Fairy Bridge around the next corner. Bad luck if you don’t give them your best “Good Morning”.’
He slows the mini bus. Our faces reflect a similar expression: the ‘what-sort-of-nutter-is this?’ one. But you don’t trifle with fairy folk so we shout loud enough to set wings a-flutter.
We continue on to Douglas where our hotel stands at the far end, shoulder to shoulder with all the other buildings that hug the curving sweep of the bay. A full moon has stretched the beach to its limit so seaweed and rocks glisten, enjoying their respite.
‘Hello, hello. Welcome to the Regency. You are rare and welcome visitors. It’s good to see suitcases with airport tags. We oiled the lift only this morning, you should have no problems with her.’
None of us say a word.
‘I’ll walk up,’ says Pete.
‘Me too,’ says Linda.
The four of us are standing before the gable end of an apparent wardrobe, two concertina metal grills cover the opening. The lift. Steve and I decide to risk it. We shuffle in one after the other and stand sideways; it is not a lift for the over-nourished. Once the grills are expanded and shut we have a perfect view of our ascent. The childish pleasure of rising in an oversized dumb-waiter has us giggling.
Next day, the view from the bedroom window is painted grey but undeterred we set off, assured by our waitress and Ged that the weather will clear by lunch time – at the latest. With the husbands deposited at Castletown Golf Club, Ged takes Linda and I further south and deposits us at Cregneash.
‘Have a look at Cregneash and then you can walk into Port Erin along the cliffs,’ says Ged. ‘It’s a lovely stroll and you’ll see lots of marine life – you might hit lucky and spot a basking shark.’
We are shrouded in fog. According to myth, the Celtic god of the sea, Manannan Mac Lir, covered the island in mist to protect it. She’s done a good job.
A Manx cat tip-toes along the top of a neatly stacked stone wall, well balanced despite the lack of a tail. The Vikings would have enjoyed adding this feline, genetic accident to their legends – if it had been around back then.
Cregneash is a ‘Living Museum’, the little white-washed, thatched houses cluster together as they have done since the 18th century. Through tiny windows and low doors we see the wooden looms, furniture and cooking paraphernalia of 200 years ago. The workhouses are full of woodturning, farming, fishing and blacksmith tools. The stoic church of St Peter sits amongst its congregation, simple but fit for purpose.
‘Which way?’ asks Linda.
‘I think the sea’s that way,’ and I point vaguely into the blanketing haze.
The salty smell of the sea draws us as effectively as baking bread and several obscure sign posts and a wooden stile later we are heading south along a cliff path.
There is an eerie silence punctuated with seabird calls that fracture the gloom. A gust of wind penetrates and a crack opens a clearing which spreads way out to sea. The ocean, in monumental shrugs, is dragging its tides to and from the shore: sea and land seem all encompassing, life-taking or life-giving according to the mood of the day.
‘No basking sharks,’ comments Linda dryly.
The drop below us is vertiginous and the waves below crest with fine frills before breaking and sluicing hungrily between the rocks. There is no barrier and the slabs of granite, as if holding the land in, offer no welcome from the sea, unless you can fly.
Over the next two hours we stride through heath following a troublesome path. The path appears to worry about missing a view and then remembers it has forgotten something and doubles back. Finally, we arrive at the Sound, the most southerly point of the island and decide that, as we are only halfway to Port Erin, we will do the rest of the journey by bus. We journey back to Douglas through clusters of houses and tunnels of trees that open into fields that flaunt every shade of green. The verdancy is so embedded that I dream that night of rain-saturated forests lining fjords – the Vikings would have loved these lush pastures. No wonder they stayed.
The following morning, with the men deposited at their next golf venue, we head to the geographical and legislative heart of the Isle of Man. Tynwald. The four-tiered hill hosts an open air ceremony once a year on July fifth and is believed to have been established by the Norse settlers over 1,000 years ago. This makes it the oldest continuous parliament in the world. There isn’t much to see here apart from a 12-metre, grassy ‘wedding cake’ and an ancient grave: there is next to nothing left of Thor’s temple that was unearthed nearby. However, the Manx Museum in Douglas and the Viking Museum at Peel are stuffed with the luggage that Vikings needed to take with them on their journey to the next life. My personal favourite was a sword deliberately broken into three and giving hints of the original colours – red, black and white. The Viking burial mounds scattered around the island have unearthed fragments of living history so precious they are imprisoned behind glass. You can only imagine touching the bronze cloak pin, just as its creator had done, and allowing ancient Norse energy to set your fingers tingling.
We stand in front of the Tynwald Hill until a battered Land Rover clatters to a halt beside us. A haystack of hair leans out of a window.
‘Morning. You must be the two I need to pick up. Jump in.’
We are transported in a ‘stable’ on wheels. A stuffed hay net, a rumpled horse blanket, mislaid horse brushes, half a bag of oats and the open windows fail completely to eradicate a ubiquitous equine smell.
‘You’d never find us on your own, we offer this service to all our riders.’
She’s right. We squeeze through lanes and cross tiny bridges for 10 minutes before we drive into the Ballahimmin Trekking Centre snuggled into a hilly slope.
I stand on the mounting block and my steed is led towards me. She looks like a woolly barrel, her mane nearly trails to her kneecaps and my hips groan in anticipation.
‘Freya is a Norwegian Fjord pony, a genuine “piece” of Norse.’ I grin. ‘She stays out all year round and she’s quite slim in her summer coat. You’ll love her.’
I’ll be the judge of that, I think. My legs make the stretch over the saddle and I burrow a hand beneath the thatch of mane – heat generates a whisper of distant Viking. The ancestors of these beasts must surely have carried, undaunted, the equally stalwart Norse men. I like to think so. Winds have blown away leaden skies and the ponies carry us to a viewpoint. The outlook over duvet-folded hills, all bruised with purple heather and splattered with yellow gorse is iconic topography lined up for inspection. The feeling of remoteness is reinforced by crows that sweep over or peck and squabble in the fields. I wonder if Odin’s ravens had joined in?
We are disappointed to bid our ponies farewell – they have shown us natural beauty that has slipped through the centuries unchanged.
The history of the Isle of Man is steeped with Celts offering a pragmatic welcome to all invaders. The Norsemen co-habited for 400 years. Then came the Scots who were followed by the English. The island still maintains the largest working waterwheel of its kind in the world, the Great Laxey Wheel, which is as much a testament to alliteration as to the ingenuity of Victorian engineering. The Victorians also introduced railways: steam trains smelling nostalgically of winter coal fires and only requiring the Fat Controller or one of the Railway Children to top off the experience. Two electric trains: one running down the east coast where the driver hands over a baton to the oncoming train when exiting a single track section and the only mountain electric train in the British Isles – Snaefell Mountain Railway. Scenically, the east coast trip wriggles in and out of sea views. At one point, a serendipitous glance catches an elephantine teapot with elfin windows and front door, wedged among bushes. Around the next bend:
‘Seals,’ I shout, ‘all over the beach.’
‘No,’ says Linda quietly, ‘children in wetsuits. It’s nippy in the Irish Sea.’
On the last night, the four of us sit in the pub reflecting. The barman has just asked us what we’ve enjoyed most about the Isle of Man.
As one we agree.
With such hospitality running through their veins, no wonder the Manx people have enjoyed all the benefits of invading Vikings and those who followed.