Thursday, 30 June 2011

Childhood Memories Revisited

I remember, as a child, walking up the steps of the Laxey Wheel and thinking "that is a big waterwheel". That was around 25 years ago and just this week I was back at the Laxey Wheel for the first time since. No less fascinating this time around; the sense of childlike wonder at the size of the wheel still intact, but now joined by a sense of the beauty of the 100m long rod, moved by the wheel which in turn moves a rocker, which in turn lifts a rod inside a shaft up and down which was used to pump water out of the mine.

We were due to visit the Isle of Man a year ago exactly, but circumstances conspired to mean that holiday was cancelled at the last minute. So this year, to allow some time to reflect on last year and to relax, we did the same holiday we had planned. It wasn't quite the same holiday - last year we had planned to come over by plane, and stay in Central Douglas with a hire car. This time, we drove from London up to Liverpool (via a few family visits) and took the car ferry across, staying outside Douglas at a hotel with a car park.

The Isle of Man has changed. Even with only my childhood memories to rely on, the place is quieter. There are fewer tourists and there is no bustle of a seaside resort around Douglas which I remember from when I was a kid. With the advent of a financial services industry attracted by zero rate corporation tax and high-earners attracted by the low income tax, it's become a services-led economy.

That said, there's still a few tourists in the Isle Of Man. It's wearing the decline in the tourist trade well - there's no sense of self-pity and whlst nowhere is bustling, there are still a few cars in the car park at every tourist site, so you never feel as though you're on your own.

In my previous visits, I'd always visited with family who didn't drive, and so we were limited by what public transport could offer to/from Douglas on a day-trip. So this trip was the first time I'd ventured to places only accessible by car. When I say "accessible by car" I mean that in its loosest sense; I'm glad we brought the 4x4 with us.

I had expected the scenery to be stunning, and I wasn't disappointed. But I was only expecting the mountain scenery; I wasn't so much expecting the coastline to be so interesting. How can a coastline be interesting, you may say. Thanks to the help of a friend who lives on the Isle of Man, we occassionally headed past the end of the made road and along a bumpy track to a little-known carpark with a geological wonder sat at the end of it.

Along the sealine there was a rocky outcrop made of limestone. Nothing unusual in that. Except this was folded. Across the beach you could easily see how the alternating strata of limestone and mudstone had folded and buckled.

In amongst the grey limestone was a lot of black basalt. Forced up through fissures in the limestone many years ago it protruded from the cracks in the limestone like geological Polyfilla bulging at the surface.

And that's without mentioning the limestone cobbles along the beach filled with fossils...

At Niarbyl, a white line down the cliff face marks the last visible remnant of an Ocean. The Isle of Man is (along with the rest of the British Isles) formed as two tectonic plates push together. The southern half of the Isle of Man, England and Wales used to lie across the Iapetus Ocean from Scotland and the nothern half of the Isle of Man. As the plates moved together, the ocean shrank and at Niarbyl is the only place where the boundary between the two plates is visible above the surface.

The climb up Snaefell is worth it for the view. We went up twice in a day - once by tram when it was literally freezing and enveloped by cloud then walked up from the carpark in the evening when the cloud was thinner and the view was stunningly beautiful.

When arriving into Douglas, there is a strange "toy town" look as you approach the harbour. The appearance is that of a glimpse into the future of Portmeirion. Portmeirion is the village which grew up and became the town of Douglas. Of course, behind the Prom there's an M&S and even a Tesco now - progress can only be halted so far.

The population of the Isle of Man is around 80,000 people. To put that in perspective - you could fit all of them into a large football stadium. You don't need to look at the government figures to see the demographic split either - just a few days looking around the Island will do that for you. There is nobody in their twenties. There are kids, teenagers and families with kids - but all of the young, single adults have taken the boat and haven't come back (yet). It's no real surprise. With the lack of a full university on the island, the only chance for a tertiary education lies a boat-ride away, and few seem to return home straight after university - the bungee cord appears to snap them back either when they are ready to have kids or to retire.

But what a place to retire to. It's impossible to be stressed, or rush when on holiday in the Isle of Man, and that feeling would be a great one to have when retired. I'm sure that when you have an office job in the Isle of Man, the stress is the same as an office job anywhere else, but if you didn't have the daily grind, nothing would be more relaxing that a ten minute drive into the mountains and a breath of fresh air and views across the Irish Sea to England in one direction and Ireland in the other.

Having said that - apparently there is one thing to get stressed over on the Isle of Man. Word of warning - if you a presenter of a popular motoring show on the BBC and have a home in the Isle of Man - don't block off a popular footpath or you'll find that the locals can get very stressed indeed...

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