Raad Ny Foillan, Day 0.5: Douglas to Santon Head (10 miles)

The night before I left, England had failed to bring football home in the final of the Euros and there was outrage and wailing on the streets of Manchester that night. The wailing soon became boring whining as I overheard heated conversations on the ferry from Liverpool and hoped, very much, that in a week’s time all this would have blown over.

The mainland drifted away to a series of strikes and bumps on the horizon, and a couple hours later, Douglas harbour slid around the sides of the ferry, scooping it into the terminal. The viewing deck of the ship was aft, so I had had no approaching impressions. I had not seen the undulating rise and fall of the dark cliffs along the coast under a thick thatch of brilliant greenery, nor how the landscape strode like a heart monitor; up and down and hither and thither, and higher towards the interior; until up at the north end activity came to a hum and flatlined along to the point.

Instead I fumbled and bumbled my way off the vessel into the capital city of the island, bustling with its whopping population of 27,000; nearly a third of the entire population of the island. Douglas has only been the capital since the 1850s; for over 800 years prior to that Castletown had the mantle. As direct links with Liverpool became more important to the population, the capital was moved. I’m sure there were no hard feelings.

The history of the rule of the Isle of Man is very push and pull, steal and grab. King Edwin of Northumbria was the first to conquer the Island of Man in 627 before the Vikings wrenched it away in the ninth century. In 1266, the Scots finally had their shot, only to be battling with England for it; the island alternating hands several times until it came securely under feudal lordship of the English in 1399. It was not, however, included when the Kingdom of Great Britain was formed in the 18th century, nor in any of the subsequent iterations. In fact, throughout most of its recorded existence, the island was just left to be self-governing under the Tynwald though its own full democracy without the need for constant approval from the Lord of Mann has only been gradually achieved since 1866. The Lord of Mann currently being the Queen, with her representative on the island being the Lieutenant Governor.

I had a long day left with a lot of light, I was leisurely with my time, and pottered around for an hour before crossing the harbour bridge and making my way up to the Douglas Head road.

The Tynwald

The government of the Isle of Man, The Tynwald, is Norse in its origin. Claiming to be the oldest continuous running parliament in the world; it is over 1000 years old. Old enough that a more exact beginning date cannot be determined.

Like the Norwegian Tingvoll, the name ‘Tynwald’ translates to ‘meeting place of the assembly’; the same name given to the rift valley where the old Icelandic government met – ‘Þingvellir’. Continuing with the Norse tradition of meeting in natural surrounds, a whole festival is built each year around Tynwald Day where after the procession to St John’s Hill, the legislature passed in the last year is read out and, as ancient custom has it, any Manx person may petition. Then the island gets their party on for the rest of the day.

Most representatives in the elected House of Keys are not affiliated with a political party and are independent. The current Chief Minister of the Isle of Man is Howard Quayle. He was, previous to politics, a farmer with a prize winning herd of pedigree Aberdeen Angus cattle.

Yes, unfortunately, I did say ‘road’. The first six miles of the trail my feet would beat on tarmac. It was not, however, a main road, or even a much used one; it was the old and unused sweep of Marine Drive. More than unused, it had been formally shut for decades. The grand and arrogant entrance arch, once a toll booth, now a tacky remnent of Victorian tourism that had embraced the beaches of the British Isles with zeal; along here there was once a railway leading along this scenic swing up and around and away from Douglas Head which closed during the second world war and never reopened. An attempt to reinvigorate Port Soderick along the coast saw the drive widened, blasted into the looming cliffs with explosives, and tarmaced in the 60s. Port Soderick never really took off, part of the roadway collapsed, and there were many rockfalls (which should have been predictable) so it was closed for good over forty years ago and now an old, cracked road surface runs quietly along this unsympathetic path at a right angle to the rock it was cut into. A lingering lost soul of a road that might have been lovely once.

Whilst the walking was easy, the humanness of its intrustion, however stubborn, seemed at messy odds with its environment. Not only were dark shadows cast down from the dark cliffs above, the drop from the side to the below was just as sheer; crashing down a sparse and almost vertical slope to the churning foam of the sea hitting the myriad rocks below. A brutal scar torn through the flesh of the coast.

Like many places in the world, the architecture is formed here from local stone. At this point on the island, it is sedimentry slates, crushed through its formation and folded over and over to appear block like; as if it were lego. The walls blocking the road from the fall are designed from it; rocks cemented together against the wind with slabs stuck on top, lying on their thinner side and pointing sharply upwards.

Amid all this simmering strangeness, a woman crouched in the road, angling her head and her phone to get a close up picture of a caterpillar crawling on a weed that had pushed up from a crack in the road. It emerged she had been wildswimming, attempting to make it a more popular thing on the island and, so far, failing. Probably because most of the rest of the time it was raining. Her nearby friend was not so enamored with the idea of swimming in natural, unheated water on a notoriously wet island in the middle of the Irish Sea and had somehow talked her into putting on some clothes and going for a walk instead.

The walk had turned somewhat macabre as they accompanied me for the next couple miles. Another car had recently crashed through the slate wall at the start of Marine Drive and slammed messily and lethally down the cliffs a few weeks ago. I say ‘another’ because apparently this occurrence was now a fairly regular thing to the point that the constabulary had asked the Islanders repeatedly to stop speculating. Which just fuelled more speculation.

“Clearly suicides” I was decisively informed.

“Are you here just to do the coastal path?” asked the friend. I answered in the affirmative which just seemed to baffle her more, “And you’re just camping the whole way?”

I was getting the impression that this wasn’t the normal thing that it might be on other paths.

“Don’t you think its a stupid name?” she said “Raad ny Foillan? Way of the gull? No one likes gulls! They nick your chips! Why not ‘Way of the Seal’? That sounds mystical”

“You do have much cooler wildlife here than seagulls. They’re pretty basic”

“Way of the Loughtan? Way of the Auk? Way of the Wallaby?”

Manx Wildlife

Being an island, there are species that just never made it over from the mainland. Among them are voles, badgers, foxes and squirrels. Apparently St. Patrick performed the same miracle that he did in Ireland and, as a result, there are no snakes nor toads either.

There are also Manx species that have now gone extinct. A Manx cow, horse, sheepdog and a pig that used to roam the mountains. The sheepdog was apparently very good at finding and holding lost sheep, but a bit rubbish with the actual herding.

The Manx shearwater is a bird found all over the world. Once known as the Manx puffin, that name was a bit deceitful toa layman, as the bird is less comically cute in its appearance and much more of a simplistic grey thing with a tubular nose. However, they definitely get around and are found as far as Argentina and South Africa. The oldest Manx shearwater has been recorded as being 55 years old; so whilst they may not have an adorably large beak, like most things on this island, they are resilient as hell.

“I’ve done most of it over the years” said the wildswimmer, “the part between Port St. Mary and Port Erin gets scrambly”

“This is nice, I like this” declared her friend. The wildswimmer and I both stared at her in confusion “I mean there’s loads of benches on this stretch”

“Same architects as the Blackpool Tower, but it was such a stupid idea and cost so much money and took so long that by the time they’d finally built it to Port Soderick, Port Soderick wasn’t worth going to”

Speaking of which, a glimmer of Port Soderick turned up down below us. A sad little bay, all pebbled and shadowed. Construction had finally torn down the ruins of the old arcade and the only structure there now was a shed belonging, it seemed, to a Naval charity. My companions told me that there used to be the pub down here that they’d go to in sixth form because they never asked for ID. It probably wasn’t suprising, they reflected, that it hadn’t lasted.

We said goodbye and they turned back as I made my way down to the bay. Caves sat to the farther side of it and the tide had brought the water up their floor a few inches as I slid inside. The caves along this side of the island had been the haunt of smugglers for many centuries; as an almost-kingdom of its own with autonomy, there was no duty tax to be paid here so it became an inbetween point to Europe for less than scrupulous businessmen looking to claim back a tax-drawback that didn’t rightfully exist, or just for those who understood the laws of supply and demand. As one outraged letter in Gentleman’s Magazine in 1751 claimed, the island was just a ‘storehouse’ for the French, Danish and Dutch, importing contraband in the form of brandy, wine, coffee, tea and ‘other India goods’.

Further down the coast in a smaller bay, there is the ‘Jackdaw Cave’ – one with an entrance in the top through which bootleggers would lower their good and a vessel would depart with the wares below. These caves here were not so notorious, though I can only imagine what precarious situations they once brought to a bunch of drunk sixteen year olds.

From here, the trail took a noticeable detour inland. Between Douglas and Castletown lies a Millionaires’ Row of sorts where wealthier landowners with, frankly, ridiculous houses made enough of a fuss so that the trail would not go past their coastal land. On an island known for low taxes and high living costs, I had expected more areas of evident affluence, but in all my journey, this was the only place where uncomfortable wealth and the disconnected wealthy were at all visible. Just this bubble of entitled pretention between one town and another.

I was turned up to a back road and trudged along for a couple miles before turning back towards the sea and, after a jaunt through a field, a kissing gate brought me the other side of the fence, right on the clifftop, on an actual trail and away from a road. I stared down at the steep sides, thick with sea-quenched vegetation, and the path that ran precariously through it and felt elated. For me, here the trail really begun.

The difference was sudden between the straight roadwalk, and the curving slants of the true coastal path. Hardy, thick stemmed scrubs wove together, peppered all over with the splats and sprinkles of wildflowers all jiving in the wind. I am not one with a fear of heights, but still there were moments I didn’t dare look left or too far ahead, and chose to instead make sure my next footstep landed. This seemed like a wise choice.

I had fought several aggravated bushes and avoided falling down the cliffs a few times by the time I realised that my day way running out. I had originally hoped to camp at a lower level, by a bay slightly further along, but unsure what terrain lay between here and there, I figured it was wiser to tent up here where I knew it was flat, and where the grass was so soft it was basically a mattress in itself.

In the last hour or so of daylight, I sat down to write my journal and heard the mournful baying of the seals on the rocks below. They would sing throughout the night. I set up camp as the sky started to seep colour across the darkening sky and felt incredibly content. Then a fat, filthy horsefly ruined the moment and took a chunk out my leg. And then another, and another, and now it really was time to go inside my tent and leave all the hungry, bitey things outside.

  • Distance: 10 miles
  • Total Elevation: 750ft
  • Terrain: Quiet roads. clifftop footpaths
  • Toughness: 3/10
  • Maps Used: Harvey Maps Superwalker XT30: Isle of Man

7 thoughts on “Raad Ny Foillan, Day 0.5: Douglas to Santon Head (10 miles)

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