Although it nestles in the Irish Sea between England, Scotland and Ireland and was once the seat of Viking kings, the Isle of Man has always done things its own way.

It boasts the world’s oldest parliament, was the first nation to give women the vote in general elections, has cats without tails and stages 200mph motorbike races on public roads.

The island also offers the chance to turn back time and travel on narrow gauge railways little changed since they were built in the late 19th century, when the island became a popular holiday destination.

I arrived the same way as Victorian tourists, crossing the Irish Sea from Heysham in Lancashire on an Isle of Man Steam Packet Company ferry, named Ben-my-Chree, which means Girl of my Heart in the Manx Gaelic language.

The ship docks at the south end of the promenade that sweeps round the bay at Douglas, the island’s capital, just a short walk from the Claremont Hotel, where I stayed. The traditional Victorian façade hides modern facilities, including the Coast Bar & Brasserie – a dining room with a view out across the bay.

My travels on the island’s rail tracks began just outside the hotel, on one of the horse-drawn trams that have run along the promenade since 1876. On a visit to the stables, I met my namesake William, one of the Clydesdale and Shire horses that pull the trams.

The stables are a stone’s throw from Derby Castle, the terminus of the Manx Electric Railway, opened in 1893. Its vintage tram cars weave their way north along the coastline to Ramsey but I got off at Laxey – a name derived from lax, the Old Norse word for salmon, which spawn in the river here.

The village is home to the Great Laxey Wheel – also known as Lady Isabella – a waterwheel built in 1854 to pump water out of nearby mines, and the starting point for the Snaefell Mountain Railway.

This electric railway, built in 1895, climbs for five miles to the 2,036ft summit of Snaefell – snow mountain in Old Norse. I was lucky enough to travel to the top on a sunny day and enjoyed panoramic views to England, Scotland and Ireland.

Not all of the island’s towns can be reached by rail. The line to Peel, on the west coast, shut in the 1960s, so I travelled by coach, pausing in the village of St John’s to visit Tynwald Hill, the ancient meeting place of the island’s parliament.

Peel’s bay, beach and harbour are dominated by the medieval castle on St Patrick’s Isle, built on the site of an earlier Viking fortress and Celtic monastery, while you can learn about the island’s history at the House of Manannan museum, on the site of the old railway station. Celtic god Manannan, whose cloak of sea mist is said to protect the island from invaders, guides you through its Celtic, Viking and maritime past.

If you are feeling a bit peckish in Peel, the breakwater kiosk, in the shadow of the castle, is renowned for its Manx kipper baps.

Suitably refuelled, I rejoined the coach for the drive north to the resort and port of Ramsey before returning to Douglas on the Manx Electric Railway, enjoying dramatic clifftop views of the coastline.

The next morning, a short walk along the quay in Douglas took me to the town’s railway station, from which the Isle of Man Steam Railway’s trains have run south to the harbour village of Port Erin since 1874. Next to Port Erin station is the Isle of Man Railway Museum, which houses historic rolling stock, including carriages used by the Queen during visits to the island.

I returned to Douglas by coach, pausing in the former capital, Castletown, to visit the formidable medieval fortress of Castle Rushen and the Old House of Keys, the former home of the lower house of the Tynwald, where the meeting chamber has been restored to recreate its appearance in the 1860s.

The Vintage Railways of the Isle of Man tour I sampled courtesy of Great Rail Journeys includes a Go Explore travelcard – also valid on buses.

Among the places that can be reached by bus are the Cregneash heritage village and nearby Calf Sound, at the south-west tip of the island.

The Sound Café provides an ideal spot for lunch while enjoying the view of the Calf of Man, an island nature reserve that is home to seals, puffins and a spectacular colony of Manx shearwaters.

Fact file

  • You can experience the Vintage Railways of the Isle of Man on an escorted group tour with Great Rail Journeys, see or call 01904 734812.
  • From £780 per person, the six-day trip includes 4-star hotel accommodation, sea and rail travel and coach excursions on the Isle of Man and selected meals. For full details, see
  • Travel from your home to Heysham is not included in the package but as an optional extra GRJ can book tickets from your local station to Heysham Harbour station, which is served by trains that connect with the sailings of the Ben-my-Chree.