A father and son leave racing behind to explore the pocketbook-sized country.
Story by Alan Cathcart
Photos by Kyoichi Nakamura
The first Tourist Trophy race was held 110 years ago on the Isle of Man – a small, oval-shaped island lying between Great Britain and Ireland, measuring 52 km long and 22 km across. Laced with austere moorlands, wooded glens, sandy beaches, lonely castles and time-warp towns, the island is home to the oldest and most famous race circuit in the world, the Snaefell Mountain Course, to give it its proper name.
Although it’s possible to see what Manx people insist is a total of six kingdoms – Wales, England, Scotland, Ireland, Mann, and Heaven! – from the slopes of Snaefell, at 621 metres above the Irish Sea, the island’s highest point, the Isle of Man (“Ellan Vannin” in the local Manx language) is not part of the United Kingdom, but a Crown dependency whose original Viking settlement was ceded to Scotland by the King of Norway in 1266. Today, the Queen of England is also the Lord of Mann, represented on the island by a lieutenant-governor, complete with all the trimmings of a quasi-colonial setup. As a diehard motorcyclist, Her Majesty’seldest grandson, Prince William, was an anonymous visitor to the TT races in 2003, the year that Triumph crowned its return to the island with Kiwi Bruce Anstey’s victory in the Supersport TT on a 600 Daytona that “Wills” himself later rode at a private test at Goodwood. Queen Elizabeth’s face graces Manx banknotes, but they aren’t legal tender anywhere beyond the island. The island is also not part of the European Union. It is, however, a flourishing offshore financial centre that has seen many “come-over” residents – including MotoGP racer Cal Crutchlow, former World Superbike Champion James Toseland and his World Supersport counterpart, Aussie Andrew Pitt – taking advantage of the low 18 per cent income-tax ceiling. But the island’s population of 85,000 people (28,000 of them in Douglas, its capital and ferry gateway) doubles for the two weeks of the TT races.
All the more reason, then, to get away from the crowded 60.73 km mountain course and explore the other parts of this pocketbook-sized country, which packs a huge amount of variety and history into its 572 sq. km. As a former TT rider with an honourable, but unexceptional, yet fortunate IoM race record – I finished fourth once, fifth once, eighth and ninth, but twice crashed at places where others have died – I’ve always enjoyed my two dozen trips across the Irish Sea to Mona’s Isle, a third, more romantic title for the island. That’s even though, as one of the hosts of self-funded privateers making up the bulk of the TT entry, I too often spent most of practice week locked up in a borrowed garage preparing my racebikes, when not actually out riding round the course either in an official timed session or on a road bike to brush up on my course knowledge. But, depending on how many different rides you had, race week was paradoxically more relaxed, and especially on Mad Sunday when, like most other racers, I made it a point of principle never to set a wheel on the TT Course, allowing me the opportunity to explore other parts of the island, aided nowadays by the informative IoM government website isleofman.com.
I’d never, however, taken my bike-mad eldest son, Andrew, with me – an omission rectified by taking a pair of Triumphs on a three-day trip to the island. Our adventure was blessed with uninterrupted springtime sunshine. Although its position in the Irish Sea scooping up the remnants of the Gulf Stream sees Florida-style palm trees scattered in gardens along its coast, the Isle of Man doesn’t so much have a climate as constantly changeable weather. In Manx mythology, the island was ruled by a Celtic sea god named Manannan Mac Lir, after whom the Isle of Man is named. Legend has it he drew his misty cloak around the island to protect it from invaders.
I used to curse him as I groped my way up the Mountain Mile in a fog-shrouded early-morning practice session, but he’d obviously decided I was friend, not foe, this time around. The island’s terrain includes many narrow, twisting, hilly lanes where the twin-cylinder torque of Andrew’s Bonneville came into its own, as well as the stretches of road where my 675 cc Daytona triple could stretch its legs. Apart from strict restrictions in towns and villages, there’s still no overall speed limit on the island. “Derestricted” means exactly that. “There are a few places in the world that have managed to slip through a crack in the space–time continuum, or fallen off the back of the history truck to lie amnesiac in the road to progress. And the Isle of Man is caught permanently in the pork-pie jelly of 1957.” So wrote the late
British humourist A.A. Gill after visiting the island – and he’s right. Though there are many stone farmhouses and fisherman’s cottages, the most potent reminder of the way the island used to be is the National Folk Museum of Cregneash, in the far south near Spanish Head (so named because it acted as a lookout point for the Spanish Armada). Dozens of houses and large stretches of the surrounding countryside create an authentic picture of traditional rural life, complete with regular demonstrations of making yarn with a spinning wheel, milking cattle, making cheese, dyeing wool, blacksmithing, shoeing horses, thatching roofs and so on.
The rare, four-horned Loaghtan sheep and Manx-bred working horses are native to the island, as is the unique tailless Manx cat. Highly intelligent, with a dense double coat of fur, and more solidly built with longer hind legs than a normal household kitty, a Manx cat is the result of spontaneous mutation, rather than the legend that insists it was all Noah’s fault: after the rains began while he was still filling the Ark, and he caught the tail of one of the cats coming aboard in a door when he hurriedly closed it to keep the water out. There are three kinds – a completely tailless “rumpy,” a “stumpy” with a vestigial tail and a normal-style “tailie.” Having had one of each, our family can confirm that Manx cats make marvellous pets, being very affectionate with lots of personality, one reason they’re often referred to as the “dog cat.”…