Where to stay
Aaron House Quirky guesthouse with impeccable period rooms (the owner is a vintage-car valet in his spare time, currently working on a Bugatti). Even if you don’t stay, book an afternoon tea. Rooms from £35 per person. The Promenade, Port St Mary, 01624 835702, aaronhouse.co.uk
Albany House In a terraced side street this is faultless, friendly B&B with many of the goodies you’d expect from a first-rate hotel. Rooms from £70. Albany Road, Peel, 01624 845623, manxbedandbreakfast.com
Sefton The façade is Victorian grand hotel. The interior is atrium-style with balconied rooms overlooking a covered courtyard. Rooms £90; but there are a handful of glamorous suites in a separate wing overlooking the promenade at about £200. Harris Promenade, Douglas, 01624 645500,seftonhotel.co.im
Isle of Man has a temperate climate, with cool summers and mild winters.
GETTING THERE - Flybe (flybe.com) flies regularly to Ronaldsway airport on the Isle of Man from Gatwick and Luton as well as a number of regional airports. The flight takes approximately one-hour.
Isle of Man TT Ferry (steam-packet.com) sails from Heysham, Lancaster (3 hours, 45 minutes) and Liverpool (2 hours, 30 minutes).
GETTING AROUND - Mylchreests Car Rental Provides island-wide delivery of rental vehicles. Self-drive is, by far, the easiest way to get around the island. Millmount, New Castletown Road, Douglas, 08000 190335, mylchreests.com
RESOURCES - Isle of Man Tourism (visitisleofman.com); a wealth of information on accommodation and local attractions, essential for planning a trip.
Purely Isle of Man (purelyisleofman.com); information on the island’s food and drink producers and craftspeople.
FURTHER READING - Isle of Man: Portrait of a Nation by John Grimson (Robert Hale Ltd, £25) Provides an intriguing insight into the island’s history, as well as a guide to the varied Manx landscapes.
Where to eat
14 North A bistro with ‘zinc’-topped tables, a London-New York feel and a menu inspired by local produce accompanied by well-chosen wines. Great buzz, very busy and value for money. The lunchtime light meals are very good value. From about £35 per person including wine. 14 North Quay, Douglas, 01624 664414, 14north.im
Harbour Lights A café and restaurant with branches in Peel, Ramsey and Port St Mary. harbour-lights.net
Tanroagan Simple fish restaurant making the most of the local catch. Its home-made bread is probably the best on Man. Generous portions. From about £30 per person including wine. 9 Ridgeway Street, Douglas, 01624 612355, tanroagan.co.uk
The Abbey Just what the Isle of Man was missing: a country-house restaurant beside a ruined abbey, where the food is accessible but well-prepared. Sarah, the owner, lived in Venice and her chef comes from the Malmaison stable. About £40 per person including wine. Rushen Abbey, Ballasalla, 01624 822 393, theabbeyrestaurant.co.im
Velvet Lobster More of a coffee aficionado’s hang-out than a restaurant, it dishes up honest snack food from early morning till late at night. From the price of an espresso. North Quay, Douglas, 01624 622518, thevelvetlobster.com
Food and Travel Review
Back in 1850 the White House in Peel called itself The Three Legs, a nod towards The Isle of Man’s iconic emblem. It bears the motto ‘Whichever way you throw me, I’ll land on my feet’ – it’s as much a mission statement as a symbol. This is a place that looks after itself, on its own terms.
Neil, the White House landlord, points toward the bar where a decorous wake is in progress: ‘That man standing opposite you, he was a fisherman and the one over there, he used to have a drifter. There was a time,’ he continues, ‘when you could walk across the harbour on fishing boats.’ Not any more: the few trawlers moored along the quay in the lee of a ruined castle are scallopers. Leviathan herring shoals that used to feed the island have vanished. EU quota laws protect a species that had once seemed to be an inexhaustible natural resource.
Moore’s, the town’s smokehouse, still cures herring – first brining, then smoking them in kilns that are glossy with a century of tar. It may have to import its raw material, but the taste hasn’t changed. Golden, plump and oily kippers have retained the creamy texture that always made them special.
Floating midstream in the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man can seem at times as remote as the Azores. On the surface, quiet, provincial, introverted, a rural setting that echoes the Scottish Lowlands more than the closer Lake District. It’s an appearance that belies its wealth. Income from offshore banking and financial services feather-bed the economy, allowing the rest of the island to breathe a little easier.
Tourists ride the narrow-gauge steam train from Douglas, south along the coast to Port Erin, or the Manx Electric Railway that heads north, past the village of Laxey over the knoll of Onchan Head and down into the seaside town of Ramsey, or chase the buzz of the TT races round Snaefell, without noticing the camouflaged trappings of wealth around them. Meanwhile residents, discreet as Zurich gnomes, hide their elegant homes in lanes that wind through wooded glens almost too pretty to be true. They all know the footpaths that lead to the millennia-old megaliths and burial mounds. They learn through word of mouth who is making cider or jams or pies or chocolate truffles. There are times when the island could pass for an imaginary Archers set – where the community lives a parallel existence to the one of the visitors.
The history of the island is everywhere. Until the 19th century, the language widely spoken was Manx Gaelic, with the last native speaker dying in the 1970s. Even Tynwald, established in AD 979 by the Vikings, is the oldest continuous parliament in the world. But for all their independence, the islanders’ passion for food mirrors the wider world’s.
Phil Taylor turned his back on a banking degree and a burgeoning career in Dubai to open a restaurant, 14 North, in Douglas. ‘There’s all this fantastic produce here,’ he enthuses. His menus owe more than a nod to neighbourhood New York eateries. He doesn’t call his pizza a pizza. It’s a ‘flatbread’. Rightly so – it’s made with flour from Laxey flour mill, enriched with a cold-pressed rapeseed oil that’s produced on a sheep farm. A smoked cheddar topping with sauté potatoes uses cheese direct from the island’s creamery. Taylor‘s inspiration for the combination is an old Manx favourite: chips, cheese and gravy.
Halfway through a Thursday-night dinner session, the farmer who supplies his vegetables stomps between diners, carrying a box of cabbages, beets, leeks and variegated carrots. ‘Everything comes through the front door,’ Taylor boasts. ‘We’ve got nothing to hide.’
Queen scallops coated in a thin pesto crust and baked for 90 seconds at 325°C are his spécialité de la maison. Perky on their shells, they taste sweet and juicy. ‘Queenies’ used to be treated as bait, spiked on the long lines strung behind sailing smacks to catch mackerel. Most are processed in Peel or Port St Mary then shipped to Europe. Demand is so strong that the Manx government has just introduced a curfew on night-time fishing in its territorial waters.
According to Tim Croft of Paddy’s, a fishmonger’s in Port St Mary, they live in colonies, packed on top of each other, up to 40 deep. To harvest them, boats have a tickler chain attached to the dredges or trawl nets. When it passes over the bed, the shellfish swim upwards into the nets. On the island they’re everywhere, restaurants, cafés, even tearooms sell them, sometimes with bacon, more often with garlic butter. If it’s not quite fresh, the meat loses its sweetness and its texture turns flabby. But the locals know good scallops.
Tanroagan (Manx for scallop shell) is a small seafood bistro off Douglas’s North Quay. Its owner Joan Mowat serves up Dublin Bay prawns, piled high in their shells, lobsters, crabs, slip soles and maybe the odd turbot or brill on the ‘specials’ menu. It’s reminiscent of the early days of Rick Stein’s Padstow empire. Her only enemy, she implies, is the weather. When the Irish Sea turns sour, the small day boats stay in port and then supply dries up.
Flambé dishes are cooked with flair in hotel restaurants on the capital’s promenade: anything from Steak Diane, to a beef and mushroom stroganoff — or a crêpe Suzette topped with vanilla ice cream for dessert. At the Sefton, an imposing Victorian pile, the waitress apologises: ‘I’m sorry we can’t do it at the table in front of you because of Health and Safety.’
Sir Norman’s, the hotel’s bar, honours the late Norman Wisdom, who lived on Man. Two screens play his old movies in black and white to entertain customers and his bronze statue, seated on a bench, is parked outside the hotel. Perhaps the appetite for retro is more than skin-deep. A local proverb ‘Traa dy liooar’ (Time enough!), an unashamed Celtic mañana, says it all.
Rebekah Collings, a history student working at The National Folk Museum, Cregneash, takes a break from baking griddle cakes in front of a peat fire to explain that the crofters who farmed also fished. Eking out a livelihood at subsistence level, they made do and they didn’t ever hurry.
Her bannogs, made from flour, butter and buttermilk dough, take about three hours to bake. They taste better when left to cool than when eaten hot, like scones. There are few traditional recipes; most are primitive. Cowree is a thick gruel made from oat husks. Peasants also drank the cloudy water in which they had steeped the grain overnight, calling it Sooslagh, which is ‘a full-bodied drink’.
Rebekah’s buttermilk comes from the Isle of Man Creamery, a co-operative of 51 dairy farmers. From the baguette in the Sound Visitor Centre’s café at the southern tip of Man, to the cheese in the onion soup at Harbour Lights Café and Restaurant, Ramsey, via the cheese on toast at the Velvet Lobster in Douglas (run by a coffee enthusiast), Manx cheddar is the default setting.
On his tour through the Isle of Man in 1797, the traveller John Feltham described its sheep: ‘The native stock is small and hardy, and would endure the roughest weather with little loss, and the meat tasted fine. This is still the mountain breed. There is also a peculiar breed, called laughton (Loaghtan), of the colour of Spanish snuff, and these are not so hardy, and more difficult to fatten. The natives like the cloth and stockings made of the wool.’
There are still two types today. The Manx breed, scattered over the moors and dished up as cutlets, shepherd’s pie, confit, braised shanks or in pasties, provides meat that looks like lamb and tastes like lamb. Chef John Dixon of Harbour Lights, Douglas accompanies it with honey and blackberries, which are soaked in ManX, a white, spirit whisky.
Loaghtan is much harder to track down; unsurprisingly, since most goes to Harrods. The animal is quite small, about the size of the Soay breed. Its mouse-coloured wool (lugh dhoan in Manx) gives it its Celtic name. The ewes look almost dainty, but the rams are something else. Two pairs of horns skew in unpredictable directions. Agile as mountain goats, they can skip over a barbed wire fence and their thick, soft fleece is weatherproof.
A generation ago they teetered on the Rare Breed list of endangered species. Numbers dipped below a hundred. Now, according to Adam Kelly whose organic Howe farm overlooks Douglas, there are thousands. Loaghtans have a European PDO (Protected Denomination of Origin) seal of approval. It’s an endorsement that he believes could be threatened by the animal’s growing popularity. Commercial pressures encourage farmers to send younger lambs to market before they are ready for the table. Because it grows slowly, the meat doesn’t develop its unique flavour until the sheep is well over a year old, when it’s officially mutton. That may explain why it’s rare on menus. The supermarket chain Shoprite stocks it, so we give it an impromptu grilling in Tanroagan’s kitchen. It’s not so much gamey, as some experts have described it, as beefy – more like a well-hung steak.
The Manx Examiner carries the eye-catching headline: ‘Turnip weighs over 20lbs’. On another inside page it stands up a yarn about a patriotic hen laying triple-yolked eggs. Everyday tales of country folk? They reflect an unspoiled, bucolic island. A tad smaller than, say, Singapore, the Isle of Man has 15 per cent of its population.
The paper had been hanging on a rack in the cafeteria of Tynwald Mills, a shopping mall in the middle of nowhere, only accessible to sat nav owners. Outside in a marquee, the organic farmer’s market is doing brisk business selling jams, cakes, Gloucester Old Spot pork, Ellerslie rapeseed oil and apple juice. Instead of giant turnips, there are herbs and micro salad leaves.
From behind a table of pastries and chutneys is Sheila Gawne. She turns her Loaghtan sheep into pies and, says, ‘they are the first thing to sell out.’ Jenny, her neighbour, has just installed a polytunnel to grow winter herbs for 14 North.
Scratch beneath the surface and small food businesses are starting up all over Man: spring water in bottles that can be refilled; an apple ‘orphanage’ pressing juice from unwanted fruit; a chocolatier, Karl Berrie, hand-dipping truffles at the back of a B&B where his mother makes afternoon teas that would shame the Ritz. Purity laws ensure that Bushy’s and Okells, the two competing breweries, add nothing to the hops, yeast, malt and water in their beers.
‘We’re not troubadours,’ Sheila Gawne insists. ‘We’re making a living.’ Her farm, she describes, covers land that was once part croft, part fishing village. The balance between ‘surf’ and ‘turf’ still exists on Man: it’s just below the surface, waiting to be discovered.
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