Well this was grimy. Blisters had popped up on my legs. Were they from the horsefly bites or from the sun? Who knew. A particularly grimy, lumbering bubble was pushing out to the side of my left knee. So much for all this walking looking good on me, now I definitely looked like some sort of leper.
I took the lane down the couple miles to the shore at The Cronk. My inland diversion meant I had missed the Orrisdale cliffs along the beach; a particularly high cliff edge that soared above the path on the sand where the tideline came high and there were distinct warnings in the guide to plan one’s walk with tides in mind. It did reassure that, along the whole beach section of the trail, there would generally always be some shore to walk on (albeit significantly more difficult than packed wet sand of low tide). Unless it was a high spring tide with westerly winds.
A what now?
I had once thought I was just a hiker. Oh no, apparently being a hiker means I also have to be a meteorologist, a seamstress, a nurse, a chemist and now, apparently, a sailor. What the hell was a spring tide and when the bollocks was it?
I did the research for you; a spring tide occurs twice a month when the moon is either full or new. At these times the earth, sun and moon are all in a direct line and the gravitational pull of the sun is added to the gravitational pull of the moon making an extra voluptuous tide occur. I was two days past the spring tide, and the wind direction and speed meant I would not suffer any high waves.
In fact the walk up from Ballaugh Bay at The Cronk northwards turned out to be one of my favourite sections. I’m not a beachy person; I don’t really enjoy being stationary and, as we’ve already established, my pale skin is totally unsuitable for sunbathing. I hate sand sticking all over the place and I absolute loathe bathing suits of any kind. I am not the type to choose a holiday that involves only turning over on the sand once an hour and drinking margaritas. Yet, I really, really loved this beach section.
It was early so I was alone, the whole sand and seascape to myself. The sea waves were calm and their low and rhythmic rumble was peaceful, strong and reassuring. The Isle of Man may not be some Mediterranean island, but in that morning it could have been. There is a common turn of phrase here – traa di liooar – which translates as ‘time enough’. There is time enough for that. Similar to the Spanish ‘mañana mañana’ – the easy chant of a slower pace of life and a people that relish life as something to be enjoyed.
The cliffs started off twisting into canyons and caverns until they shrunk and shrunk further to become just coastal healthland, waving with pale marram grass. A few miles up, I entered the Ayres National Park where rangers had strung up temporary fencing on the upper half of the sands to protect the ground nesting terns.
These small birds make a 50,000 mile journey to this breeding site and are protected; harming them or their nests can result in prosecution. Oyster catchers and plovers also nest here. Sadly, ground nesting birds will abandon their nests if they sense too prevalent or predatory a disturbance and therefore it is both really important that the lines of these fences are respected. It is also why Ayres National Park absolutely forbids tented camping on this stretch.
A few hours of walking along the packed sand of the low tide to the run and slide of the playful water had me lost in my own reverie when I suddenly saw a man up on the shelf of heathland. He waved me up and I clambered over the now unfenced grass and round to find a van parked up in a wonderfully perfect spot. A woman sat in a swimsuit, newly wet from the waters and the man brought me out a camping chair and offered me a brew.
Simon and Lucy often spent a few days at a time taking the van to these secluded spots and swimming and kayaking and hiking and fishing. Two days ago they had gone fishing up off Maughold Head and brought back enough mackerel to feast on for days and yesterday they had watched minke whales and basking sharks from their kayaks.
“I went to London for university” Lucy told me, “but when I had kids, I wanted them to have the same childhood I had had and came back. Maybe it was more for me that for them, because, really, I couldn’t see myself wanting any other life anywhere else or at least any that could keep me this happy.”
“It’s a good place to live” said Simon as he rolled a lazy cigarette “the police pretty much have to fabricate things to get worried about. Right now they’re on full patrol constantly around the island because they think all the weed dealers from the mainland who went unpaid when we locked down will be coming in like an army for their debts.”
“Have they caught any?” He laughed
“No, not one single bastard. No one’s coming over all the way over here on a dinghy from Liverpool to get their payment for a bit of weed from over a year ago surprisingly”
“We did have that guy on a jetski” said Lucy “A man travelled from Scotland to here on a jetski halfway through their lockdown. Apparently he thought it would take forty minutes, not four and a half hours. Came into the beach at Ramsey and was arrested by the time he’d walked to Onchan.”
“After all that effort, they should have just let him stay” insisted Simon.
“Maybe if he’d been discreet about it, but no, he bowed to the crowd at the beach then walked along the ridge road in full view”
“Why did he come?”
“Missed his girlfriend. She then broke up with him” Lucy wrung out her hair with her fingers, already half dried in the sun “are you walking the whole path at once?”
“Is that weird?”
“It’s pretty cool. Lots of us have done a bunch of sections, but you don’t see that many people come over just to walk it all.”
“Maybe there are” said Simon “but they aren’t carrying a backpack and camping. I’d have hated to do the hill section with a backpack”
“Yeah, I sort of skipped the middle one” I finally confessed
“So what did you do?”
“I walked around”
“But that must have taken you three times as long!”
“I wasn’t exactly thinking straight”
“Ah well, you’d already got through the worst section. All that overgrowth on the cliffs around Santon Head to Derbyhaven? Took me forever. Screw that. Think you can forgive yourself for missing one hill.”
He was right. Before I left, Lucy insisted on making me a sandwich and I followed her into the van where a bed was raised up by the ceiling towards the front with a small seating area underneath. A tiny kitchen lay along the sides and storage at the back. She indicated the shower.
“We’ll probably get rid of that, we’re always in the sea anyway”
She layered up a cheese and tomato sandwich and then insisted I take several other components until I had a very full pack lunch. Thankful, I bid them both goodbye and headed off back to the beach, looking briefly back as their laughing, smiling figures faded away on the edge of the grassy ledge. They had everything they needed in that van and each other and I can’t deny that a part of me envied them.
Onwards, I rounded Rue Point and right on the far edge of the sandy horizon the land flattened out completely; the Point of Ayre. Halfway up towards it I went to the ledge again where the small visitors centre was. Closed for a couple more hours yet, it sat with a noticeboard of sightings amid the long dancing marram grass, a clearing and small, empty car park in front of it beating and shining in the now full sun. Insects crackled, chirped and hummed from the pale scrub. A wooden viewing platform was raised up high from which full views of the park could be seen, a telescope providing an opportunity to see any passing porpoise or basking shark more clearly.
The Point of Ayre Lighthouse
The lighthouse is the oldest operational lighthouse on the island. First lit in 1818, it was designed by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of the author Robert Louis Stevenson. It was a huge constructional challenge at the time, when the island had few roads and those to the north were rough.
Whilst it still has its original focal lens, the light is now automatic and can be seen clearly even from across in Scotland.
Since its building, shingle and gravel had continued to grow to the north of it, extending the land. The current runs around the south of England and up, eroding the coast on the west hand side of the island and depositing the stones at the point. The sand caught in the current gets dropped beneath the sea at the head where large banks have built up.
A smaller light, known as ‘Winkie’ had to be placed further up the seaward side only twenty years after the lighthouse was opened. It had to be repositioned again in 1950. Now the strength of the automatic light is so strong and dependable that the Winkie has been switched off. The point, however, continues to extend.
I sat at a bench in the grass, looking out towards the sea. On the far horizon there were darker rises and falls of an undulating land; Scotland. The Mull of Galloway. Simon had indicated further to the south west one could also see the flatter form of Ireland. I breathed in the peace of the moment, trying to cram it into a part of brain, to stick, where it would stay along with other happy places.
It was broken by the sounds of people climbing up to the viewing platform.
“Hey!” Yelled a woman’s voice “I saw you the other day! You were looking at your map at the Sloc!”
“Is she camping the whole way?” Someone asked her “Like Cheryl Strayed!”
I exchanged some answers to their questions, but moved on quickly to carry on to the point. The lighthouse appeared quickly; first as a dot, made clearer by its red and white stripes, and then larger and larger, the grassy ledge eventually levelling out and the coastal heath cropping up with gorse and heather among the now shorter grasses and scrubs. Pebbles started to fluster among the sand and, eventually, I was there, on the north point of the island. There was no more north to go.
I had originally planned to camp at the point, and it seems everyone else had had the same idea. It had only just gone midday and motorhomes, vans and motorbikes were already pulling up in droves, positioning themselves with the best views for both the eventual sunset and the sunrise. I really should have stayed; it could have been fun. Instead I decided to have my lunch and then continue on to Ramsey while the day was still bright and young and I was still full of energy.
I ate my packed lunch from Lucy looking up to the north. I had started on the east coast and made my way round west and all the way up to here. Every compass direction passed had felt like a small accomplishment, but now I would turn and head south again and there would be no more turning after that.
Scraps of metal and concrete poked up to the east side of the lighthouse; remnants of a cargo ship that had been built from concrete as steel was in short supply. I’m not sure how building a ship from concrete is a good idea and, in this case, it certainly wasn’t. Her short life on the seas was dogged with problems. Only three years after launch, her fittings were removed and she was dragged up here to be intentionally sunk to become part of a jetty, which has since been demolished.
It was seven miles or so from the point to Ramsey, and I had three and a half hours until the high tide. No problem, that was fine.
Or it was fine. Until I realised that whilst the west side of the lighthouse was all lovely and sandy, packed and firm beneath my feet at low tide, the east side was shale. A seemingly endless pebbly grind along which the surreally dreamy soft cliffs and waving grasses would give back to the dark and angry slate.
It was near impossible to get a sturdy foothold, and absolutely impossible to get continuous ones. It was very hard going. I thought to what my guidebook writer, Aileen Evans, had written about this section and how the path continues in ‘fine quality’, how the views should be enjoyed and how this part is so damn delightful that ‘Ramsey is reached sooner than expected’. This is absolute bollocks.
I had gone from my absolute favourite and mentally enriching stretch so far to perhaps the most mentally grueling. I wasn’t going to be able to enjoy the views Aileen, because I had to watch my damn feet that kept wanting to slide away from beneath me. Ramsey appeared quickly in the distance along the straightness of the stretch which sounds relieving but fast became a tortuous taunt because it never, ever seemed to get any closer. The sun beat down (OK, this I can’t blame Aileen for) and in my determination to just get this awful gauntlet of shifting stones over with I did not stop to reapply sunscreen.
The Manx Salt Co.
It seems surprising that for an island surrounded by sea water, a brine lake would be seen as a valuable resource. Yet in the last years of the nineteenth century, a large underground brine lake was discovered to the east of the Point of Ayre.
The purity of this concentrated saltwater was so great, that it was pumped down to Ramsey to be evaporated for sale as table salt and also as a preservative for the herring industry. Kippers are a big deal on the island.
The saltworks closed in the 1950s, but the old pumping station can still be seen.
Every so often I would look up to Ramsey, still far, far away in the distance. My eyes aimed on the curve of the promenade I would enter in and it never seemed to get bigger. I felt like I was just walking over and over in one space and this beach was actually the worst treadmill in the world. Five miles in, the promenade curve still seemed as small as it had done three miles back. Six miles in, a young man fishing from the beach turned to speak to me.
“Has anyone said where there’s a catch?” he yelled.
“NO!” I did not have the time nor patience to chat about fish. Five steps further on I remembered something “There’s mackerel at the head!” I shouted and whirled back before he could start asking me for information that I did not know and carried on.
On and on and on in the beating, baking sun. I knew somewhere ahead of me the silhouette of Snaefell loomed. I did not care. The only place I wanted to see when I looked up was the promenade curve just a little closer. Out to the left, Maughold Head was taking shape. Did not care. Promenade curve please. Please.
It only seemed to suddenly get large and close when I was about 100 metres away. I dragged my aching body up onto the promenade and proceeded down to try and find a bench in the shade.
After Castletown, Port St Mary, Port Erin and Peel, I had started to assume a standard of the port towns. A standard that was absolutely not the case with Ramsey. Any charm that Ramsey had was invisible to me; it was tired and dilapidated and not with any resilience, just a gruelling surrender. Every second shopfront seemed boarded up and whole buildings just seemed worn down and abandoned. Yes, I was really regretting not staying at the point.
I didn’t even want to stick around for ice cream. I stopped minding that everything hurt, and headed in the direction my map told me a reservoir lay.
Finally, there was shade. Shade and water. I watched a couple older men fish. I didn’t get the impression they were bothered whether or not they caught anything, they just enjoyed doing something while their minds clicked over, or just slowed down. One regarded my pack and beckoned me over.
“Are you touring?”
“Am I what?” I was baffled.
“I went touring at your age. Went around France. Had a tiny little tent that I could only just squeeze into. Some of my favourite memories.”
“Do you mean like backpacking? Travelling around with a backpack full of all the stuff you need?”
“Is that what its called now?”
“Sure, I guess I’m touring. I’m doing the Raad ny Foillan”
“Oh that’s lovely” he said wistfully “Do you have a tiny tent as well?”
“A very tiny tent.”
He proceeded to tell me all about his time touring and all the people he met, many dead now, and all the places he went, many no longer exist. I wonder how many memories I will have one day of people and of places that only exist in memory and whether, like this gentleman, I will look for kindred spirits in any sign to share those memories with. To keep alive somewhere else the things that are long gone.
“You have to keep safe alright?” This startled me.
“Do you have enough water?” I pointed to the reservoir and he laughed as he packed up.
“You said you went touring when you were my age right?” I said “How old do you think I am?”
“Early twenties. Twenty one? Twenty three maybe?”
Excellent. I loved this man.
As one by one the old men left the water, I shrunk back into the plantation. I could have stayed up north, joking and laughing and enjoying the crowd as the sun set and I was kicking myself for choosing to make this further journey. My skin was tight and the red was becoming apparent. It would hurt like hell come morning.
- Distance: 10 miles
- Maximum height: sea level
- Terrain: shoreline (sand and pebbles), tidal paths, national parkland,
- Toughness: 2/10 (to the point) 7/`0 (to Ramsey)
- Maps Used: Harvey Maps Superwalker XT30: Isle of Man