Saturday, 20th May 2006
The day was spent exploring the heritage sites in the northern half of the island, the first stop being the town of Laxey, where The Great Laxey Wheel resides. Built in 1854 to pump water from the lead and zinc mines, it is in working order and remains the world’s greatest industrial water wheel. Even for someone like me, who usually claims little fascination for things mechanical, the Laxey Wheel is a marvellous feat of engineering.
One of the mines is accessible for a short distance. Inside the narrow shaft, water drips from the ceiling forming large puddles between the rails for the mine carts. It is hard to imagine working down there for hours on end, with nothing for light but a candle (secured to one’s helmet with a lump of clay). The hardship and suffering endured by the miners is reflected, outside the mine, by a large photograph of the workforce from the late 1800s. It is mesmerising and somewhat haunting to look at the faces of these long-dead men and see nothing but sadness, weariness and despair stare back. For several minutes, I could do nothing but gaze intently with a mixture of curious wonder and admiration for the people behind the images (the evocative sense produced by old photographs of people being similarly portrayed by the characters in Stephen Poliakoff’s excellent television play, Shooting the Past, about a country house, situated in the London suburbs, housing a photographic collection going back over the last decade).
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Just north of Laxey, is King Orry’s Grave, a unique pair of megalithic chambered- tombs from 5,000 B.C. They represent what was once the island’s most important burial site. Two large standing stones have been excavated, the low, narrow gap between them forming the entrance to the first chamber (now collapsed and open to the air). It is just possible to squeeze through the gap, which I did with a sense of awe, knowing that people had done the same some 5,000 years ago in the process of burying their dead.
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Further still along the northeast coast is the village of Maughold. Here, in a sheltered display area within the churchyard, is a fine collection of ancient Celtic and Viking carved, stone crosses. The low-roofed church is also of great interest, being small but well proportioned. Inside, beneath a diminutive organ loft, one central aisle leads past wooden pews (each able to seat three, maybe four parishioners) to the chancel, where the usual church furnishings (lectern, pulpit etc) have been scaled down to fit the small space. Behind the chancel is an equally reduced, but beautifully decorated altar. It is as though one has walked into the ecclesiastical version of a dolls house; all very cosy and comforting.
The exterior of the church at Maughold presents two additional surprises.
To the north side of the entrance is what at first glance appears to be a large mounting block (of the variety used by equestrians). However, further consideration indicates that it is really a set of steps leading up to an external door set at head height – the only way into the organ loft for the organist; a sort of tradesmen’s entrance for the secular staff.
The second surprise is the realisation that the church bell is hung outside the church above the main door, between a stone A-framed gable. Even more surprising is the heavy bell rope, which coils down over the porch and is tethered to one side of the entrance. Being appointed bell-ringer on a wet, cold winter’s Sunday, with an icy wind driving across the Irish Sea, must be a form of local punishment; a penance perhaps undertaken for having the temerity to miss the previous week’s service.
One final point of interest is the churchyard at Maughold. An ancient burial site, one could call it ‘well-stocked’, so numerous are the graves. The gravestones are mainly of stone (rather than marble), many standing five or more feet in height. Looking around at the expanse of these stones, the thought occurred that each one of these stones represents a person (or in some cases, many people) and I had a sudden and curious sensation of standing amongst a vast, silent crowd gathered on this hillside overlooking the sea.
Examination of headstones is an interest long held. Much can be learned of the people once populating the area: here lies a blacksmith, over there a priest, here a male hair dresser (perhaps unusual in 1865) and so on. Sometimes, many people have died around the same time, no doubt due to some form of infection bringing sadness and ruin to many families.
The most poignant of the headstones are those depicting families, as they often portray a life of sadness and despair. One such example consists of three adjacent graves belonging to a specific family. Between 1832 and 1847, William and Jane lost no less than eight children, their ages being as follows (it is interesting to note that some Christian names were used more than once):
Margaret Jane – in infancy
John - 1½ years
William Thomas - 7¼ years
Edward - 4¾ years
Margaret Jane – 11 months
William Thomas – 7 months
James – 8 months
Sarah – in infancy
Three more children were lost at later ages:
Christian in 1868 aged 19years
Jane in 1875 aged 32 years
Isabella in 1875 aged 23 years
What makes the whole history even more poignant is the fact that the father, William, died in 1887 aged 80 years; his wife, Jane, predeceasing him in 1884, but herself reaching the fine age of 79 years. What was it that gave the parents such fortitude, but failed in respect to the children? One can only stand and wonder.
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Even further north lies the town of Ramsey, where a well-preserved house, called The Grove, tells the story of a Victorian merchant’s family. The Gibbs once owned a shipping fleet and initially developed The Grove as a summer residence to escape the risk of cholera in Liverpool. Later on, two spinster daughters continued to live out their lives there, both dying in their nineties. The contents of the house are intact and as depicted in photographs of the family during the Victorian era.
Today, visitors can take afternoon tea (served in old fine bone china) in the conservatory, itself having the same timeless charm. All in all, I couldn’t help feeling that we had stepped back one hundred years, perhaps leaving the Tardis parked just up the road!
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The final destination for the day was Peel, over on the west coast, which entailed a drive around part of the road course for the TT (Tourist Trophy) motorbike races. With the races scheduled for early June, preparation is already taking place, with thick straw bales padding out stone walls, lampposts and trees on risky bends.
Peel Castle is sited on St Patrick’s Island, once only joined to the mainland by a spit of sand visible at low tide. It is the well-preserved ruins of an ancient fortress and early centre of Christianity, with much to whet the curiosity of the visitor interested in history and archaeology.
Today, the main risk of attack is from gulls nesting high up on the ramparts, coupled with a constant battering from a bitterly cold wind. We were the only two people looking round it and whether that says something of our hardiness or foolhardiness, I am yet to decide. Nonetheless, undaunted, we completed the tour, marvelling at the fortitude of those who had once lived there and feeling, with a sense of righteousness, that we had added another piece to the mental jigsaw called education.
Indeed, the events of the whole day had been one long voyage of discovery of what is proving to be a fascinating island.