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Destination: British Isles : Rooting for the Celts : On the Isle of Man, ancient cultures mix with pastoral peace--and the racket of motorcycles

August 20, 1995|ANNE GORDON | Gordon is a free-lance writer based in Ontario, Canada

RAMSEY, Isle of Man — Ten thousand years ago a warming of the world's temperature brought about the slow disintegration of the vast ice mantle that covered a large part of the Northern Hemisphere.

As the massively thick glacier slowly melted and retreated northward, an island was revealed in what is now called the Irish Sea. To the east of it was a large land mass, later to be known as Great Britain; to the west, Ireland. Among its earliest human inhabitants were the Celts and later the Vikings.

My husband, James, and I were visiting the Isle of Man for the second summer in two years, and finding its tranquil beauty a balm after a particularly busy year in Oxford. Although only a four-hour ferry ride from Britain, the island's mild climate--with temperatures conducive to the growing of palms--was another attraction. We had even considered moving here during one of our frequent moments of wanderlust. As we stood on the deck of the ferry approaching the island, its capital, Douglas, sparkled in the late afternoon August sunshine. The heavy pounding of King Orry's engines reverberated through the deck as we moved ever closer across a millpond sea.

Once a popular retreat for the northern English before they gravitated to the more exotic European scene, the Isle of Man is now home to many British millionaires. Low taxes and a more relaxed lifestyle have coaxed the likes of Nigel Mansell of Formula One racing car fame, and Norman Wisdom, a well-loved English comedian, across the Irish Sea to Man.

With its own government and remnants of the original Gaelic (Manx) language, the island has long attracted the curious. North Americans, many of them of Manx descent, come here to discover more about their Celtic roots. Europeans are drawn by the annual International Car Rally and the motorcycle races held on this sliver of land only 13 miles wide and 33 miles long.

For those of us who prefer tranquility, there are rocky cliffs with an ever-changing sea bird population, wooded glens nestling in deep clefts where hill meets hill and fishing harbors with lighthouses and sandy coves at frequent intervals along the beautiful coastline. Each year, toward the end of May, more than 12,000 motorcycle enthusiasts, with every imaginable make of motorcycle, and thousands of fans descend on the island for the world famous T.T. (Tourist Trophy) Races. This massive, two-week invasion causes a logistic nightmare for the ferry company responsible for transporting them from England. The attraction: some of the most challenging motorcycle races in the world--over a 37 3/4-mile course through villages and along mountain roads. Island roads are closed to traffic on race days, and at a humpbacked bridge in the middle of a small village called Ballaugh spectators wait in anticipation mixed with dread as each entrant hits the bridge and becomes airborne.

From the nightmarish noise of the races it is never more than a 30-minute drive to the wooded glens nestled in 17 valleys spread across the island. Glen Wyllin, Laxey Glen and Silverdale are recreational areas with campsites and playgrounds. In spring and summer, Colby Glen, inland from Port Erin, is filled with a dense profusion of wild bluebells and primroses. Others such as Glen Helen, Glen Mooar and Ballaglass are magical places with towering American sequoias and massive English oaks, steep-sided cliffs festooned with ferns and wildflowers dripping with moisture thrown up by the spray of waterfalls. Delicate wooden bridges crisscross swiftly flowing streams and there is a quietness, save for the sound of the water and the muted twittering of birds. One feels there could be fairies here.

Certainly the Manx do. While riding with a friend on our August trip, I was surprised and interested to see her raise her hand and whisper "Laa Mie" (good day) as we approached Fairy Bridge on the main Douglas-to-Castletown road. "What was that about?" I asked, puzzled. "Just a Manx custom," she said and smiled mysteriously. "Themselves [the fairies] can be vindictive if not acknowledged."

Witches are another part of the Celtic tradition. Once again out with my friend, we visited Primrose Hill in the northern reaches of the island. The scene before us--a hill and surrounding fields covered with flowering gorse--was once a gruesome place. In earlier times, anyone accused of being a witch was placed in a spiked barrel--spikes on the inside--and trundled off down Primrose Hill. If the accused died, she was a witch; if she survived, she was not a witch.

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