An Isle of Man holiday: discover the place of legends

Lucy Daltroff finds there’s more than meets the eye on the Isle of Man, from wildlife to Jewish history


Castle Rushen (Photo: Visit Isle of Man)

For somewhere so close to the UK, the Isle of Man is unexpectedly overlooked as a weekend break destination. To be honest, I admit I knew little about it before my own visit, beyond visions of rain, wind and strange cats without tails.

One of these proved accurate, the wind did show its face, but the island turned out to be quirky and attractive. Known as the place of legends, Man has a unique political relationship with the rest of the UK and a rich history of 10,000 years ranging from the Vikings to Jewish internment.

As my friend Jo, who lives there, succinctly summed it up: “With the Isle of Man you either get it… or you don’t.”

I sort of got it on day one, when it was clear there is no speed limit (apart from in the few towns) and then got it even more travelling across a small bridge over the Santon Burn, when I was told to wave and say a genial hello to “the Little People” – they don’t use the word fairies here – to avoid encountering bad luck. Even the name, Isle of Man, derives from a fairy legend, from the sea god Manannan.

Only 33 miles long and 13 miles wide, and just 90 miles from the mainland of England in the heart of the Irish Sea, there’s a surprising amount packed in to this small island.

On a good day of visibility, you can climb the highest point, Snaefell, and get a view of the seven kingdoms all in one go: Man, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, England, the sea and heavens! So why, when I speak to my friends, does no one really seem to know much about the island?

The landscape alone is tempting, with around 100 miles of coastline, 32 beaches, green fields, ancient monuments, medieval castles, vintage railways and small villages apparently lost in a delightful timewarp that’s reminiscent of the UK in the 1960s.

There are miles of good walking, the food everywhere seems fresh and high quality, and the art scene is good too. On a bracing walk from my own hotel, overlooking the sea in the capital Douglas, I also bump into a large bronze statue of the Bee Gees who turn out to have been born here.

Uniquely, the whole island is the first “nation” in the world to be recognised as a Unesco Biosphere because of the natural environment, unique heritage and close-knit community.

It has its own eco system too; there are no voles, badgers, squirrels and foxes, but there are two four-legged inhabitants not found anywhere else — the famously tail-less Manx cat and the slightly fierce-looking, four-horned Loaghtan sheep, thought to have been introduced by the Vikings.

More unexpectedly, there are more than 560 wallabies now living in the north of the island after several escaped from a wildlife park in the 1960s. Off-shore, basking sharks come to feed in its plankton-rich waters, while dolphins and minke whales can also be seen swimming near the island.

So what makes this island really tick? Mark Lewin, the chief executive at the Department for Enterprise, explains that the Manx economy is bolstered by its status as a tax haven and offshore banking destination.

Although it isn’t part of the UK and has no representation in parliament, it is a Crown Dependency — King Charles is the head of state and referred to as “The King, Lord of Man” and its assembly, the Tynwald, which meets once a month in Douglas, is the oldest continuously existing parliament in the world.

It’s not hard to explore some of the island’s long history during your visit. One of the island’s most famous structures is the Victorian Laxey Wheel. The largest working water wheel in the world, you can climb its 96 spiral steps to enjoy panoramic views.

A tourist site now, its original use was to power the shaft of the local zinc and lead mine, which was so economically important in its heyday of the 1870s, it produced nearly half of the UK’s output of zinc.

Back in Douglas, the free Manx Museum is a delight, with its informative, helpful staff and eclectic collection, including everything from Viking treasures to artefacts concerning the famous TT Races and material on wartime internment, with the museum’s art gallery holding paintings by the Jewish inhabitants of the Second World War internment camps.

These include Austrian Hugo Dachinger, who – curator Katie King explains – sometimes worked using newspapers as his canvas and, when supplies were really short, also claimed to use toothpaste and gravy browning instead of paint.

In total, more than 60,000 Jewish refugees from Austria and Germany came to Britain during 1938 and 1939. Many were highly educated professionals, fluent in English, some married to British subjects.

Then on September 3, 1939, Britain declared war on Germany and while nearly all of these refugees were classed as posing no threat, Winston Churchill issued an order to have them all arrested and sent to interment camps. As was the case during the First World War, a large proportion went to the Isle of Man.

The island’s flourishing tourism industry had ended during the war and the empty hotels and boarding houses were requisitioned for camps located in Ramsey, Douglas, Onchan and other seaside spots. In some places, Jews and Nazis shared the same space.

By August 1940, 10,000 men were housed in nine camps. There was overcrowding at Hutchinson camp, one of several in Douglas, which became known as the artists’ camp.

At others, the prisoners slept in their own beds in housing with good heating and plumbing – in contrast to many enduring worse conditions on the British mainland. Rations too were better, augmented by local fish, dairy, fruit and vegetables, with the Isle of Man kipper a special favourite.

Meanwhile, 4,000 women and their children were confined in a resort area called Rushen in the south. Life was liberal for them, but they saw their husbands only during monthly visiting days until spring 1941, when families were reunited in their own flats.

From March that year, numbers in the camps dwindled steadily with Jewish inmates offered the chance to enlist or leave to work for the war effort, although the camps themselves operated through to 1945.

In Douglas’s Central Camp alone, 200 Jewish doctors from London were interned, while the famous Amadeus Quartet was formed at the Mooragh Camp in Ramsey. My uncle, Eric Beecham, was among those interned.

He had come from Germany at the age of ten and within a year was fluent in English, attending the City of London school. Later he became a successful accountant and businessman, but aged 17, was sent to Ramsey camp.

His letters to his mother, censored of course, give a personal insight of life there. “We are allowed to go for a short walk each day under an armed guard. I went for the first time today. It was rather an unpleasant feeling, seeing all the town folks walking about freely. I don’t think I will go any more.”

Another speaks of his understandable desire to leave the camps and help his adopted country by joining the Pioneer Corps.

Eight decades on, away from the shadow of this wartime chapter of history, I’d happily have stayed on this fascinating island for longer.

​Getting There

​The ferry from Heysham Port, Liverpool costs from £54 return for foot passengers.

Flights to Douglas airport cost from around £48 return from various London airports, Manchester and Liverpool, with airlines including Aer Lingus, British Airways, easyJet and Loganair

Rooms at the Empress Hotel in Douglas cost from £81 per night B&B.

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