In 1994, we made our first motorcycle trip to Britain, renting a Honda ST1100 near London and setting out to see what we could see. In addition to wandering around the three countries, I had to make a pilgrimage over to the Isle of Man, an iconic, perhaps THE iconic, place for two wheeled culture. Or at least it is if one is like me, steeped in the traditions of the European motorcycling world and the many legends of the Isle of Man TT races. Our visit was a week before the fabled races begin, when preparations are in the final stages but the enormous crowds have not yet arrived. We found our way down from Scotland to England’s west coast to meet the ferry, the King Orry. Heysham is a coastal town, of course, and they all have a certain look to them, one of the many places in this sceptered realm that I look at and say, “yes, I could live right here.”. After locating the dock, we are about an hour or so early so go back into Heysham Village for gas and another tea break. The older lady at the Shell station tells us that she’s the first and last chance gas from the boat so during TT weeks she gets thousands of bikes and stays open extra hours to accommodate them. Our pre-ferry snack is tea cakes and “Toasties” which are grilled cheese sandwiches, at a little Bayside tea shop. As we are sitting there looking out the window, an older couple, maybe 50s or early 60s, comes in, both dressed almost formally, looking like a retired headmaster and schoolteacher, but the man stops for a long time in the parking lot to look admiringly at the Honda. He comes over to our table, saying “are you the proud owner of that dream machine”? He tells us of the motorcycle travels he and his wife had in their youth. The wife says they’ve been over for TT week many times and find it “smashing”. She urges us to ride the race course while we’re there.
The ferry is a huge ship that swallows row upon row of cars, lorries and our Honda without even a burp. We take our place in the summer lounge on board waiting for it to depart.
It was a long wait. The captain made several rather nervous sounding announcements regarding engine trouble and got underway three hours late, arriving on the Isle with daylight all but gone. It was a “smooth crossing” according to a local resident who befriended us on the boat, meaning that waves only occasionally splashed over the C- deck windows as we neared port.
Our hotel, the Castle Mona, was easily found right here on the promenade. It is a good deal fancier than our usual local B&B lodgings since this visit would coincide with our anniversary, calling for special accommodations. It literally is a castle, built originally as the home for the Duke of Athol. Now a few centuries later, it is a five-Crown hotel with a lounge for “smart dress only” and uniformed staff at every turn. Still, as in most places we have been in Britain but especially here on the Isle, the sight of leather clad motorcyclists causes nothing but smiles. They treat us as honored guests and tell us that we are a bit early for the TT but hope we will stay for it. If not, they hope we will ride the course and enjoy it. Try getting THAT at a US Holiday Inn. We change clothes, rest up for a bit and walk down to a nearby Indian tandoori restaurant for excellent dishes I cannot now recall the names of, washed down with Boddington’s bitter and Stellar lager.
In the morning, while Brenda slept in,I set out at 6 AM to take my first lap of the TT course. The hotel clerk gave me directions to the start and cautioned me to mind the speed limits in small towns, but adds that there is no limit between towns. He recounts the story of Phil Reed one of the all-time greats, being banned from the Isle after a spot of early practice, before the course was closed to do so, when he was clocked by the local police at something around 150 mph in a 30 zone. I won’t do that, I assure the clerk.
I am in a cold mist as I take the outside coast road, spectacular, with views of the sea, green fields and village homes, all seen from eagle’s eye perspective. At Ramsey I joined the course markers and sandbags put up in preparation for next week’s competition on these public roads. Everywhere are signs saying “Links Fahren, bitte”, there to remind the German tourists that here one drives on the left side of the road. Apparently, it’s a recurring problem.
From Ramsey, I start up the hill, through the Hairpin, (incredibly sharp turn, uphill, how do they do that at speed?) and on toward Snae Fell, the highest point on the island. The temperature drops noticeably and I can feel my ears pop as I rise. Up there, through Bungalow Bends and the Verandah, the scenery is stark, beautiful, and dangerous. Though sunny down below, it is gray overcast up here and the cold wind blows hard across the bare landscape that has no trees to slow it. If a racer went off here, there’s nothing to impede a launch into an awful lot of empty air to the valley floor far, far below. Again how do they do it? At the aptly named named Windy Corner, the blasts can come off the open bay, through a natural funnel to the corner in just the right place to blow a bike sideways.
I am riding very carefully, somewhat erratic, because I’m timid with this large rented bike and the exotic conditions. These races have been going on here since 1903, but I won’t break any lap records, no matter from what year. Down the hill, past Kate’s Cottage and straight on into the hard right hand corner at Craig-ny-Baa where if one was too enthusiastic, one would wind up in the lobby of the hotel standing at the apex. I hear that it has been done more than once, including the story of a racer who slid his bike through the doors on its side, got up leaving the smoking wreckage on the floor and casually went to the bar to order a beer.
I have seen many photos of riders leaning hard through the corner at Governor’s Bridge which I see now is nearly as sharp as the Hairpin, but downhill and bumpy. They made it look so easy. Brenda isn’t up yet back at the hotel, so I go out for another lap. There are hundreds of turns, some gentle, some severe, most lined by stacked stone walls and curbs that would ensure a high side penalty for a slightly too wide line. The good racers have memorized every one of these curves on the 37 and a half mile course. I haven’t. On through Kirkmichael, up through Ballough Bridge (with both wheels firmly on the ground) and down into town. Now it is filled with normal traffic, kids going to school, etc but in a week there will be motorcycles here traveling at insane speeds through these city streets. Soon I am back in Ramsey, around the Hairpin and headed up onto Snae Fell for the long mountain stretch.
This time I open the throttle a bit more, hitting 100 mph at one point just to see what “doing the ton” feels like. It is cold and terrifying, actually.
I’m soon back at the Castle Mona, where I pick up Brenda and we head out, starting on the course, but soon veering off toward the town of Peel, an old fishing village on the coast with very, very narrow streets and a huge old castle on the promontory that stretches out into the bay. We stop for tea and breakfast at a beachside tea shop. Though it is after 10 AM, they’ve just begun the opening up process. Folks don’t get in much of a hurry here on the Isle.
We wander on along the western coast road with scenery almost like the California coastline …if the California coast was lined on the sides with ancient stone walls and populated everywhere with sheep. We rejoin the race course at Kirkmichael and roll on into Ramsey where I stop in at a motorcycle shop to browse. It is a real working shop, not a tourist spot or boutique, catering to riders, not shoppers. On the floor, they have MZ’s and Royal Enfields, among other fine old used machines.
From Ramsey, again through the Hairpin (my performance no better this time) and we climb the mountain to stop in at Murray’s Motorcycle Museum on the top of Snae Fell. It is a low building, mostly green inside with a cold dampness from the nearly perpetual fog that stays up here. We are greeted by one of the owners, given all kinds of information, pamphlets, free stickers and Brenda gets a pair of gold “3 legs” earrings. (The symbol of the Isle of Man, noting that they have never been fully conquered, though many have tried. The symbol means, “whichever way you throw me, I will stand”). John, the bearded assistant in his gray coveralls, shows me around and tells me some little known routes to take, urging me to return for the vintage races at Castleton later in the year.
We head off following his route down the right hand turn out of the museum and are quickly on a very steep downhill switchback run, single lane, into the bottom of a glen. We stop briefly at the Celtic craft center where the young lady proprietress greets the leather dressed cyclists like they were the most important people she’s ever met. And then on to more of the single track, through outstanding scenery. We come finally to the TT course again, near Kirkmichael and proceed down to Ballough bridge and turn toward Druidsdale. We end up again on a narrow lane, some places the “road” is barely wide enough for the bike, a kinked path across the hills back towards Snae Fell. It is wild and desolate, populated only by sheep and the view is magnificent. I took no pictures because my camera could not even begin to encompass what we see. We rejoin the course near the museum and follow it back into town. We had been advised to stop on our way over to Castletown, to stop at Fairy Bridge to say hello and give good wishes to the “little people” to assure our continued good fortune. We did, and it appears to have worked so far.
Castletown is another ancient, narrow-streeted town, with a huge foreboding castle, but all we can do is ride through it. There is no vacant place to leave a vehicle this morning, even a motorcycle. We press on toward Port Erin, the southernmost tip of the Isle and the “home of the 4 horned sheep”
There we stop for snacks, bran loaf and some sort of Manx cake bread with tea, and the café clerk gushes over us, the motorcycle and the TT week. It’s so nice to be in a country where motorcyclists are treated this way! Onward, down the coast—I’m running out of adjectives and superlatives for the scenery—through the medieval village of Craigneish and down to the very end, the cul-de-sac where one can see the Calf of Man across a short stretch of water. There is a tiny road visible on that island and I have no doubt that some hardy Manx soul lives over there, stiff-upper-lipped to the circumstances that would make a Spartan seem Sybarite.
Then we take a back road, actually a semi paved path, across the top of the (heath? moor? I’m never sure which), and down a winding lane with more wonderful views of the bay and village below, back into Port Erin. The huge Honda is capable of negotiating these tiny trails, but it would be much easier on a smaller dual sport. (If only we could have one of the bikes in the movies that converts instantly, scene to scene, from heavy touring machine to nimble dirt bike and back again, with the sound track of a big V-twin coming from what is obviously a two-stroke single.) Finally it’s back to Douglas, to our Castle and a stroll down the Strand in search of a pub. The first two we find – many are closed since the tourist and TT season isn’t open yet—are loud with a big rugby match on the TV. We do have to stop in at “Bushy’s”, the legendary TT week pub, for a beer.
That pub is now gone, I hear, torn down in the name of progress. The Castle Mona is up for sale and probably will never offer us a room again. I do hope to return to the Isle before I hang up my riding gear. I suspect my performance on the race course will not have improved and my capacity for trying the local food and drink in the evenings is much diminished. But I still want to be there.