Ballycastle and the Causeway Coast

We leave Bangor marina and continue our voyage north, stopping for a night at Glenarm where we catch up with our washing. The marina staff are friendly, but there is not much to see and do there apart from a castle which is only open to the public at certain times of the year. Unfortunately, they don’t coincide with our visit, so we content ourselves with looking at a fisherman’s cottage instead.

Fisherman’s cottage, Glenarm.

We press on. We are now in sight of Scotland – the Mull of Kintyre is clearly visible on the horizon, only 15 miles away. We are now entering the ancient sea-kingdom of Dalriada, which spanned what is today Antrim in Northern Ireland and Argyll in Scotland. Its Gaelic-speaking people were called Scots by the Romans and eventually gave their name to Scotland.

The Scottish coast appears in the distance!

The wind is from the north west and freshening. The sea captain orders his long-ship crew to break out the sail so that they can save their energy from rowing. They will need it later when they reach the Slough-na-More between the mainland and Reachlainn. According to his reckoning, the current will be with them and take them in to Baile an Chaistil, but it will still be rough and they will need to keep the ship on a straight course. Even though he has done the trip many times, he still feels some trepidation – one might get to know the sea, but it is never one’s friend.

He thinks of his next assignment. He has been called from his farm in Aontroim by the king of Dal Riada, Áedán mac Gabráin, to use his ship to take soldiers from Baile an Chaistil across the treacherous Sruth na Maoile to the great river Abhainn Chluaidh. Off to his starboard, he sees other long-ships coming from different directions but converging on Slough-na-More, all having received similar orders. It seems that the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelfrith from Northumbria is getting a bit too big for his boots and has invaded their allies, the Britons, on the mainland. Those Anglo-Saxons need taking down a peg or two, and our King Áedán is the one that can do it, he thinks. That will teach the pesky Anglo-Saxons to invade our Celtic brothers. Never mind that we have just finished having a bit of a scrap with the Britons ourselves, we Celts have to stick together. After all, Toutatis will make sure that we win.

Even though he has signed up to this new-fangled religion of peace and love introduced by that strange chap Colmcille, the sea captain still prefers to put his trust in the old gods when it comes to matters of war. He is glad that he managed to get the livestock out to their summer pasture and the barley and oats planted before the call came – at least there should be something to harvest when he comes home. If he comes home.

“Time for a cup of tea?”, the First Mate says, bringing me back to the present with a jolt. I had been imagining what it might have been like to be a sea captain in the Dalriadan sea-kingdom in the seventh century heading across the North Channel to the Clyde for the Battle of Degsastan between the Gaels and English in 603. Unfortunately, the Gaels get thrashed, marking the beginning of the decline of Dalriada.

Rounding Torr Head.

The sea becomes more turbulent and we need to alter course to head directly into the wind. We are entering Slough-na-More, the hazardous stretch of water between Rathlin Island and the Antrim coast, where the tidal flow is forced through a narrow channel to produce strong currents, backflows and overfalls. Even though the current is in our favour, tacking in such conditions is difficult, so we furl the sails and motor instead. Ruby Tuesday takes each wave as it comes, riding over it then plunging into the trough behind. We try and keep her on a slight angle to the wave direction to avoid her slamming.

Ploughing through the turbulent water of Rathlin Sound.

Up ahead we can see the imposing bulk of Fair Head, the north-eastern point of mainland Ireland. The origin of the name Fair Head comes from a rather poignant little tale. It seems that a beautiful girl once lived on a castle at Rathlin Island. Her beauty was known far and wide, and prospective suitors came from all over to woo her, but she rejected them all except two. Neither of the two would withdraw, so it was decided to settle the issue by a fight between them. They fought long and hard, but eventually one of them won. As the loser lay dying and not being able to bear thinking about the girl being with his opponent, he spoke to his manservant, telling him to ask her to dance with him at the marriage celebration. He was then to dance her over the edge of the cliff. This all happened, and the girl’s body was found later washed up amongst the rocks at the base of Fair Head, giving it its name. Such is love.

The imposing cliffs of Fair Head.

We eventually reach Ballycastle marina and tie up. The small town lies adjacent to the marina, so we relax by having an ice-cream in the sun before exploring.

The beach at Ballycastle.

We see the Marconi memorial commemorating the first commercial radio transmission in the world, from Rathlin Island across to Ballycastle. Apparently this was for the coastguard to report the passage of ships along the north coast of Ireland to Lloyds in London.

The Marconi memorial in Ballycastle.

The next morning we take a local bus to explore the so-called Causeway Coast. Some miles west of Ballycastle, we get off and walk down the small road signposted to the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, the first ‘must see’ we have been told about. We pause to take in the view – picturesque fields sweep down to the steep cliffs rising out of the sea, with a small whitewashed church on the edge between land and water. It is picture postcard Ireland.

The Causeway Coast, Country Antrim.

A little bit further on, we come to the rope bridge itself spanning a precipitous gap between the mainland and the small rocky island of Carrick-a-Rede. There is a queue of people waiting to cross it a few at a time, but we follow the track to its end and look back. Old fogeys that we are, we have done enough such thrills in our lifetimes not to feel the urge to try this one. It is no more than a tourist attraction nowadays, but apparently fishermen used to fish for salmon from the island and constructed bridges across the narrow gap to bring their catch back to land.

The rope bridge at Carrick-a-Rede.

Back on the road, we catch the next bus which takes us to the stop for the Giants’ Causeway, and we walk the kilometre or so down to the coast. The stones are part of the same geological structure as the structures at Staffa, and were formed by volcanic activity around 60 million years ago. When lava cools slowly, it forms hexagonal columns. Legend has it that the Causeway was built when a giant from Ireland was challenged to a duel by a giant from Scotland, and the latter needed a way of getting across to the bout. We were amused to hear that DUP ministers had insisted on a Young Earth Creation explanation in the Visitors’ Centre of the formation of the stones 6000 years ago. What’s a factor of 10,000 amongst friends?

The Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim.

Columns at the Giant’s Causeway.

We sit and have a coffee at a street cafe in the next town, Coleraine. A man approaches and asks if he can share our table as there are no others spare. We are fine with this and he sits down. After some small talk, I decide to ask him about Brexit.

“Brexit?”, he says, as if confused. “Oh, you mean Leave. Well, everyone around here would have voted for Leave. If you want to talk to any Stayers, you’ll have to go to Belfast. That’s where they all are”, he continues defensively, as if they are a race apart.

I want to ask him why people voted for Leave in Coleraine, but unfortunately he is joined by his wife at that stage, and the chance is lost.

We arrive back at the boat and meet our new neighbours, Richard and Maryanne. They have a motorboat and are heading in much the same direction as us.

Bangor and Belfast

We leave Strangford the next morning at about an hour before high water. This means that we will be battling against the inward-flowing current for about an hour before it turns, but it does mean that we catch the northward flowing tidal current all the way to Bangor, our next port of call. Leaving it later would also mean that there is the likelihood of dangerous overfalls where the outgoing current from the Lough meets the north-flowing current of the Irish Sea. It is drizzling heavily and grey and overcast and we feel a bit miserable. The First Mate makes us cups of tea and I try and steer a course as close as I dare to the shore of the Narrows where the opposing current is slightly less strong, taking care not to get too close where it is shallow. We pass the wonderfully named Pladdy Lug beacon and eventually reach the open water of the Irish Sea beyond any turbulence from Strangford Lough.

Strangford Lough to Bangor.

The wind picks up from the south, filling the sails, and we make good speed along the coast on a broad reach. The rain obscures everything, but after a time it stops and the sun tries to peek though. We can now see two other boats following us on the same route, probably coming from Ardglass or even further south. Through the haze over to our starboard, we can see the Belfast to Liverpool ferry, and to our port side the villages of Portavogie, Ballywater, Millisle, and Donaghadee on the coastline, the green fields between each one contrasting harmoniously with the white painted houses. We muse on what each place is like to live in and what sort of people live there.

We pass through Donaghadee Sound, keeping the two red marker buoys to our port to avoid Governor Rocks and Foreland Spit and the green one to our starboard to avoid Deputy Reefs, and enter Belfast Lough. Here the wind strengthens and we enjoy a fast beam reach down the Lough until we reach Bangor Marina.

Approaching Bangor.

Bangor exudes a strange mixture of prosperity and dilapidation. Along the seafront, there are well-to-do Victorian townhouses reflecting its popularity as a seaside resort in Victorian times. More recently, with the decline of sea-side resorts due to cheap foreign holidays, it has shifted to being a commuter town for Belfast. Much of the city centre is modern, partly because some of it was blown up by bombs during the Troubles, but there are also areas that look run down and boarded up. The harbour area is in the process of being redeveloped, so hopefully something will be done about them. Shops are shuttered up after closing, creating a cold and abandoned atmosphere in the evenings.

Bridge Street in Bangor.

The Old Customs House, Bangor.

Shuttered shops in the evening.

The next day we decide to catch the train from Bangor into Belfast, arriving at the Great Victoria Street station.

“Oooh”, says the First Mate as we emerge. “The Europa Hotel. The guidebook says that it is the most bombed hotel in the world. Let’s go and have a look.” We stand in the lobby and admire the marble walls and ceilings. I look around nervously for any unattended bags lying in corners, but nothing seems suspicious and I relax slowly. Apparently Bill and Hillary Clinton stayed here in 1995, but otherwise it looks like any other hotel.

Europa Hotel, Belfast.

After a brief lunch, we find a hop-on-hop-off city sightseeing tour bus and climb aboard. First up is the Titanic Centre in the city’s Titanic Quarter, the site of the Harland & Wolff works, where the original Titanic was built. The building is supposed to represent the bows of the Titanic, but apparently it is better known locally as the Iceberg. We think it might be worth a visit later, but we decide to stay on the bus tour for the time being.

The Titanic Building, Belfast.

Next we pass by Stormont, the site of the Northern Ireland power-sharing government. Except it isn’t, as there hasn’t been any government for the last 18 months since it collapsed following the ‘Cash for Ash’ scandal. Everything seems to have carried on as normal since then, which perhaps says something about governments in general. The tour guide does note ruefully, however, that all the MPS are still being paid regardless!


The last part of the tour takes us through the Falls Road and Shankill Road area. Although only a few streets apart, the first is staunchly Republican and Catholic, while the second is resolutely Unionist and Protestant. Between the two is a giant so-called ‘peace-wall’ to keep them apart. The tour guide is at pains to remind us that the conflict during the Troubles was not motivated by sectarian differences, but was political, with the Republicans wanting a united Ireland and the Unionists waning to stay part of the UK. Superficially, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of difference between the two communities – both have numerous murals painted on houses remembering their own that died during the conflict – the same pictures of militaristic hard men and fighting talk on each, just different names and faces. Even though the streets look peaceful as we look out from the safety of our bus, tensions still simmer below the surface – even as recently as 2012, the majority of residents on both sides thought that the walls were still necessary to prevent violence, so they have stayed for the time being.

Republican poster.

Unionist pub.

Passing the ‘Peace Wall’.

We return to the apparent normalcy of the city centre and have a coffee, reflecting on what we have just seen. It is difficult to imagine such hatred between two communities to the extent of 20 years after the peace agreement, there still seems to be little desire to put the past behind them and move on. We look out of the café at the people passing by – they all look the same and we can’t tell which might be republican and which might be unionist, nor who is Catholic or Protestant. Some must be from Falls Road and others from Shankill Road, but how would you know?

Who is who?

And yet, looking back at the history of the conflict, we have a glimpse of the events that have contributed to this mind-set – a deliberate British Government plan of colonisation by English and Scottish planters in the 1600s using land confiscated from Irish nobility, local Irish being displaced from their homes and not being able to work on the new estates, rebellion, torture, massacres and atrocities on both sides. It takes a bit to forgive and forget 400 years of that kind of history.

Music to lighten the heart.

We are on the train back to Bangor.

“I’m absolutely shocked”, says the First Mate.

“At what?”, I say, trying hard to think of any misdemeanour over the last 24 hours that I might have committed. Only eating the last slice of cheese comes to mind.

“At the way the two communities are still divided, even after twenty years”, she continues. “Imagine having to keep a wall between them in this day and age.”

The woman sitting opposite us leans over. “Ah, don’t be too hard on them”, she says. “Underneath, the people of Northern Ireland have hearts of gold. They’d drop everything and go and help one of the other side if they were in trouble. Once the problem is solved, they then go back to fighting each other.”

There’s some sort of logic there, if you look for it and believe it. We have no idea whether she is Republican or Unionist, Catholic or Protestant, but perhaps there is hope yet.


Strangford Lough

After lunch the next day, we set off to catch the north flowing tide to take us to Strangford Lough five miles up the coast. We can only enter the Lough on a rising tide, when the water is flowing in from the sea through the Narrows to the Lough proper. Apparently, something like 400 million gallons of water pass in and out through the Narrows twice a day. Currents can reach 7 knots in each direction and we would have no chance of making any headway against that – instead, we would be carried back out to sea.

Entering Strangford Lough – the current starts to flow faster.

We begin to be swept along by the current, imperceptibly at first, but eventually at such a speed that trees, houses, churches, fields, and cars on the far shore pass quickly out of our sight. The water boils angrily as it encounters some underwater obstruction or cross current, but we are swept mercilessly onwards. It is out of our control now – we are committed to sail up the Lough – going back is no longer an option. There is nothing we can do except steer and avoid any obstacles by staying as much as possible in the middle of the stream. Our speed increases to 6 knots, then 7, 8, 9 and eventually reaches 11.4 knots. That is the fastest that Ruby Tuesday has been on the whole trip!

Top speed – 11.4 knots!

We pass a peculiar-looking structure in the middle of the river looking like a bird hanging its wings out to dry. We learn later it was a tidal stream generator to generate electricity from the powerful currents. At one point, the current sweeps us towards it, and we have to take evasive action not to hit it, sweeping past with only metres to spare. Apparently some yachts have hit it, and have lost their masts as a result. We shudder as we think of what could have happened.

The SeaGen construction.

As we approach the small village of Strangford on the western side and its counterpart Portaferry on the eastern side, the ferry connecting the two begins to cross in our path. We slow down as best as we can, cutting the engine, but it makes not much difference, and we slide somehow to its stern, avoiding it more through luck than good management. Strangford Lough is proving to be a bit of a slalom! In the excitement of passing the ferry, the current almost takes us beyond the entrance to the small harbour, but we slew ungracefully into an eddy out of the main stream, pause for a moment to regain our aplomb, and cruise slowly to the pontoon, looking around surreptitiously to check if anyone saw our ungainly manoeuvres. Nobody seems to have, and we are able to resume our pretence of knowing what we are doing. We tie up to the pontoon and explore the village.

Trying to avoid the ferry between Strangford and Portaferry ferry at 10 knots!

Tied up to the pontoon in Strangford village.

We decide to eat at the Cuan Inn in the village square. It seems that the cast of the Game of Thrones stayed here when they were filming some episodes at the local Castle Ward, about a mile from here. In the series it is known as Winterfell Castle. While we are waiting for our food to arrive, the proprietor, Peter, comes over and introduces himself, sits down and begins to tell us of some of the cast, what they liked to eat, and of what is was like filming some of the scenes. He shows us the ornately carved wooden door that was made especially for the series and now occupies pride of place near the main bar. We decide that the Northern Irish are nothing if not chatty!

The Game of Thrones door, Cuan Inn, Strangford.

We stumble back to Ruby Tuesday, only to find that we are nearly hemmed in by the ferry, which has stopped for the night. We can just about squeeze out if we need to, so it is lucky we don’t have any plans to go anywhere else for the rest of the evening. The ferry winks at Ruby Tuesday as if to say that she will be safe with her.

Hemmed in for the night by the ferry!

The next morning, we take the self-same ferry across to Portaferry, and visit the local museum. As we look a giant map of the village as it was in 1790, we are approached by the museum director.

“He changed his name, you know”, he says. ”So that he could marry the woman he loved.”

“Who was that?”, I say.

“Andrew Savage”, he responds. “The local land owner. The Savages are one of the old families of the area and used to own the village. House is up behind the village. Andrew fell in love with a girl, but her father said that he didn’t want his daughter marrying a savage, so he changed it to Nugent. He went from being a savage to a new gent, see?”. He laughs. We laugh politely too. We wonder how many times he has repeated that one.

Map of Portaferry in 1790.

He tells us that the place used to be quite a haven for smugglers. Around 1700, the British government slapped taxes on tea, coffee, whiskey, tobacco, spices, chinaware, cotton and many other items. Many of these items were imported from France via the Isle of Man into Portaferry where duty had to be paid, but the numerous small bays around Strangford Lough were ideal for smugglers to off load goods from the ships before they came into harbour, leaving only some of the cargo to arrive legally. The illegal goods would then make their way inland concealed in baskets of fish. The problem for the excise men was that most of the local people didn’t see why they should have to pay duty for life’s luxuries, and actually supported the smugglers. Even the local gentry saw it as a good investment. Stiffer and stiffer penalties were introduced, from fines, transportation to the colonies, and even death. Rewards were paid to informers. Despite all this, smuggling flourished, and it was only the formation of the Coastguard in 1822 that brought it under control. Will such smuggling start again because of Brexit, I wonder?

Wanted for smuggling. Not Ruby Tuesday!

The next exhibit is of the SeaGen project that we nearly ran into in the Narrows the day before. It seems that it was a commercial electricity generator for some years, but was sold to another company and is now being dismantled. Now we could see how the whole thing worked – giant propellers like wind turbines could be raised and lowered at will into the current. Apparently, it was very successful and could produce 1.2 MW – enough power to supply all the households in both Strangford and Portaferry. The director can’t understand why it is being dismantled as it could have kept on being productive.

The SeaGen tidal power generator.

However, it seems as if other devices are being tested, including one that looks like a model aeroplane on a tether which apparently is much more efficient, so perhaps Strangford Lough will continue to play a role in Northern Ireland’s renewable energy programme. We hope so.

A new tidal power generator.

We wander back through the village. A group of cyclists just off the ferry are enjoying refreshments at a café before they continue. Bikers astride their Harley-Davidson’s roar noisily through the narrow streets as they continue northwards. A family visit the derelict 16th century tower-house castle, another of the Savage family properties, before climbing back into their car and driving on. A dilapidated shop advertising ‘Needful Things’ has long since closed. Several other shops are also boarded up. There is a general air of decline about the village, as though it has seen better times, a place now that people don’t go to but just pass through instead. It makes us feel sad.

Portaferry Castle.

No longer needed?

Over to Ireland

We leave Douglas the next morning aiming to pass the Calf of Man as the tide turns so that we can catch the north-west flowing current to give us a helping hand across the Irish Sea. It is cold and clammy, with fog hanging low across the island obscuring everything above a few metres. Apparently this is what the Isle of Man is like most of the time. A solitary seal munches its breakfast as we motor slowly out of the harbour and turn southwards.

Seal munching his breakfast, Douglas harbour.

It is dead calm with no wind, and we have to motor down to Langness Point on the south-east corner of the island. Around the point, the eastwards tide is still running, and we need to battle against the current to make any headway. We tell ourselves that it will be all worth it when we catch the north-westwards current across to Ireland in an hour’s time. Sometimes one has to make sacrifices in the near term so that there are greater benefits later! As if to cheer us up, just at that moment the clouds clear and the sun comes out.

We eventually reach the Calf of Man off the south-west corner. The name of the island conjures up an image in my mind of a newly born calf lying next to its mother, which, as the name derives from the Old Norse kalfr meaning an island lying next to a larger one, is not so far-fetched. Perched on the Calf are two disused lighthouses, now used as a bird observatories. Off to our port side is the Chicken Rock lighthouse built in 1875 warning ships of the dangers of straying too close. The area certainly didn’t do too badly for lighthouses.

Bird observatory on the Calf of Man.

Chicken Rocks lighthouse.

A wind picks up from the north-west and we hoist the sails, and skim along on a close reach at a good speed. Before long, the Isle of Man disappears from view and we are alone on the sea. Three gannets fly over, their yellow heads bright in the sunlight. We relax and lapse into our own thoughts.

Suddenly a patrol boat appears on our port side out of nowhere. A blue flag with yellow stars flutters from its stern. It draws alongside, and over a loudspeaker, one of the crew asks us to stop. I am puzzled. This is the third time that we have been intercepted now – the first at Lulworth Firing Range, and the second at Castlemain Firing Range in South Wales. But surely the middle of the Irish Sea can’t be a firing range? We can’t even see land. Perhaps we have blundered into a submarine training area?

We furl the sails and come to a halt. One of the patrol vessel’s crew throws a line across and asks us to tie it to a cleat, and then clambers on board.

“Passports, please”, he says. The accent is Irish. Our passports are below in the cabin. The First Mate goes down to find them. “Where is your destination?”, he asks me. I tell him we are heading for Ardglass in Northern Ireland.

“Do you have anything to declare?”, he asks. “No”, I say, “Just personal items. Laptops, a tablet, phones, that kind of thing.”

“Do you mind if I have a look?”, he says. Before I can answer, he is climbing down the companionway into the saloon area. He pokes around, opening cupboards, looking behind our books, checking our food store. We feel that he is intruding on our private space, but we say nothing. He asks us to lift the floorboards, where we have more tins of food.

“Are these only for your own consumption?”, he asks. I nod.

“There is too much here for just two people”, he says. “I am afraid I am going to have to charge you duty.”

I protest that we are sailing around the UK and that we need a lot of provisions for when we anchor in way out places, but he is adamant. “It’s what you voted for after all”, he says.

Is this the shape of things to come?

I am awoken from my reverie by the First Mate bringing a cup of tea. I had been imagining what it would be like if a new customs border between the European Union and mainland Britain had been created in the middle of the Irish Sea as a result of Brexit. Since an agreement could not be reached, the UK has crashed out of the EU with no deal, and trade is now under WTO rules. Because no-one wants a hard border to be recreated between Eire and Northern Ireland, it has been decided to allow the latter to stay in the customs union with the EU, and to have the customs border in the Irish Sea. Because everything is much cheaper in the UK due to the removal of most labour and environmental regulations, duty is now payable on all goods entering Ireland so as not to undercut EU industries. The Irish Sea is patrolled by fast vessels to prevent smuggling of cheap goods. Fanciful, I know, but no more ludicrous than many of the other contortions brought about by Brexit. The cup of tea cheers me up.

We are suddenly joined by a pod of dolphins swimming alongside us and leaping out of the water in front of us in sheer exuberance. We sit on the foredeck and watch these beautiful creatures showing off their skills to us, almost as if they are trying to impress us. “Don’t worry about borders”, they seem to say, “Look at us – we swim wherever we want. We are free. It is only you humans that want to put up walls and barriers between yourselves. Come with us and learn the true ways of the earth.” Are we really more intelligent than them?, I wonder.

Dolphins in the Irish Sea.

(Click here to see a video of the dolphins.)

The coast of Ireland appears. To the south we see the Mountains of Mourne sweeping down to the sea. The rays of the setting sun strike the clouds and light them up with streaks of silver, while the lowlands radiate a soft golden glow. It is beautiful.

The Mourne Mountains, Northern Ireland.

We arrive at Ardglass just on low water. In the twilight, we follow the leading lights into the tiny marina where a few other boats are tied up. A cheerful American helps us tie up next to his boat – he and his friend are heading off southwards early the next morning and they promise not to wake us.

Approaching Ardglass.

Ardglass marina.

Peel, Ramsey and Laxey

“Donkeys can carry about 340 lbs for 15 hours a day”, a voice behind us says. “I should know, I used to command a donkey team in Nepal.”

My knowledge of donkeys is limited, but I am fairly sure that taking commands is not one of their strong points. I wonder facetiously what language the owner of the voice talked to his donkeys in? Ass-amese, perhaps?

The First Mate and I are on a bus on the way to Peel on the west coast of the Isle of Man. We have bought Day Travel cards which entitle us to ‘hop-on-hop-off’ bus travel for a day, and plan to do the round trip of Peel, Ramsey and Laxey.

“Yes”, the donkey commander continues. “I had a team of ten men and their donkeys that we used to ferry supplies from one hill station to another. Lovely country, Nepal.”

I am dying to turn around and see who the donkey commander is, but don’t want to appear rude. I surreptitiously look in the driver’s convex rear view mirror and just make out the reflections of two rather military-looking gentlemen in cloth caps in the seat behind us. They seem to have only met each other on the bus, but know about half of the British Army in common between them, and spend the rest of the bus trip discussing the achievements, faults and failings of them all. Or so it seems to us. The donkey commander seems to be higher ranking than the other, who spends most of his time agreeing with what the commander says. We decide to call them the Commander and Corporal.

Getting off the bus in Peel. The Commander and Corporal follow.

We arrive in Peel, and disembark near the harbour. The Commander and Corporal also get out and go their own ways. It is raining, so we take shelter in the House of Manannan museum in the old railway station. Manannan was a mythical sea god of the Celts who ferried dead souls to the Otherworld in a chariot pulled by his trusty steed Enbarr, and may have given his name to the Isle of Mann. The museum has life-size reconstructions and numerous videos covering the Celtic, Viking and modern traditions, reminiscent of the Jorvik museum in York. Next door, there is an exhibition on cartoons by Phil Wood which keep us amused until the rain stops.

The House of Manannan.

We walk along East Quay past the marina until we come to the lock gates, which as chance would have it are just opening to let two or three boats out. Beyond is St Patrick’s Isle with the impressive Peel Castle situated on it. The original castle was built in wood by the Viking, Magnus Barefoot, in the 11th century, but was added to over the years using the local red sandstone. There is even a cathedral built within it. The grave of the so-called Pagan Lady whose spectacular necklace of precious stones and cache of silver coins we had seen in the Manx Museum in Douglas were also found in a graveyard within the castle.

Peel Castle.

We have lunch in the Marine Hotel on the beach front, making sure that we sample the local Bushey beer, before catching the bus to take us on to our next port of call, Ramsey, on the east side of the island. On the way, we talk to a man from London who builds and plays pipe organs, and who has been coming to the Isle of Man every summer for the last 40 years because he likes it so much. He is organising a concert in Douglas in a week’s time and invites us to come. He is not allowed to charge for the performance, but donations are welcome and go to a charity of his choice. We promise to come if we are still in Douglas then.

On the bus to Ramsey.

It is pouring with rain as we arrive in Ramsey, and we make a dash to the bus shelter. The town is supposed to have the sunniest climate and the lowest rainfall on the whole island, but someone has forgotten to tell the weather gods today.

While waiting for the rain to stop, we have coffee in the appropriately named Conrod’s Coffee Shop in Ramsey, with its TT motorcycle theme. On the bus, we had passed several stands for spectators at strategic positions along the road, and we had noticed several shops with motorcycles in the front window, even if they weren’t actually selling them. The race, which is held in May and June every year, is a bit of an orgy for petrol-heads, and involves closing all roads on the track to the public for two weeks, and is regarded at the most dangerous motorsport event in the world. It would have been interesting to see it, but apparently the Isle is overrun with bikers at the time and it is not easy to get around.

Racing bike in shop window.

The rain eases off, and we explore the town. Like the other towns on Man, Ramsey has its origins in Viking times and gets its name from the Old Norse words meaning ‘river of wild garlic’. The Viking heritage is evident as we explore the town, particularly a fine sculpture of two Viking kings playing chess. One is the legendary King Orry and the other his son, King Olaf. Orry must have been another one who liked Mann, so much so that he kept coming back time and again to try and take over the island. On the first two occasions, he was sent packing by the local Manxmen, but managed to beat them on the third attempt, and became the island’s ruler. I think that if I was a Manxman, I would prefer holiday makers giving organ recitals!

Kings Orry and Olaf playing chess.

We get off the bus in Laxey, or ‘Salmon River’ in Old Norse. We don’t see any salmon, but the main attractions are two large water wheels used to pump water out of the lead and zinc mines that flourished during the 19th century. One wheel, the Lady Isabella, is supposed to be the largest functioning waterwheel in the world. The mine itself extracted mostly lead, but also zinc, silver, copper and iron, but eventually the amount of ore taken out reduced, and together with problems of flooding that the giant wheel couldn’t cope with, the mine became uneconomic to run and it closed.

The Lady Isabella water wheel in Laxey.

Interestingly, the three-legged symbol of the Isle of Man, the triskelion, is reversed on the wheel – apparently this was a mistake and there were plans to correct it at one point, but nobody got around to it. The Manx are quite proud of their symbol – one story put about is that whichever way it is thrown, it will always end up on its feet, illustrating the resilience of the Manx nation. Another more prosaic explanation is that one leg is to flee from Ireland, the second is to kick Scotland, and the third to kneel to England. Whatever the meaning nowadays, it is an ancient Neolithic symbol, and has been found in tombs in Ireland dating back to more than 3000 B.C., and in Malta as far back as 5000 B.C. A similar symbol is on the flag of Sicily.

The Manx Electric Railway train draws into Laxey station.

We sit and have an ice cream in the warm sunshine. At that moment, there is a toot, and a small train appears from around the corner and draws to a stop at the little station nearby. It is the narrow-gauge electric railway that runs from Douglas up to Ramsey. We consider taking it back to Douglas, but at that moment, the bus arrives and we climb on that instead. It goes much the same route, after all.



“Would Madam and Sir like to see our tea selection?”, the waiter with a man-bun says, appearing from the shadows and thrusting a menu in front of us. The accent sounds Italian.

We are in a swish tea shop in Douglas. The room is dark, with green marble wallpaper, and all around us are portraits of famous people, many in military uniforms. A box of cigars lies open on a small delicately carved wooden table. I wonder momentarily if we have stumbled into the office of a banana republic dictator.

“Ooooh, turmeric latte”, says the First Mate after a quick scan. “We have to some of that – it’s fantastic. And it’s good for you – it has lots of antioxidants.”

I am not sure if I need any more antioxidants, but I may have been getting too much oxygen in all the sea air I have been breathing lately, so perhaps I do. The waiter with the man-bun looks slightly perplexed. I suspect he was looking forward to showing off his knowledge of the world’s teas.

“Garçon. Deux turmeric lattes, s’il vous plâit”, I say. Moi, I can do pretension too. I realise too late I have said it in French rather than Italian. Not that I know any Italian anyway. The waiter with the man-bun looks even more perplexed.

The two turmeric lattes arrive, lighting up the room.

“Urrrrgh. I don’t like this very much”, says the First Mate after a sip.

“I thought that you said it was fantastic and good for you?”, I say.

“I read it somewhere”, she says. “Can you drink it?”

I actually quite like it, and polish off both glasses with gusto while the First Mate wades into an extravagant-looking cake.

The tumeric lattes arrive.

We are exploring Douglas after the gale has subsided. It is a curious place – while there is obviously money here judging from some of the houses tucked away and cars being driven around, there is also a feeling that it has seen better days. Early in the twentieth century, it was the ‘place to be’ holiday resort for well-to-do folk from northern England, who would disembark from steamers in their droves to enjoy the summer there. Apparently, it was known as ‘Naples of the North’, and was reputed to have a thousand boarding houses and dancing halls along the promenade.

The promenade in Douglas.

Today the promenade is more-or-less deserted apart from an occasional jogger. Despite all the space available, an old lady pulling a shopping trolley cuts in front of me, nearly tripping me up. She stops, and looks intently out at the small castle marking St Mary’s Isle, a dangerous reef that is submerged at high water. We try to imagine what takes her interest so much.

St Mary’s Isle in Douglas harbour.

We find the museum and spend the next couple of hours there. As museums go, it is a good one, and gives us a comprehensive overview of the island and its history. Settled by Celtic people, and later influenced strongly by the Vikings, the Isle of Man has somehow managed to remain independent from the rest of the UK, albeit with the status of a Crown Dependency managing its own internal affairs but with the UK taking responsibility for its foreign policy and defence. It even has its own Parliament, the Tynwald, dating from Viking times, which it claims to be the longest continuously functioning parliament in the world.

Viking display, Manx Museum, Douglas.

The wildlife section is very well done, and we are able to clarify the names of several birds we have seen but not been able to identify. We see the famous four-horned Loaghtan sheep, native to the island, and whose meat is regarded as a delicacy.

Loaghtan sheep, Manx Museum.

That evening, a Harbour Control man knocks on the window. He apologises profusely for not coming sooner to see us to make sure that we are all OK and to bring the forms we have to fill out, but it was the weekend and he had the in-laws to stay. We don’t mind, and invite him in from the drizzle just starting. We make him a cup of coffee.

He is from Manchester originally, but has lived in the Isle of Man for 13 years. His previous job was a steward in the merchant navy, but he got fed up with all the travel and decided to settle down. “Eventually the glamour of travelling the world wears off”, he says. He loves living here as it is much more relaxed, and cheaper. Taxes are lower, and he can afford a house in Douglas and cycles to work, something he could never do in Manchester.

We mention the words ‘tax haven’, and his brow furrows. “People don’t like that term here”, he tells us. “It’s true that back in the 1960s and 70s it was actively promoted as that, but the UK Government didn’t like the idea of the wealthy hiding all their money here and not paying taxes on the mainland, so they have tidied up their act here now. They prefer to call it a ‘low tax area’.”

We nod sagely, wondering what the difference is.

Changing the subject, he tells us that the ferry that supplies the island, Ben My Chree, had suffered ‘catastrophic failure’ on the Saturday, and has had to cancel all sailings until it is fixed. He isn’t sure exactly what catastrophic failure means in this case, but that is what someone had told him. Perhaps some problems with the engines.

The last time it had happened it had been out of commission for a week or so, and the shops had run out of supplies from the UK. People had started panic buying to stockpile food, causing even more shortages. They were trying to keep it quiet this time to avoid that. I wonder why he is telling us, especially as the First Mate mutters something about getting to Tesco first thing in the morning.

The Ben My Chree.

That night, I lie awake wondering if the turmeric latte will turn my hair orange and people will call me Donald. In the morning, I go to the heads and look in the mirror. My hair seems normal, but I am sure that my pee is yellower than yesterday. Hopefully it will work its way through.


The Isle of Man

In the morning, the weather forecast tells us that a gale will arrive the next day. Holyhead harbour is a bit exposed (in fact the marina was destroyed by the Beast from the East storm in early 2018), so we reckon that we will be better off finding shelter in Douglas on the Isle of Man. The only thing is that we will need to leave pretty much straight away to get there in time.

I take Peter and Joanne over to the shore in the little dinghy. No one is around, but the cleaning lady has promised to be there by 0800 to open the sailing club so they can retrieve their luggage. They have a taxi arranged to take them to the station for the train to London. We say our goodbyes and I head back to Ruby Tuesday. It seems strange to return to a boat with just the two of us. It has been good to see them.

We set off as soon as we have the dinghy loaded on the back. The wind has gone around to the south, so it is directly behind us. It is blowing at about 12 knots, so we goosewing and make a good speed.

On the way to the Isle of Man.

The First Mate brings out a cup of tea. I reflect on the last few months since we started our voyage, and how quickly the time has flown. I find my perception of that time has also changed – rather than a series of chunks ordered by the demands of a working day, it is more of a flow – hours glide by, and days merge into one another. Time has not disappeared, but it has settled into a pattern governed more by the earth’s great rhythms – day and night, the flood and ebb of tides, the seasons. In between, the everyday jobs of route planning, sailing, and keeping the boat tidy and in working order keep us occupied. The hourly filling out of the logbook when we are sailing, and the keeping of a diary do provide some structure, but it is easy to forget these, and I find myself amazed sometimes when several days have gone by since the last entry in the diary. We do seem to be less stressed and the sense of urgency is disappearing – if we don’t do something today, it can always be done tomorrow. And we feel better for it.

It makes me wonder if modern civilisation has gone too far in its perception of time and how it must be filled. When we were working, there was relentless pressure to make every moment count – to be doing something, producing something, deciding something, meeting someone. But what did it all achieve? There was so little time to ponder and reflect on the great mysteries of life and appreciate the world around us. Should we all take time out, just to go with the flow? Would we be happier, more fulfilled, more creative, and (dare I say it) more productive in the long run?

Suddenly, out of the haze, I see a large yacht passing in front of us. I check the radar and AIS (Automatic Identification System) and see that it is doing 11 knots. That’s fast, if it is correct! Then I see another one on the screen, then two more, some way behind. It is too hazy to see the actual boats at first, but they are there somewhere. Then the second one appears and passes a few hundred metres in front of us. The crew see us and wave frantically to us. It suddenly dawns on us that we have stumbled into the middle of a race, but this is no ordinary one – it is the Clipper Around the World Race that started in 2017 and these boats are now racing to the finishing line in Liverpool, perhaps an hour away. This is what our neighbour in Aberystwyth marina was heading to see.

Seattle – one of the boats in the Clipper Round the World Race.

An hour or so later, we hear whoops of joy over Channel 16 on the VHF. The voice is unmistakably female and antipodean. We learn later that it is Wendy Tuck, an Australian, who has won the race. The boat we have seen, Seattle, is the second placed, skippered by a Nikki Henderson, a British woman. I tell the First Mate that there is hope for her yet. She ignores me.

We arrive in Douglas around 1800. Entry into the marina is via a lock gate that only opens two hours either side of high tide, and a road bridge also has to be raised. We are told by Harbour Control that the gates will open at 2215 and we can wait until then at the temporary pontoon in the outer harbour rafted up to one of the boats already there. The boat we tie up alongside is called Lady. We think there is a certain symmetry there – a Lady visiting the Isle of Man. Boom, boom!

Approaching Douglas, Isle of Man.

We cook dinner and relax. Another boat draws up alongside and rafts up to us. It has a dog, a brown spaniel. The dog has been sick. The skipper explains that they have come from Conwy in Wales. It seems they rowed out in a small dinghy to their boat moored in the harbour to do some work on it, but couldn’t get back to shore because it was too rough, and decided on the spur of the moment to go to the Isle of Man instead, as one does. There are a lot of questions I feel need asking on this one, not least on why anyone would do that with an imminent gale warning, but I decide life is too short. The spaniel looks at me sorrowfully. “Don’t ask”, she seems to say.

At 2215, there is a burst of life. The gates have opened, and we form an orderly queue to proceed up to the marina. It is dark, and we follow the lights of the boat in front. We have been allocated a berth at the top of a side arm, which suits us fine. We can see street lights, shops and restaurants, and realise that we are close to the centre of town. We tie up the mooring lines and turn in.

Douglas harbour at night.

The gale arrives in the early morning. There is an eerie calm beforehand, then the wind begins to blow. We are relatively sheltered in the marina, but the windspeed indicator at the top of the mast reads 50 knots at one point. Then the rain starts. We snuggle deeper into our beds. There is something immensely satisfying about being tucked up warmly and safely while the elements rage around us.

Tucked up safely and soundly in Douglas marina.



“Yes, we have a spare visitors’ mooring for you”, the lady from the sailing club says over the VHF in response to our request as we round Holy Island. “The launch will be out to show you where it is. You’ll know the launch from its colour. Pink. You can’t miss it.”

I try to imagine a pink boat, but give up. I think it is called cognitive dissonance, but in any case I have other things to think about. We are coming into Holyhead harbour, and I need to work out how to get out of the way of a massive ferry just off our port quarter. As we pass the breakwater protecting the harbour, sure enough there is the pink launch. It actually looks quite good.

The pink launch.

The pink launch draws alongside, and we are directed by the launch man to a yellow buoy next to a Moody 42. A woman on the Moody eyes us suspiciously.

Our crew manage to catch the yellow buoy with the boathook and haul up the thick rope. Usually mooring buoys have a lighter slip line to catch, but for some reason this one doesn’t seem to. They struggle to lift the heavy line, and eventually manage to slip the end loop over the forward cleat.

“You’d be better off putting it over the bow roller first”, says the pink launch man. I wonder to myself why he didn’t tell us that at the beginning. The crew unloop the thick rope again and try to thread it through the bow roller.

“You need to bring the boat a bit further forward to take the strain”, says pink launch man to me.

“You need to reverse a bit”, calls out the suspicious lady on the Moody.

“Can you go sideways a bit?”, says the First Mate.

I decide to do nothing. Eventually the rope is pushed through the bow roller and looped over the cleat. We relax. The suspicious lady on the Moody disappears down below. Pink launch man draws alongside and tells us how much we have to pay for the night. It’s reasonable, considering he will also act as a water taxi, taking us to and from the shore up until 10 pm for no extra charge.

Going ashore in the pink launch.

We eat that evening in the sailing club. Later, Peter and Joanne take their suitcases over from Ruby Tuesday on the pink launch to leave them in the club house, and they make arrangements to collect them in the morning. They are catching the train for London at 0900, but as the pink launch doesn’t start until 0900, I will have to take them across in our little dinghy in the morning. It makes it easier if their suitcases are already ashore.

The moon rises over the harbour while we sit on deck and have our last drink together. Tomorrow it is supposed to be a ‘blood moon’ with the earth eclipsing the light from the sun. We make a mental note to see it if we can.

Moon rising over Holyhead harbour.

Porth Dinllaen

We leave Pwllheli at 1230 so that we can arrive at Bardsey Sound at slack water at 1630 and take advantage of the north flowing tidal stream beyond that. A few other boats seem to have the same idea, and for a while we form an orderly procession as we proceed down St Tudwal’s Roads and sail between St Tudwal’s Islands. I read later that St Tudwal was a monk from Brittany who retired to one of these islands to become a hermit. The remains of his monastery are still on one of the islands.

Leaving Pwllheli on St Tudwal’s Roads.

We pass Porth Ceiriad and then the broad sweeping bay of Porth Neigwl, and Bardsey Island comes into view. Porth Neigwl translates as Hell’s Mouth, and we wonder what terrible events must have happened for it to earn such a name. All seems tranquil at the moment though, so much so that the wind dies right off and we have to motor to reach Bardsey Sound in time for slack water.

Approaching Bardsey Island.

We drift slowly through the Sound, carried by the current just on the turn. Two other boats follow us. On our port side, we pass Bardsey Island, or the Island of Currents, which has been an important religious site since St Cadfen built a monastery there around 500 A.D. There seems to be something about the islands off the Lleyn Peninsula that is conducive to religious contemplation more than some of the other islands we have seen on this voyage. In medieval times, pilgrims would come from far and wide to worship there, catching a boat at Aberdaron on the mainland and braving the often turbulent waters of Bardsey Sound to reach the island. Apparently three pilgrimages to Bardsey were the same value as one to Rome! Through the binoculars we see the Celtic cross commemorating the 20,000 saints that are reputed to be buried on the island. It is even claimed that King Arthur is buried there. It would have been interesting to stop, but we must press on.

Once around the point, the wind, such as it is, comes directly from behind us, so we rig the sails to goose-wing. There is so little force, however, that the sails barely fill and we are carried along at the majestic speed of one-and-a-half knots, mostly the effect of the tidal current. The only consolation is that the other two boats following us are doing the same speed. One, called Charisma, is also goose-winging.

Trying to catch the wind.

We fill the time reading, each in our own world. I find my favourite spot again in the sun on the foredeck.

I think of the many pilgrims that had made their way to Bardsey Island. What had made them do it? Were they just mindlessly following tradition in some massive groupthink, or did they find what they were seeking, or a bit of both? And was it the journey or the destination that provided the eventual fulfilment? I suspect for the pilgrims to Bardsey Island that it was the latter; it was where they were heading for that was more important than the getting there, although perhaps the rigours of the journey were an important part of the process in preparing them for the destination.

For ourselves, it is the journey that is more important than the destination, at least for the moment. We do have a physical destination in that we aim to be back in Scotland by the end of the summer, but within that we decide on the spur of the moment where and when we want to go, how long we want to stay in each place, and what we want to see and experience there. At the moment we see our fulfilment coming from not actually having a destination, but keeping ourselves open for seeing new places, meeting new people, and having new experiences and ideas. From that, fresh insights may gel and become the destination in themselves. I decide that until then we are travellers more than pilgrims. But not tourists, I hope wryly.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see another boat between us and the coast gradually overtaking us. It is Charisma. I wonder how she has suddenly managed to find a little bit more energy than us – perhaps the tidal stream is a fraction of a knot faster closer in to shore. No matter. I rejoin the others and put on the kettle for a cup of tea.

Drifting slowly in the tidal current along the Lleyn Peninsula.

We arrive in Porth Dinllaen around 1930 and find a place to anchor opposite the small village of Morfa Nefyn. Charisma is already there. We cook dinner and sit and watch the last of the sun’s rays reflecting off the white-washed houses.

Porth Dinllaen.


The next morning is wet and misty, with visibility poor. High water is at 0700, so to clear the bar we have to leave then. Seeing the green buoys through the drizzle and mist is a challenge as the mist completely disorients us, but by following the track of the GPS we had made the night before, we finally reach the red and white buoy marking the river entrance. Now safely out past the bar, we decide to anchor and have breakfast, hoping that the mist and rain might clear.

Our track in and out of Aberdyfi harbour. Note the shifting of the channel at the river mouth.

Sure enough, an hour later, the rain stops, the mist disappears, and the sun peeks out from between the clouds. Welsh weather is nothing if it doesn’t change at the blink of an eyelid. Living in Wales during my university days had taught me that. The wind is from the south, so we hoist the sails and head north, this time to the narrow channels that take us through Sarn-y-Bwch and Sarn Badrig (St Patrick’s Causeway), two more glacial moraines similar to Sarn Cynfelyn we had encountered just outside Aberystwyth. According to the legend, they were also causeways leading to the kingdom of Cantre’r Gwaelod.

Once safely through them, we set a course for Pwllheli, our destination for the night. The wind is still from the south, on our beam, and we have some good sailing across Tremadog Bay with the mountains of Snowdonia in the background. Up until now, Peter has been a little bit disappointed that he has not yet seen more mountains in Wales, but this makes him happy. One of them even looks like a volcano with its covering of cloud.

The mountains of Snowdonia from Tremadog Bay.

An active volcano in Wales??

As we arrive at the marina, we pass a rower heading in the same direction. We ask her where she has come from to which she replies Shrewsbury. With Shrewsbury well inland, we think either we misheard or she is joking, but we find out later that she is indeed from there. Her name is Kelda Wood and she is planning to row single-handed across the Atlantic in her small boat Stormy Petrel to raise funding for her charity helping young people to regain their confidence after a life-changing injury. She herself suffered a leg injury while horse riding when young. It’s a big challenge to row that distance but we wish her all the best and hope she makes it. Brave woman!

Kelda Wood and her Stormy Petrel.

That evening, we take a walk around Pwllheli, but it is late and nothing is happening except for a fish jumping out of the footpath. It happens all the time, so we content ourselves instead with an ice-cream before heading back to Ruby Tuesday.

Fish trying to escape the concrete jungle.