Isle of Man
Almost equidistant from Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland, the Isle of Man remains one of the most popular beauty spots in Britain - a mountainous, cliff-fringed island just 33-miles at its longest point by a mere 13. Shoehorned into this narrow confine are austere moorlands and wooded glens, sandy beaches, dramatic castles, beguiling narrow-gauge railways and scores of standing stones and Celtic crosses. There's peace and quiet in abundance, stimulating walks around the unspoilt 100-mile coastline, steam trains and rural villages offering cream teas where the march of time seems to have halted in the 1950's.
The capital, Douglas, is atypical of an island that prides itself on its Celtic and Norse heritage and its the vestiges of the distant past - castles at the former capital Castletown and on the west coast of Peel - that make the most obvious destinations.
Elsewhere, Port Erin provides one of the island's most attractive beaches, while in the north Laxey is a popular destination with its huge waterwheel and the meandering train ride to the barren summit of Snaefell, the island's highest peak. From Snaefell's summit the range of Manx scenery is spread out below. This stunning panorama includes the 17 National Glens, most of them linked by the Road Ny Foillan (Road of the Gull) coastal footpath, which passes several of the island's numerous hill forts, Viking ship burials and Celtic crosses. In the two weeks following the late May bank holiday the Manx roads are given over to a frenzy of speed and burning rubber known as the TT motorcycle races, annually held since 1907.
The Isle of Man may have already been populated when it became a separate land mass at the end of the last Ice Age around 8000 BC, but the earliest substantial human traces are Mesolithic flint workings from about 6000 BC, predating the Neolithic farming settlements by around three millennia. St Patrick is said to have come to the island in the 5th century. AD bringing Christianity to its inhabitants, a faith that struggled to gain ground initially when confronted by the brute paganism of the Viking Norsemen who established garrisons here in the 11th century. The latter did eventually convert while reigning as Kings of Man. The island name is derived from a local ancient sea-god, Manannan Mac Lir meaning Son of the Sea.
The Scots under King Alexander wrested power from the Norsemen in 1275, which in turn initiated an ultimately unsuccessful 130 year struggle with the English for control of the island. During the English Civil War (1642-9) James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby and Lord of Man, raised an army to support Charles II, but in his absence a local militia offered the island to Cromwell, provided the traditional rights of the islanders were maintained - these had long been infringed upon by English overlords. It proved a short-lived insurrection, the monarchy was restored, the militia leaders executed and the island returned to Crown control.
The distinct identity of the island remained intact however, and although a Crown dependency the island retains its own government called the Tynwald, arguably the world's oldest democratic parliament, which has functioned continuously since AD979. Tynwald consists of two chambers, the 24 member House of Keys, directly elected every 5 years, and the 9 member Legislative Council elected by the House of Keys. The island retains its own Sterling currency, its own laws, an independent postal service and a Gaelic-based language most visible on dual-language road signs seen throughout the island. Famously, the Isle of Man has also introduced to the world its own tailless version of the domestic cat.
For most of its history, crofting and fishing interspersed with a good bit of smuggling, have formed the basis of the economy. The first regular steamship service from England commenced in 1819, and tourism began to flourish during the late Victorian, early Edwardian eras, and remains an important source of income to this day.
The best way to get to the Isle of Man is by plane. Isle of man flights are frequent and operate from most UK cities. Ferries to the Isle of Man can take up to 2 hrs 45 minutes from Ireland and 3 hours from Liverpool. The ferry from Liverpool Birkenhead takes a little longer at 4 hours.