Castletown, Isle of Man

If you’re into Vikings you’ll love the Isle of Man. The Vikings ruled here from the 9th to the 13th centuries AD, leaving behind runic inscriptions, carved crosses, viking burials, and (of course) their DNA. We visited Castle Rushen, originally built for a Viking ruler of the Isle of Man, on Bank Holiday Monday.

More about that shortly; first I’d better update you on what we got up to on Saturday and Sunday (it’s not all about bikes, honest; there’s a written-off van in there too… 😉).

The pre-TT classic bike racing on the 4.25 mile Billown circuit at Castletown is, Mark informed me, more of club event than the huge affair that is the TT proper. We saw 11 races on Saturday and Sunday, three for sidecars and the other 8 for solo bikes in various classes.

We’ve been enthusiastically supporting brothers Meredydd and Bob Owen (numbers 13 and 98 respectively), together with Meredydd’s son Hefyn Owen (number 14).

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Mark has known Meredydd and Bob for decades; they’re about the same age and were all biking lads in the same small village in their spotty youth.

Mark tells a good story that involves Bob. When Mark signed up to work for British Antarctic Survey and headed off for his first trip to Antarctica (20-odd years ago, when God were a lad and Mark still had hair on the top of his bonce), he lent his van to Bob.

Eight months later (having done a “double shift”; the normal pattern was four months on / four months off) Mark arrived back home and his mum told him “your friend’s been round and brought your van back”. This quite understandably confused Mark as the van parked outside the house wasn’t his. It turned out that Bob had written Mark’s van off in his absence and had gone out and bought him another one as a replacement. You can’t say fairer than that. Mark says that the replacement van was better than the original……..

Bob did really well at the weekend; 5th place in one of his races and then 2nd place in the other.

This is where it gets confusing. “Of course Bob was never going to beat the lad who won”, commented Mark after Bob’s second place finish. It turns out that the 500cc bikes in the race were most definitely not equal: Bob’s bike has a single cylinder engine, whereas the bloke who won had a more modern four-cylinder engine. Mark tells me it would be like racing my car against his truck. “That’d be a completely pointless exercise….” was my first thought on the matter.

There was another shock revelation down at the paddock on Monday morning; we’d swung by to say hello on our way into town. Here’s Mark chatting away to speedy Bob:

They’re supposedly racing “classic bikes” but apparently Meredydd’s bike hasn’t got a single original part on it and Bob’s bike only has the frame and a few other bits he can count on one hand. Hmmmmm….. Best not to question the logic methinks; they’d only get upset 😉

These questions did prompt some heated discussion between the two of us in SOK last night. Under what circumstances would you show up for a competitive event knowing that you couldn’t win, not because of your own ability but because your equipment just wasn’t up to the job? Answers on a postcard….

We both really enjoyed the sidecar races. I did notice that some of the drivers were somewhat on the porky side 🍰. The passengers are impressive, jumping around like ninjas on hot coals to keep all the wheels on the ground. You do have to bear in mind that they’re averaging 80+ mph, with not a lot to hang onto, as they perform these gymnastic feats….

Mark’s favourite was number 29, which he described as “a proper old motorbike and sidecar, but not that fast”:

There was a real old battle during the first sidecar race on Sunday between number 29 and number 36. I was really pleased (both at the result and the crestfallen look on Mark’s face) when the two Dutch ladies on number 36 came out ahead….

Bike racing over, it was time to get back to a bit of tourism. Rushen Castle in the centre of Castletown was probably built at the start of the 13th century during the reign of this chap:

He doesn’t look like a Reginald, does he? That’s how he’s been anglicised, though, unfortunately for him. I’d have stuck with Rognvaldr myself…

Rognvaldr was part of a bloodthirsty dynasty who’d ruled the Isle of Man as part of the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles since his great grandfather Godfred Crovan (“crovan” meaning “white hand”) took control back in 1079.

The Irish Sea was, of course, a transportation superhighway back in Viking times. In that context, the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles makes perfect sense.

Getting back to Castletown, the settlement that grew up around Rushen Castle remained the capital of the island right up until the 19th century.

The original Viking tower was rebuilt in the 14th century. It’s a “proper” castle, with a keep surrounded by stout defensive walls. The narrow passageways and steep spiral staircases captured Mark’s imagination, as of course did the “murder holes” in the floor of the room above the portcullis:

So what else did the Vikings do for the Isle of Man? Well, the Tynwald for one, the oldest continuous parliament in the World. For over 1000 years, grievances have been brought and the laws recited here at an annual meeting open to all. Tynwald Day is normally held on July 5th each year. Unfortunately, we’ll be leaving the island on 19 June. It’s certainly something to add to our list for a future trip though.

Viking rule on the Isle of Man ended in 1265 when Magnus, the last of the dynasty and nephew of Rognvaldr, died at Castle Rushen without issue. The very next year, in 1266, Norway (whose King claimed overlordship of the Kings of Mann and the Isles) ceded the islands to Scotland as part of the Treaty of Perth.

It wasn’t long before the Isle of Man came under English rule. In 1405, Henry IV gave the kingship of the Isle of Man to one of his supporters, Sir John Stanley, and the island was held by a succession of Stanleys right up until the 18th century. Initially they styled themselves Kings of Mann but demoted themselves (ceremonially; needless to say they didn’t give up any of their powers) to Lords of Mann in the early 16th century.

The Stanleys were staunch Royalists during the English Civil War of the 1640s. We were greatly amused by the response of James Stanley, Lord of Mann, to a note received in 1649 from the Parliamentarian side demanding his surrender:

I scorn your proffers, disdain your favour, and abhor your treason…. if you trouble me with any more messages on this occasion I will burn the paper and hang the messenger

That’s a pretty clear response!

Castletown is a lovely little place, with the castle, boats bobbing in the harbour, and a pretty main square all in close proximity to one another. There’s a good range of shops lining the narrow streets, including an old-fashioned sweet shop and a very nice butcher’s shop. We will certainly be heading back there at some point during our stay.

We had a practical matter to take care of on our way back towards the North of the island: LPG. There’s only one place you can fill up with LPG on the Isle of Man, at Union Mills just outside Douglas. You turn up a red brick road directly opposite the Spar shop in the village:

This brings you round to the back of the village petrol station, where there is an antique lpg pump. It’s a good idea to pop into the petrol station first so they know you’re there and are ready to activate the pump once you’ve connected up and pressed the button.

We then continued up to Sulby Claddagh, which is another spot you can buy a permit for (£20 gets you a permit for the whole summer). Caravans and tents are allowed here too (unlike at Mooragh Park in Ramsey) so it’s a busy little place… There are facilities for motorhomes (fresh water and chemical toilet disposal point) and even a spotlessly clean toilet block for those tent-dwellers.

From Sulby Claddagh we can very easily get to the TT circuit at either Ginger Hall or Sulby Crossroads (on foot or by push bike), or we could drive up a back road to the Bungalow on the mountain section of the course. There’s a practice session to watch each evening until Friday; during the daytimes we’re free to be tourists 😀

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