Internment, Gin, Train Rides and Climbing the Laxey Wheel Isle of Man

The Isle of Man has great train rides and wonderful Victorian industrial heritage.

Culture & History, Europe

After going on his Isle of Man walks, Mark Bibby Jackson takes a couple of train rides as he explores the island’s industrial heritage including the Laxey Wheel Isle of Man.

The Isle of Man is not just an island full of great walks, but it also has a ripe industrial heritage which makes for a very interesting day-trip from the capital Douglas.

Laxey Wheel Isle of Man

The Great Laxey Wheel (Queeyl Vooar Laksey) is a fantastic feat of Victorian engineering. The Laxey wheel was built in 1854 to pump water from the nearby mines. It was nicknamed Lady Isabella after the wife of the Lieutenant General of the Isle of Man at the time, Sir Charles Hope.

Laxey Wheel Isle of Man
Laxey Wheel Isle of Man

The wheel is just over 22 metres in diameter making it the largest original working waterwheel in the world. It could pump up to 220 gallons of water per minute from the mines, until they were shut in the 1920s.

Now, it is a major tourist attraction, dominating the surrounding landscape offering great views across Laxey Valley, especially on the bright sunny day when we arrived.

Manx Electric Railway

You can take a ride on the restored Great Laxey Mine Railway, which used to serve the mines, but instead we opted for the Manx Electric Railway from the town of Laxey to Ramsey in the north of the Isle of Man.

The electric railway was built between 1893 and 1899, even before Douglas had electricity.

Driving the Manx Electric Railway
Driving the Manx Electric Railway?

It runs 17.5 miles from Ramsey to Derby Castle in Douglas, reaching a top speed of 15mph – this is slow travel. The full trip lasts 75 minutes.

Our carriage is a 1992 replica of the 1899 original, although the adjoining carriage dated back to 1904.

Now, I must confess to be a lover of train rides, but sometimes they can be a trite disappointing with the star attraction being the train rather than the journey. This is not the case with the Manx Electric Railway. Our ride passes through stunning Isle of Man countryside, beyond the harbour of Laxey, along the coast and through fields where we see goats and sheep grazing.

It is a quite wonderful and relaxing experience, and I am disappointed when we chug into Ramsey Station.

Fynoderee Distillery

Fortunately, my disappointment is soon dissipated as we leave the station to enter the adjoining The Fynoderee Distillery. Founded in 2017 by locals Paul and Tiffany Kerruish, the distillery literally translates as “The Hairy One”, and is based on a traditional folklore. The couple are proud to be a partner business to the UNESCO Biosphere Isle of Man and are involved with the Ramsey Forest Project that has reintroduced juniper groves to Glen Auldyn, which is where the Fynoderee is said to live.

This is very much a local business producing artisan spirits in harmony with the community with initiatives such as its RNLI 200 Gin which supports the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). This was founded by Sir William Hillary who lived on the Isle of Man in 1824, and has saved an estimated 144,000 lives. This year marks the RNLI’s 200th anniversary.

Knockaloe Camp

Joe Pilates was interned at Knockaloe
Joe Pilates was interned at Knockaloe

After a fine lunch and tastings of the distillery’s gin, vodka and rum – a single malt whiskey is currently ageing – we hop onto our bus to drive down to the south of the island.

On the way we stop at Knockaloe Internment Centre.

Shortly after the outbreak of World War I, the UK government passed the Aliens Restrictions Act allowing them to control the movement of ‘enemy aliens’. Although the act was ostensibly aimed at identifying potential spies, it meant that all ‘aliens’ even British-born women who had married a German and had taken his nationality had to register. They were not permitted to travel further than five miles from their homes.

Initially, internees were kept in hastily arranged accommodation, but with the sinking of the Lusitania on 7 May 1915, things changed. Riots in the East End of London and Liverpool targeted German communities. The government decided all non-naturalised aliens between the age of 17 and 55 should be interned.

Due to its remoteness, Knockaloe Moar farm, which had been used as a training centre for the Territorial Army, was selected as an ideal location. More than 30,000 German, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish internees were held at Knockaloe Camp during the war in 23 compounds between 1914 and 1919, making it easily the biggest internment camp in the war. Amongst these was Joseph Pilates, a German boxer, circus performer and self-defence instructor, who is said to have come up with the concept for the Pilates method he called Contrology while studying the Manx cats at the camp.

The museum provides a fascinating insight into a period of history that is often ignored, and is particularly resonant with our current government’s Rwanda Asylum and Immigration Bill.

Isle of Man Steam Railway

Isle of Man Steam Railway
Isle of Man Steam Railway

From Knockaloe we drive to the former capital of Castletown which is a very pleasant fishing town and former capital of the Isle of Man, which I visited earlier in the week while on my bus ride and walk around the island.

This time, we have come to take our second train ride of the day. Opened in 1874, The Isle of Man Steam Railway runs for just over 15 miles from Douglas to Port Erin. Another line opened a year earlier from the Isle of Man capital to Peel, but it is not in use.

The steam trains are said to have inspired Wilbert Awdry to write the Thomas the Tank Engine series of books. This really is a train ride for enthusiasts, with the steam billowing away as we plough our way along the tracks. Although the scenery is not as spectacular as on our earlier ride, it does conclude at Port Erin, which has the most beautiful Edwardian railway station, built in 1903.

We end the day by taking our bus to The Sound right at the south of the island with great views overlooking the Calf of Man and its population of puffins. With the sun setting this make for a most satisfying conclusion to our tour around the Isle of Man.

Port Erin Railway Station
Port Erin Railway Station
Isle of Man Train Rides

Other train rides include the Snaefell Mountain Railway up to the highest point on the island. Details of the Isle of Man heritage railways can be found here.

Things to Do on the Isle of Man

Apart from train rides and climbing the Laxey Wheel Isle of Man, there is a plethora of things to do on the island. To discover what else there is to do on your Isle of Man holidays, read our 13 things to do on the Isle of Man, or go to the Visit Isle of Man website.

Isle of Man in a Nutshell

If you are planning an Isle of Man holiday, start with our Planning an Isle of Man Holiday: The Basics.

Mark Bibby Jackson

Mark Bibby Jackson

Before setting up Travel Begins at 40, Mark was the publisher of AsiaLIFE Cambodia and a freelance travel writer. When he is not packing and unpacking his travelling bag, Mark writes novels, including To Cook A Spider and Peppered Justice. He loves walking, eating, tasting beer, isolation and arthouse movies, as well as talking to strangers on planes, buses and trains whenever possible. Most at home when not at home.

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