A modest two-man bikepacking tour of the Isle over a long weekend, using campsites and coast roads, in search of wild wallabies*
Kean – younger, stronger and definitely more Australian
Neil – older, slower and rather contrary
A Minion –an ineffectual mascot
We manage to leave the house in south Manchester as my boy goes to school – this means we are unusually on time for such a venture. Slipping easily through city backwaters and up the Piccadilly ramp, pushing against the incoming commuter tide, we just have time to grab croissant, cheese and orange juice for the train and locate the dim and distant platform 14.
The usual apprehension about fighting for the published two bike slots on each train dissipates as the platform is bereft of other cyclists. Aboard, we mange toutes and speculate on the latest weather forecasts; e-bike riders pile on at Preston; rucksacked rugged-types snooze in anticipation of conquering their hill of choice later in the day.
A relaxing hour on the Windermere line has us in Lancaster where we wend around the impressive Priory in a grey chill. Over the unlikely Millenium Bridge and onto the old cycle racetrack for a quick, fully-loaded lap, before hugging the River Lune to the coast, then veering off to the port.
A moderate facial breeze makes it a chug to Heysham’s grim-looking nuclear power station chimneys. As we approach, Kean realises he’s left his ID card, raising tensions a notch or two. Can we fail before we’ve begun? In the terminal, lax security procedures subsequently allow the mutated IoM wallaby colony to expand by one.
On board the Manx seacat it’s straight to soapy beers for those briney legs and we scud out to sea. A smooth crossing delivers us into miserable rain which, according to last night’s forecast, should not be here to welcome us. We sludge through a depressed Douglas looking for suitable hospitality to assess our plans. The town’s bleakest dive becomes a necessary base – here we decide to sit it out, break out the maps and the waterproofs.
An hour passes and both combatants refuse to blink. We move to a nearby café for a feed then realise we will have to make progress regardless of the falling rain if we are to avoid pitching in the dark. Outside the cafe, Kean puts on a fashion show of sorts, lashing a poncho with webbing – a small crowd gathers and ask pertinent questions regarding our intentions on the Isle. A woman politely asks to feel his rather slinky bar tape…
Gliding through the sodden precinct and out of town heading south, the first ‘mechanical’ announces itself. I drop down a kerb stone and the front rack eats the tyre, grinding my progress to a sudden halt. It turns out, the ‘world famous pizza rack’ has a litigious feature – an open-ended bolt plate that allows the rack to be pulled upwards and free of its moorings to the fork when the pilot least expects it. Fee-paying dentist-approved, no doubt. Cue roadside repairs, zip-tie lashings and cussings in the rain.
On the main road out of the capital on Friday evening is a tad hectic, so we re-route to slower, more-rolling roads. Soon an evening sun breaks through to dry out the tarmac and the cyclists, then we spy the gorgeous coastline at Castletown and ride, uplifted, to Port St. Mary.
Our first campsite is at Glendown and is a very basic couple of fields with a good kitchen and washrooms. Strong westerly views down the valley, where mists and clouds are trapped from escape, form a terrific wild backdrop. We pitch up and head in to Port St. Erin to discover the compact quay and town, with its view of the epic Bradda monument. A small, modern pizza restaurant is base for a welcome evening meal and a chance to sample Bushy’s local ale.
Back at camp, cramps kick in and my airbed slowly deflates every 45 minutes or so through the night. Nothing out-of-the-ordinary there then. A sun-lit start allows the tents to dry out from the night showers and Aeropress coffee to be assembled. A chipper start means we can head south west and down to the point to view the Calf of Man. We hoped to find a decent breakfast at the marked café and are not disappointed with the service or spread and eat outside to enjoy the spectacular peninsula views. Kean attempts to season his mixed grill but the sea gusts render his attempts futile and foolish.
It’s a slog back up to where we started earlier in the day, but more than worth it for views and fuel. I scramble up to take in the Meayll standing stone circle and 360 degree vista whilst my colleague brushes his teeth and reveals a lurid red vest – he’s prepping for the midday sun and the offroad section that lay ahead. But first we drop into Port Erin again, luckily finding the Steyr-Puch amphibious vehicle we saw in the dark last night. The internet reveals it as a rare civilian Pinzgauer 710 from the early 1970’s – tres cool.
A long push up Greenway Road takes us off tarmac for the first time, climbing over 1100 feet in 25 degrees. We skittle down the stoney, rutted farm tracks to the main road again, me cautiously now in fear of another rack fail. I’m appreciative of my ride – a re-built Singular Gryphon Mk II, shod with sumptuous 2.35” tyres that allow me to move securely from tractor track to track.
After a remote 45 minutes we are onto some of the smoothest tarmac known to man. The A36 is an initial climb then a long, luxurious roll through Glen Maye. Kean’s brakes smoke like toxic josticks in protest at the 25% + descent into Peel.
Peel is a glorious late-afternoon lunch halt, complete with secret beach, castle, quayside and, most-importantly a public house serving pie and chips. Suitably over-ordering we settle on a bench table with a shaded and rather shady local. The proudest of Manxmen tells tales of his drunken record-breaking laps of the TT course and rails against the English – both politically and those that have exiled themselves to the local tax system. He drinks his own homebrew throughout and rather sportingly, wobbles up the road to his house to fetch us a sample to have with our food. Both of us are rather reluctant, fearing the thick, foamy liquid may contain ‘impurities’ that could affect our endeavours on the road. On tasting, I am pleasantly surprised by the spritely taste – less surprised when the brewer reveals it is over 13% proof. As we finish up we ask does he always drink his homebrew at the pub – he replied that he only drinks the pub’s beer when he wants to sober up…
The clock has sped on and we slog out on the steep town streets til we hit the main road to Kirk St Michael, where it is pleasantly flat. A stop at a spartan ye olde shoppe for evening foodstuffs, then to Ballaugh Bridge, one of many key components of the TT course. At the Raven Inn we grab big tonics (to ward off the cramps) and beers before nipping around the corner to our campsite. Here the owner is expecting us, greeting me by my name and offering towels to use in the showers – next level service!
The site is vast and near-empty – we choose our pitch and change for dinner, the feature of which is a rather combustible fondue. In our field experiments, we learn that Grappa is indeed very flammable and that panic-induced cold water creates further explosion which has us reeling in our camp chairs! Nevertheless, the resultant melted cheese and crackers tastes fantastic along with a cheeky bottle of red wine. A ghostly wallaby is sighted sprinting across the dark fields (allegedly)… *Apparently a pair of wallabies escaped from a Manx wildlife park in the late sixties and now there are over 100 living wild.
Another glorious start the next day – we move all our gear over to the well-stocked kitchen and deploy their George Forman grill to good affect. Monstrous shaggy-snack toasties, coffee and the remains of the Grappa line the stomach before the off.
Next stop isn’t far – Jurby is a repurposed airfield, now the island’s motorsports centre. We know we are close as we are confronted by a squadron of Honda Cub motorcycles snorting and charging towards us, most on one wheel, some on our side of the road.
At the airfield we check out the Sunday morning mini and supermoto racing then wobble over to the pristine-looking Manx Motor Museum. A Germanic-sounding woman rushes out to reprimand me for leaning my bicycle against her immaculate building in case I mark it. Bristling, I enter the reception. Naturally, I now baulk at paying £16 to view the selection of old cars and bikes – maybe it’s a Virgo-thing – and make do with a browse in the gift shop. Soon I am told off again for glancing at the cars clearly visible from the confines of the shop. Strictly pay per view here then – like ‘Only Fans’ I’m told…
Sanctuary is sought over the road at the bumbling, low key Transport Museum – all volunteers and donations and none the worse for that. Then back to watch the Honda Cubs racing on track rather than on the road earlier – quite a slow-motion spectacle. We’ve wasted more than enough time here and need to find a pub for lunch quickly. A re-route to Angle comes up trumps, filling up before the flat offroad jiggle to the Point of Ayr in the late afternoon sun.
A huge contrast in landscape from south to north, as the lunar-like pebbles stretch out in front of us and the eery lighthouses and foghorns get bigger as we get closer. A seafishing contest is in silent swing. Lone rodders ply their trade in single-occupancy tents, one every 5 metres apart – as though they’d had an argument and weren’t talking to each other. Signs and rope ward us off Oystercatcher or Plover nests, otherwise it’s as remote a spot as you’ll find.
Scenes and scenery captured on digital, we wind back north into the lush countryside again, the sun being pulled down rapidly as we soft pedal into Ramsey. A lunge at cake and machine coffee at a filling station is required before we join the TT circuit again uphill to the Gooseneck curves, where the fabled Mountain Section begins. Again, the billiard table-smooth road with freshly edged kerbs pulls us along to the various marshall’s huts and memorials of the fallen.
Once at the Gooseneck, we turn away from the road and the TT course, to cut down the side of the mountain for the final run to Laxey. I’m done with cycling today so it’s a relief to be able to coast most of the way. Now the sun is hidden to the eastern side there’s a proper windchill that needs dressing for. Luckily, there’s a decent descent to hasten our way to camp in the gloom. A confusion of signs leads to heated words from tired minds.
Once on site it’s a quick pitch – time is against our stomachs and we need to find a source of food. The local pubs fail us as expected at this time of night, so a supermarket sweep at the Coop must suffice. Tins of soup, mystery meats, rice, Doritos and profiteroles must do. A slurp of last orders before acknowledging the cuteness of Laxey’s model trainset-proportioned station en route back to the camp kitchen. There we retrieve the microwave manuals from the drawers and crack their obtuse codes to cook up a student feast we choose not to recall; then bed, both well worn.
The morning is dank. Coffee and leftover profiteroles stem the grumblings. A nose down to the gusty promenade rewards us with a decent café serving hot pork and apple rolls. We sit shivering slightly under the provided fleece blankets and watch the to-ings and fro-ings of a clot of silver-haired motorcyclists on their invigorating metallic steeds.
It’s got that last day feel about it for sure as we push heavily on the pedals uphill one last time to Creg ny Baa, another famous TT corner, albeit with a famous pub attached. This is the destination for our final lunch before rolling down into Douglas once more for the ferry. Once we’ve fed our faces we return to the bikes only to find sleeting rain. The weather we arrived to has suddenly returned with a vengeance. Slopping down to the start/finish line wasn’t the grand spectacle I had imagined a few weeks before. We don’t linger.
Once on the promenade the wind knocks us backwards and it takes an age to curve around to the spectacular terminal and out of this mini gale. Once inside we are surprised to find airport-like seating and boarding arrangements. We are also somewhat shocked to learn we are late for boarding. Operatives with walkytalkies hustle our wet bundles through side gates and into the posterior of the ferry. Quickly lashing the bikes, water still running from foreheads, we need warmth and maybe a shot of redeeming alcohol pronto.
The captain warns of a rough crossing – he didn’t lie. No sooner had we left the haven of the quayside and the iron vessel was lumbering and lurching from side-to-side, as though determined to whisk its occupants to a pulp. I had one option – to close my eyes and ignore the bobbing horizon, otherwise lunch would be making an unwelcome reappearance. Noises off told of others with a less effective strategy – paper bags were made ready and the dry wretching of young and old alike filled the airwaves. A grim couple of hours then, before calmer waters and the rather grand sight of Liverpool beckoning.
Alighting at 6pm we admired the new oversized Beatles statue and relished the smooth promenade roll out to Speke, where things turn rather shitty. The Trans Penine morphs into sinister and forboding Badlands, as we silently head away. Those dumb, irregular anti-motorbike stiles become a constant source of frustration, having to unpack various panniers to get through or over. Midgies are swallowed at regular intervals. A rare visual highlight on this stretch is the brutal new Runcorn toll bridge aka The Mersey Gateway – we pass under its huge arching concrete span near Spike Island and on through Fiddler’s Ferry.
The four and a half hour ride is a dull end to the splendid terrain we quickly got used to on the Isle of Man. At home just before midnight, we indulge in a fancy bottled Belgian beer and cheeseboard, slowly slumping into the table.
Reviewing the Isle of Man is a pleasure – fantastic low-traffic riding and ever-changing scenery are guaranteed. The standard of the campsites is next level, it really is. I think the island is a perfect place to begin solo or social bikepacking/cycle touring or whatever it’s called nowadays. Just enough of a physical challenge on the roads, byways and tracks, as it is far from flat in the south and the middle; the sense and pains of achievement are well balanced by creature comforts when you need them.
Our circuit tour came in at just under 100 miles over the four days on the island, with another 40 or so from Liverpool to Manchester in the dark, along with a 7,000 feet of elevation gains.
Words and pictures – Neil Ruddock