All Aboard! The Isle of Man Steam Railway

Written by Caroline Smith
(A Runner-up entry in the Heritage Writing Competition.)

Our engine at Port Erin
Our steam engine at Port Erin

The Isle of Man is the ultimate heritage island. Within just 220 square miles it boasts two Gothic castles, an abbey and a plethora of museums. Together, these tell the story of this remarkable island and one of the best ways to see some of this story is to hop on the steam train and travel there in true nostalgic style.

The Victorian red-brick station in Douglas, the capital, has seen some modernisation over the years, but none of the essence of the past has been lost. Advertising plaques from decades ago decorate the ticket hall reminding you of the railway’s heyday and, out on the platform, the train, with its original Victorian carriages and locomotives, awaits. The rich wooden interiors, old fashioned lighting and windows operated by leather straps immediately transport you back in time.

The track itself sweeps south to the town of Port Erin. The journey is nearly sixteen miles, takes about an hour and leaves plenty of opportunity to soak up the atmosphere, view some gorgeous scenery and, most importantly, stop off at some of the island’s leading heritage sites.

The station at Douglas
Victorian red-brick station at Douglas

As the train chugs its way out of Douglas it passes an old signal box, which was built in 1892. It then plunges into shady woodland with the river running by and, moments later, the woodland gives way to sheep speckled fields and fabulous views of the coast. Don’t miss the gorgeous old station master’s house at Port Soderick or the miniature Crogga Valley Railway in the garden of Crogga House.

About half way into the journey the train comes to Ballasalla and then Castletown. For the serious heritage seeker, both of these are ideal stations to hop off and see a little local history.

Ballasalla station is only a short (signposted) walk from beautiful Rushen Abbey. The Abbey, founded in 1134, has the dubious honour of being the last Abbey in the British Isles to close in Henry VIII’s brutal reformation. After falling into disrepair it eventually found new life as a judge’s house and in the early Victorian period it was used as a school. However, it became best known for hosting strawberry teas and dances as the island became an increasingly popular holiday resort.

The stationmaster’s house at Port Soderick
Stationmaster’s house at Port Soderick

Sadly, the British holiday resort’s star waned and the abbey fell into disuse, but, thankfully, in 1989 it was bought for the nation and became part of the island’s heritage story. It is possibly the island’s most peaceful spot and if you really want to spoil yourself, there is a very fine restaurant next door.

Castletown is the island’s old capital. This quaint, formerly garrison town is overshadowed by the medieval Castle Rushen. The castle has served as both a royal residence and a prison, and thanks
to Lord Raglan, Governor of the Isle of Man 1902-1919, instead of falling into complete disrepair it is now regarded as one of the best-preserved medieval castles in Europe. There are life-like displays, tales of gore and glory and fantastic views from the battlements.

‘First class’ interiors
‘First class’ carriage interior

Castletown is also home to the Nautical Museum and the Old Grammar School, but, perhaps the most important of all is the Old House of Keys. This is the old Isle of Man parliament and, on an open day, you can take part in a political debate if the mood takes you!

Back on the railway, the train winds its way through the lush scenery to the old holiday resort town of Port Erin. There isn’t much of the hotel trade left there, but the wide beach still draws the crowds on a warm sunny day. The modern town is serviced by cafes and shops and, along the quayside, there is a trendy gin distillery.

Reminder to alight at Ballasalla for Rushen Abbey
Reminder to alight at Ballasalla for Rushen Abbey

However, the real star of Port Erin is the Railway Museum which, appropriately, is located at the end of the platform. Memorabilia, Royal trains and a railway simulator are all housed here – perfect for the serious enthusiast.

Despite dipping into yesteryear, modern requirements are not forgotten. Parking and refreshments are available at Douglas, Castletown and Port Erin, and, at just £13.40 for an adult return this is an excellent value heritage outing.

Whether you decide to stop off and see the sights or not, the rocking train, the romance of a day on the old steam railway and the taste of charcoal in the air, make this a wonderful experience for heritage lovers everywhere.

POSTED 10th JULY 2019 by STEVE HANSON on behalf of CAROLINE SMITH. Photographs were supplied by the author, after the competition had been judged.