Raad Ny Foillan, Day 1: Santon Head to Port Erin (22 miles)

A golden morning stretched before me as I packed up my tent and thanked the seals for their nighttime serenade. Of course, one has to thank more than the seals here; you have to thank the fairies.

Like the Icelanders that take the mythology of elves incredibly seriously, here the mash up between Norse and Celtic legend has the same reverence attributed to fairies. Whilst much serious belief is now faded, those tricksy, fickle, flying folk are woven throughout the lore and ritual and history of the land. After all, the Lord Manannan was married to their Queen, Fand, and her kin naturally settled on the island too. And, like all good in-laws, created their own havoc. Sir Walter Scott stated that “The Isle of Man, beyond all other places in Britain, was a peculiar depository of the fairy-traditions”.

Firstly, they are not called fairies, how dare you (such an English word). They are the Mooinjer Veggey or, in the most common vernacular, simply referred to as ‘Themselves’. In much the same as many Celtic stories, the Mooinjer Veggey are also arrogant, egoistic, easily angered and playful to a point of malice. They lure and cheat and tempt our more squashy, lumbering, weak species, but when they are benevolent, they are truly magnanimous.

The Ballalona Bridge crosses the Santon Burn close to where I camped. It has become a tradition, more whimsical than earnest, that one must greet the Mooinjer Veggey as it is crossed or suffer their hurt feelings in lost wallets, missed flights, and fender benders. The bikers that come for the TT take the tradition more seriously than most; but maybe if I was careening around the island on a motorbike I’d like to protect myself, and my organs, through any means possible as well.

So, obviously, I thought it best to greet them that morning. And perhaps every morning of the trail.

The horsefly bites from the night before had swollen into lumpy carbuncles on my legs that itched continuously as I made my way back into the dense vegetation of the clifftop path. It became thicker and thicker, more like a coastal jungle around me and above my eyeline. It was clear that the path was maintained, I could feel and, occasionally, glimpse the part that was kept sheared down, but the greenery was so dazzlingly abundant that for most of the morning I could not see my feet. My trekking pole acted both as a nervous tester of the ground ahead and what basically amounted to a riot shield to push through the unruly and mocking plants.

When views did come about, I would see the Langness Peninsula swing out on the horizon like an emphatic comma where it punctuated just between Derbyhaven and Castletown. It was an optional loop to the path, but I was intrigued.

I realised at some point that my toes were wet even on this clear morning, away from streams and bogs and puddles. The weight of the morning dew surrounding me as it pushed against and dribbled down my legs had become so much that my thick hiking socks and the liner had surrendered and allowed the water to pass. Socks that had held up through falling in peat and fording streams had given in to morning dew. I wiggled my toes in their newly damp coverings and felt them squish squash and splat in the moisture. It seemed pointless to make any effort to change them now whilst still amongst this coastal thicket, so I just hoped my greeting to the Mooinjer Veggey would save me from blisters.

I make it sound trying, and it was, but it also allowed my imagination to create my own adventure. I wasn’t on the coast of the Isle of Man anymore, no, I was clearly an original explorer of the Amazon on unchartered territory. I descended occasionally to small bays, each time able to see the further progress of the lazily rising sun but now these bays held treasure and those distant shapes on the horizon were other lands two be discovered. I was intrepid and brilliant and they would write books about me when I discovered some ancient temple, wound up in as-yet-undocumented plantlife and clearly built by aliens.

So I didn’t find a temple, I found a hill fort. And I didn’t really ‘find’ it – there was already a plaque and a bench placed there, but it certainly made the story I’d created over the last hour seem worthwhile.

Cronk de Melliu was one of several iron age hillforts and, when the Vikings came, it was repurposed by the Norsemen as their own lookout. The remains of the ramparts and ditches of its original builders sat alongside the dents and diggings of a Norse lookout. The promient barrow, or burial mound, is most likely behind the name which translates as hill of the dead. I sat on the bench and, satisfied with the discovery, ate my breakfast.

Ronaldsway Culture

In 1932, archaeologists found a historical treasure trove of Neolithic life near Ronaldsway. The settlement was dated to between 2200-1900 BCE and contained huge amounts of evidence to the way of life of the early Manx.

There was enough to suggest that the established way of life, beliefs and traditions, had been independent of that on mainland for quite a while, and what was presented took on a historical name of its own – ‘Ronaldway Culture’.

Tools, including axes with roughened butts and polished blades, and deep, bag-like, pottery has not been found anywhere else. Whilst there are architectural similarities with the Irish and English stone age sites, such as henges and stone circles, it is clear that even by this stage life on the island had been insular for a long time.

Occasionally the path skipped back through the edge of the fields that came close to the cliff edge and, at one point, took me down into a small, lush little glen and out to come face to face with a herd of cows. They all at once stopped chewing and stared at me. I tried not to stare back and look nonchalant. They advanced all together. I sighed. Not this again.

I edged sideways, away from the path, they started swinging sideways. I thought the best option was to continue moving this way rather than towards them and just find out where I end up because they were not going to let me onto the area the path directed. Eventually I was far enough away along the field that they lost interest. Going back wasn’t much of an option so I hauled myself over a gate at the back edge of the field, found myself on a lane and wandered along it.

It was soon clear that the lane was a bit more privately owned than I had hoped. Large construction projects, not yet started for the day, lay alongside, and when I got to the end there was a fiercely barbed wire gate that I gingerly climbed over. Signs on the other side warned trespassers ferociously away. My bad.

I realised that I was alongside the road leading towards the airport and now, to complete the detour, I was going to have to trudge a bit more urbanly around it on this side. The airport was hardly Heathrow, in fact it was quite handsome painted all in cream and navy, but it wasn’t quite what I was here for.

Eventually I found the path again the other side of the Langness Peninsula and sadly realised that with time lost faffing around I would have to skip that loop. I made my way down into Castletown instead.

The original capital of the island was decked in pastel frontages and decorated, cobbled streets. Castle Rushen dominates the centre; originally built for a nameless Norse King, it has subsequently had additions and fortifications added in all eras since. As the capital, it was a site of high tension as, over the centuries, ownership of the island was pulled and tugged between the Scots, English and Norse. Robert the Bruce laid siege to and captured the castle three times.

From Castletown, I ambled my way to Scarlett Point, through the nature preserve there. Now lower, and nearer the shore after dropping down to Castletown, the wildflowers that spread out from the more organised path gave way to a shoreline of the folded, step like rocks and lime-kilns. A former quarry now given over to the flora of the peninsula.

Now swans, moorhens and other waterfowl nest up among the quarry remains and delighted geologists observe the fossils of crinoids frozen in the rock. A distinctive gulley opens up under the footpath and out, its edges worn smooth; a volcanic vent that split and boiled as the land that would become North America tore away from Europe. Small presses of what would have been gaseous bubbles scoop into the stone.

Cormorants flew overhead. In fact the name of Scarlett’s Point is thought to come from the the Norse SkarfrKlyft – Cormorants’ Rock. It was a peaceful walk and the six miles to Port Mary passed quickly, even after the preserve gave way to the minor road leading to the town and the pavement walk into it. The pavement became a raised pedestrian walkway along the harbour and out again, until it became a footpath once more, rising up onto the cliffs and eventually round to the Chasms.

These fissures rake into the land like the dents left by trailing fingers into mud. Many of them split far beneath the seabed and their sheer sides are breeding grounds for petrels, razorbills, guillemots and choughs. As I looked onto them a fluster of birds squealed and called as they flew out their stony nests en masse.

The Sugarloaf stack lies out in front of the fissures. It was first climbed in 1933, but rarely since; the rocks are loose and slippery and the climb is precarious.

The dramatic view continued on the path up and round Spanish Head, across the purple heather and a ghyll, following the coastline above these deadly rocks, to The Sound. This strait seperates the island from The Calf; an islet off the coast. The Calf squatted out across the water with a much smaller rocky prominence between it and myself which was covered with the moving shine of a colony of seals, basking in the growing and warm sun like lazy and fat men in a pub garden.

There are only two residents on The Calf and it is now a bird sanctuary overseen by the Manx National Trust. Despite being pretty much given over to the birds and ornithologists, there are next to no Manx Shearwaters there – in the 1700s, rats escaped from a shipwrecked Russian vessel and attacked all the fledglings. The colony left the the island and have never returned. The birds now have no memory of the incident, neither the generation before, nor the one before that. They just copied generation after generation of behaviour avoiding this islet where, despite the abundance of other birdlife, a fear of something forgotten had prevented them ever nesting there again.

The Brig Lilly Disaster

There are four lighthouses around The Calf of Man alone. This small piece of land and the treacherous rocks around it have been the demise of many a vessel. One of the most terrible, was that of the Brig Lilly.

In 1853, The Brig Lilly was already wounded in bad weather and difficult seas when she slammed into and wrecked upon the Kitterland rocks where the seal colony is. Nine of the crew got out onto the islet, but five were carried away and drowned in the surf.

After lifeboats sent from Port St Mary had rescued the very few survivors, guards stayed behind to prevent plunder. Gunshots were heard in the night as approaching opportunists were warned off.

In the early hours, a huge explosion occurred that shook houses even up in Douglas and the miners down below in Ballacorkish were thrown on their backs.

It emerged that the ship had been carrying gunpowder that had alighted. The men had then opened the hold to extinguish the source of gathering smoke, letting air in and prompting the tragedy. 29 of the 30 men died, leaving 22 widows behind and 77 children fatherless.

I went to the café up from the water to look across to The Calf and, more importantly, to eat ice cream. I sat on a table outside which was quickly shared by a biker.

“Is that one of those ultralight tents?” He said indicating my tent strapped to the front of my bag, “I’m doing the C2C later this year and realised my gear is all about fifteen years old and the tent alone weighs seven kilos”

“Well this weighs 850g pack weight” I found myself boasting “she looks like a hanky but can withstand a hell of a beating” I paused “A one person is very small though, a larger person than myself would probably do themselves a favour by trying out a two person version”

“You calling me fat?”

“Fatter than me”

He laughed. His name was Moss and he, like me, had booked travel over as soon as dates for reopening were confirmed. The TT had been cancelled this year, but he missed the roads regardless.

“Are you walking it all on your own?”

“I’m used to walking on my own”

“You never want company?”

“Nah, I just turn into a dictator if I feel I need to compromise my routine or take on responsibility for someone else’s welfare. This way I can get up at four in the morning and do the occasional stupid thing and it doesn’t affect anyone but myself. I like people, I just like being selfish.”

“You never want someone else to take responsibility though?”

“I think occasionally I’d like a cheerleader. Not someone to walk or camp with; just someone to be in the vicinity and occasionally pop into view and throw me a snickers, yell ‘you go girl’ and then bugger off”

“I had a mate do that for me. Rode across Europe and he drove a different route and, because he knew my route, he would cross my path and just give me food, a pep talk, and carry on”

“Sounds like the best friend ever”

For all his curiosity, he was here alone too. The pandemic had split up his friend group across the country and many either returned to or had simply chosen to move to places far away or even abroad. He hoped by next year’s TT that they might all be together again.

I eventually got up to carry on to Port Erin.

“Hey, do you greet the fairies?” I asked

“Of course I greet the fairies.”

I continued on from the café, thinking back to the wildswimmer’s warnings about this section and scoffing as nothing of that sort had come to pass. Sure, the clifftop paths were alarming and the warning signs about accidents were unsettling, but there hadn’t been any scrambling…well, until now. The rocks flecked firmly up and around a corner on the edge of the drop to a continuation I couldn’t see from this side. Gulping slightly, I heaved myself up, and levered slowly around, refusing to look down, until I had pulled myself up and around onto yet more rocky trail, but at least now I had visibility. I could definitely understand how that moment stuck in her mind. It was gnarly.

Fortunately, it quickly gave way to a grassy bank and hearing the crash and sing below me I understood why the water was called The Sound. Up ahead, the distant structure of Milner’s Tower arose on Bradda Head to the far side of where Port Erin sat below. The town soon emerged and I wound my way happily down, only just realising how tired I was and how long my day had been. Punctuated by three port towns and The Sound, the 22 miles had not seemed so taxing, but clearly my body thought otherwise and demanded a dinner of chips, preferably with cheese and gravy.

In a town known for decent food, I sat down to my junky, cheesy, chippy dinner and gazed out at the harbour that arced between the lighthouse and the swing of the land up to Bradda Head and the tower. Eventually I made my way up one last cliff to the Head to find myself a heathery pitch for the night. Tomorrow would be a long day.

  • Distance: 22 miles
  • Total Elevation: 1000ft
  • Terrain: Clifftops, grassy footpaths, shoreline (stone and pebbles), town lanes
  • Toughness: 4/10
  • Maps Used: Harvey Maps Superwalker XT30: Isle of Man

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