If there are terrestrial visions of heaven, one of them must be the village and church of Maughold, the easternmost point of the Isle of Man. The tiny hamlet, with its neat white houses looking as if they were built and painted yesterday, seems imbued with the architectural equivalent of moral wholesomeness. It forms a kind of secular antechamber – as a good life in this world does to the next – to the sacred splendour which lies beyond. The church itself is simple in the extreme: a short nave, and bare walls inside and out; simple like heaven itself, perhaps. In a sense, the church and village exists as the concentrated focus of the paradisaical setting which enfolds them.
With the soft contours of Maughold Head at your back, the land slopes gently away before rising up again to the successive hills and distant mountains: North Barrule and the Snaefell itself. As the sun swings round low from the south, its rays light up the grass from within, making the landscape glow with a preternatural greenness. The tree and bushes case long, more than real shadows. Over the fields, white biblical sheep seem to hover; and above them the pale blue dome of sky stretches from the mountains to the sea. Nestling amidst it all is the village, the church and its circumscribed and circumspect graveyard. In its primary colours and schematic perfection, it could be a scene painted by a child.
The church retains its intimacy because many of the most potent religious artefacts are found outside. In a simple wooden pavilion stands a forest of old crosses and stones dating back to the earliest Christianity. Some are simple cruciform, others more ornately decorated with typically Celtic motifs; others bear images and inscriptions. Surrounded by them, there is a feeling of the weight of ages, together with a sense of durability. These fragile, incised slabs of rock have endured all the centuries and their changes; they are proof of one kind of immanence.
The also bear eloquent witness to the ebb and flow of cultures which have swept over the island, and added to the rich racial mix. As well as the early Christian crosses there are remnants of the Vikings. Gone are the neatly ordered Ogham letters: instead, the stones are cut with jagged Futhark runes, an alphabet of swords and spears, and with images from the saga of Sigurd the Volsung. It is an extraordinary experience to find the same story that Wagner took as the basis of his huge tetralogy, hidden away in the windswept corner of a churchyard on a forgotten isle.
In an area rich with so many histories, it is perhaps appropriate that the island's national badge, the three legs of Man, first made its appearance here. The Maughold Village Cross stands without advertisement or ceremony alongside the church, a simple stone column surmounted by a crucifix and the characteristic design. And it is unsurprising that folk tales abound in the parish. For example, Berrey, the most famous of the many Manx witches, lived here. On stormy nights, her coven would disappear under the side of North Barrule, from where their fearsome shrieks rose on the wind; and it is recorded that they danced around Maughold Church, trying to raise the eponymous saint from his grave. It seems unlikely that they succeeded, surrounded as they were by such heavenly, overmastering beauty.
Point of Ayre
If Maughold is heaven, Point of Ayre is the Isle of Man's hell. Its most natural approach is via Ramsey, a kind of encampment on the route to Hades, filled with a premonitory sense of doom and despair. As you drive down from Maughold, it looks real enough with its long pier and empty, out of season beach; but close up it seems a sham. The Manx Electric Railway stops here suddenly, as if it has made a mistake; the buildings feel too low, the streets too unconnected: as a town, it does not convince. Instead, it looks like feeble window-dressing to hide what lies beyond.
What lies beyond is nothing, or the Manx equivalent of it. From Ramsey to Point of Ayre the land is almost totally flat. The contrast with the folded and bunched foothills around Snaefell is extreme. For a region where everything seems to grow organically out of everything else, there is a sense of isolation here found nowhere else on the island. As you look south to the misty outlines of the central mountains, it is hard to believe they lie in the same country.
In a sense, they do not. That pervasive air of abundance found elsewhere on the island is absent in the north. It is as if the land has been cursed and cast out from the tribe. And yet, at first glance, the spreading countryside is as familiar and fertile as Norfolk. But where Norfolk's rich earth seems to tremble with fecundity, here it lies inert and exhausted. Paradoxically, too, this flatness hides rather than reveals: the roads huddle down between high hedges, as if afraid to look over the tops at the vacancy of what surrounds them.
Before reaching the Point of Ayre itself, you pass through the small village of Bride. By the turning to the Point there is an unexpectedly large church. It stands like the lonely Gothic house in a Hitchcock film; it seems to demand a leaden sky and forks of lightning licking around its dark silhouette. Perhaps it stands there as a final call to repentance.
Thereafter the road begins to lose its gentle waywardness; as it straightens, it manifests its inflexible sense of purpose more nakedly. And then, in a final gesture of contempt, it bends gratuitously through ninety degrees, hard by the ominously named village of Phurt. It is a name to stand beside that other inhuman monosyllable, Dis, which Dante, that expert in damnation, uses of the same place. It shares its sneering malevolence, its stamp of inexorable finality.
And then, without climax or resolution, the road just peters out. This is the Point of Ayre. Around about, there is nondescript wasteland; scrub and low bushes grow hither and thither in the poor sandy soil. Rubble and twisted pieces of rusting scrap lie everywhere like a desecration.
As with any hell, the worst torture is to be tantalised. Gazing east from the characterless shore, across a waveless ocean as blank as the land it laps and which infected it, you can see hover in the distance the soft velvety forms of the Cumbrian hills, a celestial vision of another, greater island paradise. Juxtaposed with such desolation, it is enough to drive the devil himself mad with longing.
Across the heart of Man
From Douglas to Peel there runs a valley which cuts the Isle of Man in two. Locally it is known as the Plains of Heaven. It is not hard to see why: it represents a vale of tranquillity strangely disjoint from the brooding spirit of the rest of the island. Perhaps this is simply geography. Everywhere else on Man is coastal: you are confronted constantly with the sea; it exhausts you with its daily tirelessness, its infinitely subtle gradations of colour, its endless horizon. Here, at the heart of the island, there is no sea; here is the negation of the Isle of Man's crabbing circumspection; here is a sense of space and peace.
Through the valley runs a road; on the maps it is called the A1. This knowledge induces a curious kind of dissonance; the A1, after all, is the backbone of Britain, a name and a road which is woven into modern consciousness like a bright thread running through the weave of mainland history. But this A1 is a small, tidy road; it carries no fleets of lorries, no hordes of car-borne travellers. It is a quiet country road winding its unhurried way through idyllic villages and farms. It could be anywhere – or nowhere.
It is the same with the "A" roads which run across the island like a fine mesh of capillaries. Each one bears a name already charged with deep associations: so the A3 is no longer the artery which pumps south-west London's suburbanites in and out of town as great diurnal gouts of traffic; instead it is a fragile link which runs the length of the isle from Ramsey in the north to Castletown in the south, with barely a car to be seen.
The Plains of Heaven have a similar disconcerting sense of false familiarity. To see them is to know them, because they are manifestly England, or rather an idealised, exile's vision of England. The immaculate whitewashed houses, the quaint, chocolate box thatching, the lush green which surrounds them as rolling, comfortable hills: nothing out of place, no element jars. It is the epitome of civilised country living, a kind of genteel, gentrified nirvana.
But like much on Man, it is only skin-deep, only one of those vital appearances. Along the A1 those appearances are kept up well enough: you pass through places with comforting names like Union Mills, Glen Vine and Crosby – all of them sounding like retirement villages created by canny property speculators. But scratch those appearances and the real Man keeps showing. The farms which line the road have disconcerting, heathen names like Ballawilleykilly, Cooilingel and Kennaa; their uncouth clusters of vowels and consonants suggest primitive oaths or curses. These are the words and the names which the white cottages and their picture book thatches try to hide.
Further along the A1, the pretence can be kept up no more. Just by the innocuous-looking village of St John's, under the watchful eye of the tree-covered hill of Slieau Whallian – from whose top witches were once rolled down in barrels spiked with nails on the inside – lies blatantly, for all to see, the very heart of ancient Man: Tynwald Hill.
If the Ancient Greeks had colonised the Isle of Man along with all the Celts, English, Vikings, Normans and the rest, they would doubtless have called Tynwald Hill the omphalos or navel of that world. The hill stands as the manifest centre of the island, its political, spiritual and social pivot. And it is here that all the strands of its history lead.
The Tynwald comes from the Old Norse: thingvollr, the field of the Thing. The Thing was the Viking form of open air parliament; it dates back a thousand years. The Manx ceremony, which takes place on Tynwald Hill around noon on Old Midsummer's Day, July 5, may therefore be the earliest surviving formalised legislature in the world. The time and the date, like the name and its origins, reach back effortlessly beyond history.
Like bees to a rich cultural honeypot, the arcane and mysterious officers of the land make a splendid and often unique appearance there, trailing with them the huge baggage of tradition implicit in their existence. The coroners, or crown men, of the island's sheadings are there: each of the six sheadings subsume yet smaller Manx districts, from the parishes and their treens, to the lowly ballas.
The Vicar-General is there, a lawyer, despite his title. So are the seventeen Captains of the Parishes, vestiges of a past ever-vigilant against further invaders. Yn Lhaihder, the Reader, is there to transmute the crude iron of barbarous English into the Celtic electrum of Manx, while two Deemsters are present as interpreters of law.
The House of Keys is there, the main legislative body of the island, with its 24 members: some from the sheadings, the others from Douglas, Ramsey, Castletown and Peel. And with them, the rest of the political, bureaucratic and clerical superstructure which the Isle of Man has accrued during a thousands years of independence and idiosyncrasy.
All of these gather at Tynwald Hill in due appointed order, characters in a pageant which disconcerts the stranger because it is real not factitious; they bear their titles and duties proudly, like weather-beaten monuments covered in patches of brightly-coloured lichen, badges of immemorial age. They ascend the four-tiered mound of earth which is the hill itself, while the church of St John's looks on across the grass. Dubiously, no doubt, since the first Tynwald Hill was probably an altar to Thor. But the church, like everyone else on Man, has reached an accommodation with these tricky currents of the past.
It is part of the attraction and paradox of Man that this density of history can exist in such a disarming setting. With the quiet country road running alongside, a couple of pubs, and the neat, well-kept church, it could almost be any village green; the land around seems agriculturally rich but otherwise unspectacular. Instead, the area is charged with a sense of the living past which is probably unmatched anywhere on the mainland, for all its famous and cherished traditions. Like the Midsummer Day ceremony itself, Man remains a secret island, known to few outsiders, and understood by even fewer.
The small town of Peel on the Western side of the island is like some mysterious negative double of the capital Douglas. Superficially they are similar: both have impressive sweeping bays; both have extensive harbours – Peel is Douglas's only real rival for deep water anchorage. But in spirit and detail they are as far apart as their physical disposition suggests, contraries repelled to opposite sides of the island by profound and irreconcilable differences.
Douglas greets the rising sun, and is best seen at dawn when the sea and the sands catch the early morning light. It is an open and optimistic town which seems to tumble down from the hills to greet its visitors. Peel waits for the setting sun; its special time is the night. It turns its back on England, on the public face of Douglas, and sits brooding on its plain, meditating on the sea and the misty realm of Ireland beyond.
Like suspicious country folk, it makes no concessions to strangers. Its streets are bent and narrow; new-fangled devices like cars can proceed only with difficulty. The scenes here have barely changed for centuries. Its history, and the way it is taken for granted – the ruined old church converted to a public garden – stand in further contrast to Douglas, that parvenu among Manx towns, an artefact of the holiday trade, a symbol of all that Peel shuns.
And whereas Douglas is all that it seems – or perhaps even less – Peel has a secret, one best shared at night. Moving down through the maze of tiny lanes, past old and unwelcoming houses, you find yourself on the seafront; there is no helpful flow to the streets – as in Douglas – to take you there: you simply enter the warren and trust the town's wisdom.
The seafront is not grand; and by night, the sea comes as a shock. Or rather, the open sky with the barely perceptible movement beneath it comes as a surprise: Peel has no hints of this immensity in its almost wilfully cramped scale. As your eyes adjust to this new darkness, something tremendous happens. Due east of the bay, a great brooding mass looms out of the night, even blacker than the heavens. At first, it looks like a mountain; then it seems more like a great ship, moored by the harbour. Gradually, you make out the majestic shape of an ancient castle.
Built at the end of the fourteenth century, Peel Castle is somehow small in scale yet magnificent in its proud indomitability. It stands on St Patrick's Isle; as its name suggests, this is a spot dense with history: St Patrick himself, together with the traces of neolithic weapons, Bronze Age daggers, Celtic buildings, Norse defences, and a medieval cathedral.
Back in the heart of new Peel, a small, unremarkable café nestles at the main crossroads; as night draws on, its windows pour out a yellow light through the panes streaked with condensation. Inside, tea and scones and coffee and toast are served to the silent townsfolk before they make their short way home. Perhaps in memory of the rich tapestry of its past, and of its precious lurking secret, it is called – with perfect and apt ingenuousness – the Viking Café. Peel's past lives on.
Port Erin lies on the margin of two great seas: the Irish Sea flowing in from the west, and the great waves of the high moors which roll down from the north-east. The road from Peel, which winds its solitary way across these moors, is the best entrance to the town, especially when the low-lying mists cling to its surface. As you swing round the brow of the hill and descend towards the coast, the whole of the south-west corner of the island is laid out before you like a map, with Port Erin nestling under the brooding hulk of Bradda Head.
The moors represent yet another face of the Isle of Man. They could easily pass for one of the great English open places such as Dartmoor. Unlike their English counterparts, they seem unconnected with the surrounding land. From the tidy small village of Dalby, halfway down from Peel, the road suddenly rears up over smooth hills into the moor's high plateau, which swirls around the foot of the South Barrule mountain in gentle curves, featureless except for the odd plantation.
For its full effect, the moor needs thick-spun mist. Then it is another world – as if you have passed through a secret portal into a limitless desolate plain quite at odds with the landscape you have left. The moor is devoid of habitations, perhaps cursed. The roads wind on unbroken by markers, human or natural. The contrast between the bare emptiness and the tamed and populated feel of the coastal strips is stark.
As a result, Port Erin and its surrounding villages comes as a welcome relief. But the context is vital: the town itself is exiguous and self-effacing to the point of vanishing. It is as if it has been sandwiched between the sea and the moor, squeezed over the centuries to a paltry line or two of houses huddling around the bay.
Just as the moors reveal themselves best in the mist, so Port Erin can only really be seen out of season. With people it is simply another mock Cornish fishing village, with families sitting on the beach alongside the boats. Without them, the place cannot hide; its empty cafés stare back at the unblinking sea, which rolls in over the vacant sands. At most you will find there the omnipresent beachcombers, their metal detectors wrapped in plastic as they scan and dig, scan and dig, like some obsessive, wintering seabird. It is never clear what they are looking for, or if they ever find it. Perhaps it does not matter.
Even out of season, on a wet, cold Sunday in November, there are small signs of life in Port Erin. A café remains open at the end of the promenade. Inside, there is the same cosy order found elsewhere on the island. The simple but neat tables and chairs, the ornaments, the fading pictures, the unmemorable knick-knacks; the snug warmth and sense of refuge from the elements, the relentless sea, the moors and the mist.
Dominating the bay is the great shoulder of Bradda Head. It stands like a sentinel at the entrance to the harbour, and is a reminder, a synecdoche, of the rest of the island's topography. But it stands aloof, leaving Port Erin to fend for itself between the two great seas.
The Calf of Man
The quiet Port Erin and its equally retiring sibling, Port St Mary, have the air of second-rank Cornish coves. Beyond them, in the extreme south-west of the island, lies a vision of Cornwall which surpasses even the original: both in the way its romantically charged landscape contains within it a deep and melancholy sense of abiding futility, and also through the ultimately redemptive power of that landscape's beauty.
The first sight intimates something of this. As you pass beyond the two Ports, and gain the brow of the hill at Cregneish, all at once the end of the island's corner appears before you. The road winds through green fields divided up by hedgerows, themselves an idealised version of the fertile Cornish landscape. The path descends steadily and unerringly towards a gently curved mound which seems to hover above the silver sea: this is the Calf of Man, an island to an island.
Like the grandest parts of Cornwall's coast, the headland ends dramatically with cliffs which lour over the black sea hundreds of feet below. Rather than simply ending, it is as if the land has been torn off by some maddened giant. The multicoloured strata of the rocks seem to confirm this: they buck and twist along the face of the cliff, sometimes rising up vertically in defiance of gravity and the laws of nature. Viewing their tortured lines along the coast is to read a record of frenzied defiance, a sage set in stone.
At the shorelines, the shattered cliff-wall follows that wheeling thread of stratification. In some places great ledges have formed, hanging out over the water as they are slowly undermined; in others, the rocks split vertically, causing jagged mounds to rise up from the ground, each mound a bristling sheaf of razor-sharp stone blades. Elsewhere, the layers of rock veer at impossible angles like broken hands of a demented geological clock. In the face of such gigantic and impersonal struggles, despair can seem the only adequate response.
Untouched by the millennial savagery of the sea and the cliffs, the Calf of Man counterpoises its serenity like a saint in benediction. It floats in the manner of those improbable beatific visions which are vouchsafed at unpredictable moments to the abject, the oppressed or to those who are simply innocent. Its contours are smooth like a venerable forehead, its vegetation looks like the soft green cloth of an obscure religious order. It seems to stand in the same relation to Man, as Man does to the mainland; you could almost imagine that behind the Calf there is another, smaller island, even more beautiful, and behind that yet another, and so on to an island vanishing size and infinite perfection.
On the clifftop opposite the Calf, there is a simple café. At first sight you might deplore this jarring note, this invasion of romantic grandeur by tawdry quotidian reality; and indeed, from the outside the café is as bland and unprepossessing as could be. Yet with its dark, warm, and crowded interior, it stands as a tiny haven of humanity in this vast theatre of impressive but overwrought and uncaring nature; and it its peaceable hubbub, the quiet message of the Calf finds an echo.
Castletown bears a grudge. A century ago, it lost its position as capital of Man, ceding that title to the upstart Douglas. It has not forgotten. It cannot forget, because even in the tiny things, it is constantly reminded: Douglas is graced with a mayor, while Castletown, once home of the Lord of Mann himself, makes do with a chairman like any other place.
So now the town sulks at the end of the island, huddling away in its dowdy skirts like some dowager unwilling to mix with her social inferiors. To see it at its most put upon and supercilious, visit it on a cold Sunday morning in November with only the wind and a fine drizzle for companions.
The main parade, for all the initial attractiveness of its unified yet varied architecture, is bleak and oppressive. It looks unreal, as if the buildings were hollow shells, mere scenery for some long-forgotten drama. Its empty streets are full of a tight-lipped, reproachful silence; the four-square Georgian windows gaze out of the intimidatingly neat house-fronts with unblinking stares of malice; the facades' original colours have turned into dull, unnameable hues: to look at them is like sucking lemons. Everything says "go away".
All of the town has been touched by this bitterness. The eponymous Castle Rushen is not grand and romantic like Peel's; instead it seems costive, unwilling to give even the time of day to the passer-by, and as hard and unbending as the edges of its steely-sharp masonry. As if on purpose, it lacks Peel Castle's dramatic setting: it is content for the town's buildings to sidle up to it like old gossips, trading stories among themselves of the new and terrible insults offered by the outside world.
The harbour, too, is sullen. You reach it meanly through an archway off the end of the parade; its appearance is unexpected and unwelcoming. It looks like a huge muddy field, walled in for some inexplicable reason, with a few forlorn boats lying helplessly on their side, superannuated and inelegant sea monsters. There is no apprehensible link to the sea beyond: the harbour, like all of Castletown, has simple disconnected itself.
Perhaps the town's position contributes to this overwhelming mood of desperate isolation. It feels like the end of the island, just as Douglas is its natural beginning. And as Isle of Man's most southerly point, it is easy to see it as the place where all that is black and heavy and bitter sinks down to, and settles, congealing slowly.
For there is a sadness about Man, a sadness which Castletown may pettishly exaggerate, but does not invent. It is born of many things: the melancholy moods of the weather, the fretting relentlessness of the omnipresent sea, the subtle pain which is the inevitable concomitant of great natural beauty. But above all, the deep sadness of the Isle of Man springs from its having seen and known so much, in such a little space and time, and from it now finding itself reduced – like Castletown – to almost nothing, to just a small, jewel-like island set in the grey, glinting sea, surrounded by four distant kingdoms and the swirl of memories.
The Isles of Man
The cartographers of the Ordnance Survey have a guilty secret: of all the lands they have charted, the Isle of Man is their favourite child.
Unfold Sheet 95 of the 1:50 000 Series and that secret is out: the map contains the Isle of Man exactly, both in length and width. In effect, the whole of the great enterprise of the Ordnance Survey has been planned around this one necessity of scale. No wonder, then, that the map itself should be a masterpiece of draughtsmanship, instinct with the grace and fine sensuous detail of a Henry Moore etching. The contours shimmer over the surface like the glossy pelt of some noble animal; and such is the cartographer's art, that as your eyes pass over the loving delineation, your feel your body respond to the tug of the land's rise and fall.
This in part is the secret of Man's charm: it seems so knowable, so already known. It is like one of the half-imaginary islands in some fantastic traveller's tale, whose paths you tread almost by instinct even while feeling uncomfortable with this unbidden knowledge. Man seems to be one of those islands whose names – Tristan de Cunha, Ascension, Pitcairn – conjure up hazy images of familiarity combined with a haunting sense of otherness and distance.
It could almost be a textbook island – with its neatly ordered towns, roads, railways, airports, hills, lakes, plains and costs – got up for a child's edification. Created to be easily graspable, it becomes a paradigm of islandness. But the manifestly human scale of things is deceptive: paradoxically, this most compact of islands is one of the least immediately accessible, either intellectually or emotionally; it is simply too rich. There are too many Isles of Man.
Man is the seaside spa-town of Douglas, the picturesque cove of Port Erin, the Cotswoldian verdancy of Maughold; it is Snaefell's Cumbrian beauty, the Norfolk wastes of the Point of Ayre, the Arthurian grandeur of the coast by the Calf, the Home Counties cosiness of the island's interior; it is the bitterness of Castletown, the aloofness of Peel, the mystery of Tynwald Hill; it is all and none of these.
Man is a land which flaunts and delights in its contradictions. Travelling through it, it is clearly part of Britain; except that something terrible has happened to the names: the ballas and the gobs and the cronks cannot be reconciled with the almost military normality of the rest of visible society. It is as if you have fallen into a parallel vision of the world: everything is exactly the same – almost…
It is this constant sense of dislocation which makes the Isle of Man such a rich experience. It puts you back in touch with the pristine freshness of knowledge where nothing can be taken for granted. The inhabitants of Man have always known this; a land conscious of the little people is a land which recognises layers of reality beyond the most obvious. The island's motto says it all: quocunque jeceris, stabit – whichever way you throw it, it will stand. It refers not just to the three-legged emblem of Man, but to the many-side land itself.