Classic Railway Journeys of a different kind

As one or two of you may have noticed, I have recently passed a Notable Birthday milestone. (thanks to all who sent good wishes, BTW).  One pf the many prezzies received was  one from Mrs A for a tour with a firm called Great Railway Journeys to the Isle of Man to partake of the various electrical and steam railways thereon.  I love the Isle of Man and like travelling by train, so what’s not to like?  Especially as Mrs A, as is her wont, had booked first class seating.

The tour officially started from Liverpool Lime Street, so to get there we started off on the local Merseyrail service which took us quickly and efficiently to Lime Street on one of their shiny and clean new trains (proper rail enthusiasts may notice a complete lack of loco type numbers, part numbers and driver’s names. This is because I’m not a proper enthusiast).  Arrived at Lime Street, and there waiting, was the Proper Train, along with the first problem.  Where’s the First Class bit, then?   Er…sort of missing, innit?  However, being Intrepid Travellers, we weren’t about to let such a small detail stand in our way, and climbed aboard the mighty Northern Lines express for Preston.  This was a very pleasant journey, again on a clean and comfortable train.

Islamabad  Preston was where we changed for Lancaster, and also where we found the First Class carriage. These were to prove the only 1st class seats we had on the whole trip,and it lasted for precisely 17 minutes, for such is the stage length from Preston to Lancaster.  Food was allegedly available, lovely menu too. Unfortunately, there was barely enough time to read it before we arrived in Lancaster for the next stage. And when I say ‘stage’…

Stepping off the train in Lancaster, we were greeted by a jovial gentleman with every rail traveller’s favourite words.  “Sorry, ladies and gents, the Heysham train’s been cancelled.  There’s a transfer coach available”. Dear God, to call this contraption a coach was truly stretching the bounds of descriptive speech.  Five abreast miniature, barely upholstered seats. no room for suitcases-absolutely the most uncomfortable journey I have ever had on any public transport anywhere on these islands.  It appeared to have been set up as a school bus. For an Approved School.

And so to the IoM Steam Packet ferry.  What a   revelation that was.  As somebody who last travelled on the IoM steamers back in the 1970s, the Steam Racket boats have improved out of all recognition. One can now drive or ride aboard, instead of having your vehicle hoisted aboard by dockyard crane. All in all, the crossing was a very pleasant experience. Douglas port is also the subject of a deal of improvement as well, with carpet on the floor and pictures and artwork on the walls.  A far cry from the black tin shed I remember.

Heysham was also where we picked up our  Tour Manager, Rosie.  Rosie turned out to be a lovely lady for whom nothing seemed too much trouble. On disembarkation we were gathered together and taken across the road to our accommodation for the next few days, the Claremont Hotel, at the extreme end of the prom at the ferry terminal end.  A very pleasant hotel, good food, slightly old-fashioned, but in a good way.  Things like sugar lumps with tongs, fish knives, staff who spoke the language-hardly surprising, as many of them were Manx.

First morning.  Today will see travel on the Isle of Man Electric Tramway.  To reach the terminus means a walk of about a mile and a bit along Douglas Prom. As it happened to be a lovely morning this was A Good Thing as far as exercise went.  A pleasant stroll, as well.

The Manx electric trams are hugely entertaining vehicles, usually consisting of one closed ‘power’ carriage and one ‘open’ passenger, operating on a 550v dc system of overhead lines and running on a 3ft gauge.. Our first trip was to Laxey, home of thefamous ‘Lady Isabella’ water wheel,the oldest original working water wheel in the world, a 72 foot giant, and a wonderful piece of 19th century engineering.

The railway interchange at Laxey is a very pleasant place for a stop from where you can walk to the Lady Isabella, the Manx Woollen Mill, where they’ll make you a kilt in the Isle of Man tartan,or take the Mountain Railway to the top of Snaefell through some fabulous scenery.  Naturally, we decided on all three options.

(apart from the kilt-not my tartan), plus a fourth.  A visit to the local Church,which hosts , among other things, a fascinating  history of mining at Laxey.

Suitably refreshed at one of the various cafes at the Laxey terminus, we boarded the carriage which was to convey us to the top of Snaefell.  This is not one of the fastest railway journeys in the World.  At times you could quite literally get off and walk alongside.  Apart from the top terminus, there is one stop on this journey, and that is where the railway crosses the famous TT course at the Bungalow corner, which is an excellent viewing spot for the Races.  This also keeps the Mountain Railway very busy during TT Week.  Been there,done that.  And so, on to the Summit.  It is said that from the summit of Snaefell, you can see seven kingdoms,  Scotland, England, Wales,Ireland, Man, Heaven and the Sea. Unfortunately, due to a visit from Manannan and his cloak, only the last three were visible on the day. Returning to Laxey, a walk to the Lady Isabella was next on the itinerary.  This is a pleasant, gentle stroll – if you’re about 20, with flea-type fitness.  Mrs A and I are not. However, we made it.  Just in time for a couple of snaps, a bout of wheezing, and the return trip.  Back at the Terminus once again, and a somewhat less strenuous visit to the Church.  Then the bright one suggested a visit to the Woolen Mill. OK, says I, it’s just down this ‘ere path.  Well, so it was.  Almost.  The path takes you through a wood down the face of a cliff  (cue cries of “I’ll never get down there”), through a gate and out onto what, in the Isle of Man, passes as a main road.  A short walk, and behold-the Woolen Mill.  Went in, looked round, nice stuff, nobody around, left.  Odd.  Usually in places like that they’ve got you fitted for a kilt or a jacket before the door’s closed behind you.  And so back to the Railway, for the trip back to Douglas.

The journey back to the Tramway Terminus at Douglas was as entertaining as the outbound trip.  one feature of the railway was solved.  As the railway for the most part follows the road, some of the curves are pretty tight.  To stop the train leaving the tracks, in places a third rail is laid, parallel to the inside rail but with a small gap.  This does indeed stop the tram leaving the track, but it raises such an almighty screeching as the inside of the wheel rubs on the rail that you wonder how the locals put up with it.

And so back to Douglas,where we intrepid travellers were to sample another of this fascinating Island’s transport systems-the rather wonderful horse-drawn Toast rack Tram.  Typically, by the time that Mrs A had finished making a fuss of the massive Clydesdale that was to pull this device, it was full.  Except for one seat. Assuming that Mrs A was already aboard, I climbed on, only to see Mrs A gazing forlornly from the road on the other side of said tram.  So, being a True Gentleman, I waved goodbye climbed down to wait for the next one.  Which turned out to be the same one on the return leg.  Not being one to wait around, Mrs A then had the bright idea that, instead of waiting, we could walk back to the hotel.  The other end of the Prom.  A mile and a half.  For the second time that day.  Back at the hotel, I need beer.

Lots of beer.  Then dinner.

This is not going to be a restful ‘look at the trains’ trip, I can see.  Day one and we’re both totally knackered.  Tomorrow should be easier, he said hopefully.

© text & images Aldebaran 2024