One evening we just happened to have the radio on in the background, and heard a quiz question which was 'Where would you find the Way of the Gull?'. The answer was that it was the name of the coastal path round the Isle of Man, also known as 'Raad ny Foillan' to give it its proper Manx name. Our ears pricked up at this, and we were sufficiently intrigued to go and do some research on the internet. One thing led to another, and we ended up ordering the guidebook and OS map, and then planning it in for the middle of June, a week after the TT races. Total length was about 160km (100 miles), which was a ideal length for a weeks holiday.
The island has a few campsites, but not enough that you are in the vicinity of one at the end of every stage like you would be on something like the UK South West Coast Path. But it did seem to have a very regular bus service that covered most of the island, so our plan was to stay in a couple of campsites over the week, and to get buses to and from the start and finish of stages as needed. It made our rucksacs a lot lighter too!
We were up until late on Thursday evening, getting everything packed, so that we would be ready for a slick getaway after work on Friday, and we eventually made it to Liverpool on the train for just after 10pm. We stayed in the city centre overnight, and then got the ferry across to Douglas on Saturday morning. After a snack in Douglas, we got a bus up to Ramsey, and walked over to the campsite and pitched up. As it was a Saturday, I had thought they might be quite busy, but as it turned out we were the only tent in the whole site! After pitching we went back into town to get some supplies and have a look round.
Walking back to the campsite from the town centre we passed some race walkers on their way through Ramsey, and people with tables set up giving out drinks and snacks. A person handing out drinks told us that it was the annual 'Parish Walk' race, which did an 85 mile loop of the island within 24 hours, with the front-runners typically finishing in around 16 hours. He had done it himself the year before and enthusiastically gave us the full rundown of the trials and tribulations of doing the race. It was all very exciting, and the walkers passing by every few minutes were actually the leaders, so we hung around for a while to see a few more come through.
The Sunday bus services were very reduced compared to normal days, which limited our options, so we settled on the stage from Jurby to Ramsey via Point of Ayre, which would mean that we would only need one bus to the start. Plus the forecast was for good weather during the week, apart from Sunday which was going to be very wet, so we didn't want to do one of the more scenic or hilly parts on the worst day. The first bus to Jurby left Ramsey at quarter past ten, which made the start a bit later than we would have wanted. From the bus stop near the museum in Jurby, it was an easy walk down a minor road and then a track past Sarfield to the beach, and we finally got going on the coast path itself at eleven o'clock. It was high tide, but the beach stretch to Point of Ayre was all passable, although it did make the walking harder going as the firmer sand was underwater, so we had to walk on the pebbles. It wasn't actually raining yet, but it was cloudy. There were lots of groups of oystercatchers hanging about by the water, and further along we gave a wide berth to parts of the beach that were fenced off to protect little tern nesting sites.
After a while, when the tide had gone out a bit, some firmer sand became uncovered, which made the walking a bit easier. At Lhen Trench a stream went across the beach to the sea, and it was just slightly too wide to jump, so we had to take our shoes and socks off and wade across. After the stream crossing we sat down on the sand and had some bread and houmous and a Clif bar. The red and white striped lighthouse in the distance at Point of Ayre intermittently appeared and disappeared as the clouds blew through. It had started to drizzle a bit, although the wind was coming from behind us, so it didn't feel too bad. A solitary seal popped its head out of the water a few times, then disappeared. At the lighthouse was a large undulating pebble beach which was roped off for litle tern nesting sites.
The lighthouse marked the northern tip of the island, and the route now turned and headed South, which meant that the rain was now suddenly in our faces, which was an unpleasant change. We started off with easy walking on grass, but after a while came to a warning sign that the next bit was private land, so we moved back down to the beach. There a long section past Shellag Point which was impassable at high tide, and tall mud cliffs meant that it was inescapable once you got started on it. As the tide was now going out we were OK. We passed a few groups of cormorants hanging about by the water. This stretch seemed to go on forever, with constant wind-blown rain in our faces. A short stop for a Builder bar cheered us up about half way along, but by the time we reached Ramsey we were fairly bedraggled and a bit dispirited. Being a Sunday, there wasn't a lot open, but there was a good chinese restaurant, and we went in and got some food, plus dried out and warmed up a bit. When we got back to the tent we discovered one serious disadvantage with the campsite - cold showers!
The rain seemed to have disappeared and there was plenty of blue sky when we woke up. The next stage was from Ramsey to Laxey, and we had planned to move to the campsite in Peel as it was more handy for the southern part of the island, so we packed all our camping stuff and headed off. We were a bit late getting going, and then got tempted into a breakfast stop at a cafe in the centre of Ramsey. By the time we were finally on the go it was half past ten. The route followed the main road out of Ramsey, but then turned off onto the A15 and crossed over the Manx Electric Railway. The path crossed back and forth over the tracks quite a few times on this stage, and we got some good sightings of the trams going past, some of which are apparently originals from when it first opened in 1893. The A15 was a bit different from a typical A-road back in England, as there was less than one car every five minutes!
Eventually we left the road at at a sign 'Coastal Footpath (Rough Walking) to Maughold Head'. It was great walking, traversing hillside covered with ferns and gorse, and good views back to Ramsey. We passed some chaps with petrol strimmers who were cutting back the paths to stop them getting overgrown. We rejoined the road near to a very densely packed cemetery, with good views of the hills inland. The path dropped back to the coast near Port Mooar and a nice little cove where we spotted a seal, and views back to the lighthouse at the tip of Maughold Head. After Port Mooar there was now quite a bit of hilly road walking, which was a bit dreary, especially in the midday sun. The road eventually peaked at a neolithic burial site, and across the road a quaker burial ground.
The path followed Glen Coorna back down to the sea, through some nice forest sections, and we sat on a bench overlooking the pebble beach and had a snack. More minor roads took us to the final descent to Laxey down a steep stony path, which for some reason had a one-way sign at the top! The steep path popped out in Laxey just beside the harbour bridge, which was closed for repairs, but we took a nearby footbridge which had been built out of scaffolding. It was nearly five o'clock by now, and the ice cream place on the front was about to close, so we were only just in time to get some ice lollies and drinks, and have a sit down on a bench overlooking the beach.
From Laxey the route took us along the beach, heading towards steep vegetation covered hillside, and it was hard to see where it could possibly go. But at the end of the beach, we scrambled across some rocks, and a narrow steep path did indeed appear. It got progressively more overgrown as we got further up, with thick ferns and bushes that you had to push your way through, in some places more like a tunnel. Near the top, an overhanging branch snagged Jill's sunglasses from her head and flicked them off into the thick undergrowth where we weren't able to find them again. We eventually popped out on the road at Fairy Cottage, right beside a bus stop, where we only had a ten minute wait for a bus back to Douglas and then another bus to Peel, where we walked the short distance up to the campsite and got pitched up. There were a few other campers around, but it was fairly quiet, and we got a good spot in the furthest corner, with our own picnic table. The campsite had a good supermarket nearby that was open until 9pm, and best of all it had piping hot showers!
Tuesday's stage needed a bit of thought. If we continued on from Laxey then a days worth of walking would probably get us to somewhere on the path between Douglas to Castletown, where there weren't any nearby bus routes for getting back. So we decided to start from Douglas instead, and then come back and fill in the fairly short 14km (9 mile) Laxey to Douglas stage later on. We were up bright and early, and we settled up at the campsite office as we passed, and then were on the quarter past eight bus from Peel to Douglas, with all the commuters going to work. It was a nice sunny day again, and Jill bought some fashionable sunglasses in Douglas to replace the ones that had been stolen by the bushes on the Fairy Cottage path. As it was all road walking for the first few miles we also got takeaway cups of tea to have on the go, which was a very civilised way to get started.
We got moving at about half past nine. A short climb took us to a little park near Douglas Head which had great views back over Douglas. Then shortly after that we went under an arch marking the start of Marine Drive. Although it was all on road, it was pleasant walking, there were practically no cars, only the occasional dog walker, and the odd fitness walkers. A stretch in the middle was totally closed to cars due to subsidence on one side and rockfall on the other. As we went along there were superb views of cliffs below, including some particularly excellent strata. Near Port Soderick we left the road and descended on a path through bushes. Some people at the top of the path warned us that it was very overgrown, but it seemed fine to us, especially compared to the rather brutal Fairy Cottage climb from the day before.
Port Soderick was a nice little cove, and we were hoping for a small cafe for elevenses, but all the buildings on the promenade were boarded up. It was followed by a pleasant bit through trees along Port Soderick Glen. Just after the glen was the Port Soderick station on the steam railway. A chap passing by was rather enthusiastic about the station, and convinced us to walk up the short approach road and have a look. We all went up, but were disappointed to find that it seemed to have been turned into a private house, and there were lots of builders working on it. There was a bit of road walking now, along the A25 past a sewage works, although it was very quiet for traffic. We finally rejoined the coast at Santon Head. From here it was very good walking, rolling path through ferns and bushes, and lots of views of cliffs down below. The path was a bit airy at times, sometimes traversing right by the cliffs, with big drops below. Judging by the thick ferns and grass crowding in the path in places, it seemed like this stretch doesn't get a huge amount of traffic, and we didn't see a single person along here. A bit further along we sat down and had some bread and houmous and a clif bar.
After Port Soldrick there was an inland detour through thick gorse bushes and then on duck-boards over marshy bits, to cross Santon Burn. Shortly after we arrived at the edge of the airport, where the route went between the perimeter fence and some huge granite blocks. A few planes took off and landed as we made our way along. We reached Derby Haven at quarter to five, where we weren't technically that far away from Castletown, except that the Raad ny Foillan actually went out and did a circuit of Langness. Part of the way round we sat down on a bench and had some bread and houmous for tea. We finally made it back to Castletown just before seven o'clock. It was a nice little market square, which was overlooked by an excellent castle, and we only had to wait ten minutes for a bus back to Douglas via the airport, then another bus back to Peel. It was too late for the supermarket by the time we got back to Peel, but luckily there was a really good chip shop not far from the bus stop, so we picked up a takeaway, which we ate at the picnic table beside our tent.
We were back on the Douglas commuter bus in the morning, although we were getting more expert at it now, and had worked out that getting off on the outskirts of Douglas rather than going all the way into the centre should enable us to make a connection with an earlier Castletown bus. The connection was touch and go, especially with the slow moving rush hour traffic queues into Douglas, but we made it with a couple of minutes to spare. We finally got to Castletown for quarter past nine, and got stocked up with takeaway cups of tea to have on the go, and a few snacks from the Coop. The path quickly got us to Scarlett Point, past some old limekilns, then easy walking on low grassy coastline. At Poyllvaish (which translates as pool of death) we joined a minor road, and then further on followed the pavement along the side of the A5 which took us to the outskirts of Port St Mary.
An interesting raised walkway along the sea walls in Port St Mary, followed by a short stretch alongside the harbour, led to the main road through Port St Mary. It was almost time for elevenses by now, but there didn't seem to be much in the way of facilities in Port St Mary, and we ended up backtracking quite a way through Port St Mary before we eventually found a small rock-n-roll themed cafe.
By road, Port St Mary is actually very near to Port Erin, but the Raad ny Foillan takes you right round the peninsula to get there. From Port St Mary, there was nice walking through green fields criss-crossed by dry stone walls, before arriving at some superb cliffs, and views of the Sugarloaf sea stack way down below. Shortly after the cliffs, more impressive scenery at The Chasms, where the ground was split by deep fissures. This was followed by lovely walking on grassy track through ferns, gorse, and heather. Near Spanish Head, the Calf Sound appeared all of a sudden, with rather turbulent looking water, and excellent views across to the Calf of Man. The path descended to a visitor centre, which after the almost deserted paths seemed to be a bit of a tourist honeypot. We stopped off for a quick pot of tea, and it turned out to be a nice cafe, with a glass front that gave a panoramic view of the Sound.
We thought we had seen the best of the scenery by now, but there was another superb stretch just after the cafe, where the path picked its way through tall cliffs and jumbled rocks. This was followed by more pleasant track traversing fern covered hillside. Eventually views of Port Erin apppeared, and we descended and popped out by the harbour. It was fairly early, only quarter past four, and we were just trying to work out where the Douglas bus went from, when one went past and stopped a little way down the road, and a quick sprint got us on it.
We had missed out the stretch from Fairy Cottage to Douglas stage previously, but the bus back from Port Erin went to Douglas and then continued on to Onchan, which was actually on the stage. Since it was quite early we decided to stay on the bus all the way to Onchan, and then walk the stage in reverse back to Fairy Cottage, which would almost finish it, leaving only the bit along the Douglas promenade to Onchan, which we could easily polish off on the final morning before catching the ferry. The Douglas promenade was quite busy with traffic, which slowed the bus down, but it eventually made it to Onchan, and dropped us at the Port Jack stop at half past five.
The route took us down a grassy path that traversed between the sea-view houses and the cliffs. It was quite an intriguing stretch, as it went right beside people's back gardens, and in some places actually went through their back gardens! It varied from well cut back to very overgrown, so in some places you weren't quite sure that you were still on the path. It finally popped out on the A11 road, following the Manx Electric Railway, before dropping down a steeper minor road to Groudle Glen.
After Groudle Glen there was a long section of walking along a very quiet road before turning off to go through the Ballannette Conservation Area. There was a small lake, with a board listing the recent bird sightings, and we sat down on a bench overlooking it for a quick snack. By the bench there was even a tap for walkers to fill up their bottles! Further along, the path descended through pleasant forest and ferns to Garwick Bay, and we were excited to come across a hedgehog that was also heading down the path. The route eventually reached the main A2 road, and we walked along to Fairy Cottage, where we had finished up previously. There wasn't always pavement along this bit, so it wasn't the best for walking, but fortunately the evening traffic was fairly light. The buses were a bit sparse at this time of night, and we had to wait for more than half an hour for the next bus to Douglas. At Douglas there was another half an hour wait for the bus back to Peel, so we went and got takeway vegiburger and falafel, which we polished off sitting in the bus shelter. It was quite a late finish, we finally made it back to the tent at about quarter to eleven.
There wasn't a direct bus from Peel to Port Erin, so we were back on the Douglas commuter bus in the morning, and despite queuing traffic into Douglas, we managed the touch and go connection on the outskirts again with a couple of minutes to spare. We arrived in Port Erin at half past nine, and got takeaway cups of tea from the station cafe, where we were also just in time to see a steam train setting off. As we headed over to the upper promenade, a series of vintage cars went past. It was a fairly short climb up to the tower on Bradda Head, and then we pushed on along an easy grassy path through heather and gorse. The route ahead was covered in cloud, but there were occasional glimpses as the clouds blew through. We arrived at the first summit of the day, Bradda Hill, just after eleven, and had a sit down for a quick snack. Through the wispy cloud there were good views down to the cliffs of Fleshwick Bay below in the sun.
A steep descent from Bradda Hill took us all the way down to Fleshwick Bay, and then an immediate equally steep ascent to the second summit, Lhiatte ny Beinee, where we sat down and had some bread and houmous. There were great views of the final summit of Cronk ny Arrey Laa, and the clouds were starting to dissipate. The path didn't go all the way down to sea level this time, but instead descended to a road, and the ascent to the summit didn't take too long. From the summit, we could see Niarbyl, and it didn't look that far, but ended up taking much longer than expected to get there. The route descended almost all the way to sea level, followed by climbing back up along a path through tall ferns, then after some route confusion, we eventually took the low route, along a beach with a small waterfall at White Bay, and finally past an old thatched cottage right beside the shoreline. It was about five o'clock when we arrived at Niarbyl, but the cafe was still open, so we got some snacks and had a pot of tea. From Niarbyl the route took the A27, which it followed for quite a while. The road was quite busy, but all the traffic was coming in the other direction, so it wasn't too bad for walking, and we eventually dropped down to the impressive steep-sided valley of Glen Maye.
From Glen Maye the path stayed mostly high above the cliffs, on paths that went through quite thick ferns and bushes at times. It was deserted, apart from a cheery runner and his dog that unexpectedly appeared behind us at about seven o'clock. This part seemed to go on for ages, but eventually we made it to the tower on Corrins Hill, which overlooked Peel. As we descended to Peel Harbour, there were superb views of the harbour and the castle. We headed back along the promenade, where there were lots of groups of vintage motorcycles parked up, before turning off towards the campsite. It was about half past eight by this time, and a bit too late for cooking, so it was a good excuse to get a takeaway from the chip shop again as we passed by, which we ate on the picnic table at the campsite.
We couldn't start too early today because of the tides later on in the stage. As we passed the campsite office we settled up with the campsite attendant, who told us the result of the UK EU referendum. On the way through Peel we stopped off at a cafe to get beans on doorstop toast and a pot of tea, and finally started walking at around ten. It was already nice and sunny. A climb out of town took us to a clifftop path, which passed an old abandoned outdoor pool down on the rocks below, then a road section along the A4, which was very quiet.
We then joined an old disused railway which was easy going at first on wide grassy path. Further on it got a bit overgrown, with wet grasses overhanging the path that deposited water on us as we walked through, so we had to put waterproof trousers on. The path passed by a field of manx loaghtan sheep with four horns. At Glen Mooar the railway track came to an end at an old viaduct. The top of the viaduct had gone, but the ivy covered supports were still there, towering over the surrounding trees like some long-abandoned monoliths in the middle of a jungle. The glen took us down to the beach and alongside mud cliffs for the last section to Kirk Michael. The cliffs seemed to be eroding fast, and in one place there was a wire fence hanging in mid-air where the ground beneath it had fallen away.
It was about two o'clock when we reached Kirk Michael, and we were looking forward to a cup of tea, but apart from a lawnmower shop there didn't seem to be much in the way of facilities. We pushed on along some more disused railway, before dropping down to join the beach at Glen Trunk. The next bit past Orrisdale Head is tidal, but the tide was on its way out by now, so there was plenty of room. We passed steep mud cliffs which seemed quite crumbly, and we could little stones constantly dislodging themselves and rolling down as we went past. Further on the cliffs got a bit more sandy, and sand trickled down them in what looked like little waterfalls, ending up in a dune at the bottom of the cliff. It was quite slow going along the beach, but we eventually reached the turnoff to Jurby, where we had first started the Raad ny Foillan six days ago. It didn't take us long to walk back up past Sartfield, and we got to the bus stop near Jurby Threshold for six o'clock, and a bus arrived ten minutes later, to take us to Ramsey. In Ramsey there was about half an hour before the next bus, so we got a takeaway cup of tea to celebrate the finish, and sat on some seats in the centre, next to a bronze sculpture of two Norse kings playing chess.
We got all our camping stuff packed away on Saturday morning and took our final bus ride into Douglas. There was one final small piece of the Raad ny Foillan that we hadn't done, which was the section along the promenade from Douglas to Onchan. On the way along the promenade we passed a large number of scooters, nearly every hotel had a bunch of them parked outside with people standing around beside them, and a few had people on the ground carrying out running repairs. It only took us about fifty minutes, and we arrived at a nice cafe at Port Jack, where we got a takeaway breakfast which we ate at an outside table while we waited the fifteen minutes for the next bus back to Douglas. The ferry wasn't until three o'clock, so we adjourned to a coffee shop, and caught up with the UK political upheaval in the newspapers, which we hadn't seen for the entire week.
All in all it was a very interesting route, with a good mix of clifftop paths, small coves and harbours, wooded glens, beaches, castles, crumbling sand-cliffs, and even some hill summits. The beaches in the North make a nice contrast from the clifftop paths, although they can be quite tiring after a few hours! Judging by the vegetation, some sections of the path don't get a huge amount of traffic, which is surprising given the quality of the scenery. A bit more road walking than we would have liked in places, but even the road sections were very quiet for traffic. A few more campsites, especially in the South of the island, wouldn't go amiss either, then you could do the whole thing as a through trip. Here are the statistics:
Using the buses to get to and from stages worked well, they are very regular, and every single one was on time all week. At the terminal where the ferry arrives in Douglas you can buy a 7-day bus pass which is quite cheap and gives you unlimited use. They also have a booklet of all the bus timetables, which we had worked through almost cover to cover by the end of the week, and a streetmap of all the towns, which is useful for locating campsites and bus stops. We used the Cicerone guide, which had some interesting background information, although the route description was frustratingly vague in places. We also used the OS Landranger map which covers the whole island, and has the Raad ny Foillan marked on. Don't forget that some of the beach sections in the North are tidal, so you need the tide times (you can find them posted on the outside of the Harbourmaster's office in the Ramsey and Peel harbours), and a bit of advance planning. One other strange thing - on many stages a surprising number of the Raad ny Foillan signposts had been broken off, although once you have seen a few it doesn't actually affect the navigation, as you can normally tell which way it used to point by the remains of the sign left behind. Be warned that using UK mobile phones on the Isle of Man counts as roaming, which had never even occurred to us, so may incur hefty charges. If you had time there is another interesting-looking route called the Millenium Way, which does a higher level traverse from Castletown to Ramsey, passing close to the summit of Snaefel.