Picture of George Head

George Head

places mentioned

Point of Ayre and back to Douglas

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A Ride from Ramsey to the Point of Ayre—The Horse Paddy —The Garden of the Island—Fine Crops—Extreme Fertility of Soil—Luxuriant Furze—Bruising Mills—Kirkbride—The Point of Ayre—Jurby Point—The Village—The Church and Church-yard—A Man of Leisure—The Minister's Grave—The Bishop's Residence—The Curragh—Turf— Fossil Remains—Kirkmichael—Glenwillan—Beautiful Glen—Rivulet—Iron Spring—Ride across the Mountains to Douglas, by Kirkbraddan—An ill-placed Residence.

THE better to proceed at ease and at my leisure to the Point of Ayre, I selected what is called a respectable animal, from among the few horses to be had on hire in the town of Ramsey; and as the creature was good looking, although undoubtedly very old, I considered it useless to trouble the owner with questions as to his other qualifications. I simply enquired of the hostler, then leaning with his whole weight on the opposite side, my left foot being already in the stirrup, whether the horse were not given to bite. The man replied, unhesitatingly, "No;" but the horse, a game, ticklish, decayed hunter, commonly known in the town by the name of "Paddy," by a certain sly, sleepy, intelligible expression of his eye, evidently contradicted the hostler's assertion. The hint being sufficient to put me on my guard, I accordingly took a firmer hold of the rein as I threw my leg over his back, then immediately set spurs to his sides, and departed in a canter. I observed a smile on the people's faces as I rode along, and the boys especially exclaimed to one another, "There goes Paddy," as the steed, occasionally shaking his head, switching his tail till the air whistled, and elevating his rump every stride, more inclined a great deal to kick than to gallop, proceeded in a curiously tilting pace, that participated of the nature of both movements. However, a smart stroke of a whip on the withers is the proper remedy on such occasions, and never fails, as regards a kicking horse's posteriors, to effect the thing to be done—namely, to increase horizontal, at the expense of vertical motion.

I had a remarkably agreeable ride, notwithstanding the inauspicious commencement, over a road soft and sandy, and particularly suited to the hoofs of my long-reached, free-going animal, through a country laden with such heavy crops, as really might tempt a farmer to make choice of this part of the Isle of Man for an agricultural establishment. In fact the aforesaid chain of mountains divides the country into two parts, exhibiting a very remarkable difference as regards the soil; the whole of the southern portion, with the exception of the alluvial tract in the vicinity of Castleton before mentioned, being so poor as to be incapable of repaying, more than to a moderate extent, the labours of the farmer, and the northern portion, on the contrary, consisting of red fertile mould, a mixture of marl and sand. This northern portion has consequently not undeservedly obtained the appellation of "the garden of the island;" and here the farmers use little amendment other than the pure marl that abounds beneath the surface. The extraordinary improvement in the aspect of the crops, compared with those in all other parts that I had visited, consisting at present—the season being autumn—of luxuriant clover and rye grass, and beds of potatoes, was such as to cause the most pleasing impressions. The spontaneous abundance of yellow trefoil and white clover growing upon the earthen embankments wherewith the fields are divided, is particularly striking; and I also remarked the unusual stature of the furze plants in the hedge that crowns the summit, the spring shoots being, every where in the Isle of Man, more like those of a young fir tree than of an ordinary plant. A dwarf species, called Manx furze, grows on the hills in a compact matted mass, that spreads like thick moss over several acres of ground in a plot, and is so springy, that a man may walk without much difficulty across the surface. Although at every step he may sink in up to his knees, the plant pressed by the foot to the earth, by its elastic reaction, rises again immediately unbroken. Both sorts are used in the winter as provender for cattle, the thorns being previously crushed by a machine adapted for the purpose, which implements, of simple construction, are merely a pair of wooden mallets, worked by a small water-wheel. Of these there are many among the streamlets in the mountains.

The cliffs on this part of the coast are of very considerable elevation. Hence the eye commands an extensive prospect of apparently low, level country, whereof in point of fact the land lies sufficiently high for the purposes of drainage; the whole, moreover, embellished with a profusion of good-sized timber trees.

The little sequestered village of Kirkbride, about a couple of miles distant from the Point of Ayre, stands contiguous to a chain of tiny mountains, whose undulating surfaces, about their bases and amid the hollows, afford for the lowly cabin of the peasant, wherewith the landscape is here and there chequered, unusually picturesque situations. These cottages or cabins resemble in form, though better appointed, those of the poorer classes in Ireland, or the Highlands of Scotland. The village occupies an eminence well clad with trees; among these are thriving apple orchards, ash, and sycamore, besides elder of unusual dimensions. One little dwelling, even in this lonely spot, as is the case in almost every village in the island, is set apart as a day school for children.

From the village, a circuitous track leads by a regular descent, through a patch of small, strongly fenced enclosures, to the narrow spit of land, whereon is erected the lighthouse at the Point of Ayre; than which territory a more desert-looking spot cannot readily be brought to the imagination. The whole of this region is a barren waste of land, which day by day, and year after year, receives incessant accumulation from the ocean, whereby the surface is marked by those bold irregularities,—those undulations, fissures, and chasms,—that create an appearance as if it were the bed of the sea deserted by a deluge. On this spot I saw abundance of plover; and as I walked my horse along at a foot pace, I observed many of the newly hatched young, around which the old birds anxiously hovered, continually resorting to a well-known artifice; and in the hope of alluring an enemy to a false pursuit, limping tenderly away with a flagging wing, as if they were lame.

A line of shingle, whose boulders are above the ordinary size, and thrown up by the sea to a very extraordinary altitude, together with here and there a range of low broken cliffs, increasing gradually in height, forms the line of coast from hence to Jurby Point. Inland, a scanty bush of heather or of furze may be observed, at rare intervals, to rear its stunted growth from a bed of sand mixed with shingle.

From Jurby Point, a stormy headland,—a range of lofty cliffs extends in a continuous unbroken line, as far as the eye can reach to the southward, where, in the extreme distance, the faint shadowy outline of Peel Castle may be traced in clear weather. The cliffs, composed of red marl and sand, are exposed to the continual assaults of the sea, which here making inroads on a soft crumbling material, is demolishing, with considerable rapidity, their foundation. The soil meanwhile is so exceedingly fertile, that rich tufted white clover grows wild to their veiy verge, and so thickly matted and springy, that, like the dwarf furze before mentioned, the elastic carpet rises again immediately under the foot buried beneath it, without leaving the slightest maik or vestige of its pressure.

Not far removed from the Point, in an exposed and bleak situation, are planted the small village and church of Jurby, whither, as the sea approximates more and more every day, it is probable that the whole, ere the lapse of many years, will be swallowed by its billows.

Having arrived at the village, I made fast the horse Paddy to a stout rail fence, intending to proceed on foot to the aforesaid Point, and the church-yard. While engaged in the former occupation, being accosted by an inhabitant, who politely offered to bear me company, I acceded to his offer, and we walked along together, while the kindly countenance of my companion, and his perpetual flow of good spirits, enlivened the short time I passed in his society. He possessed, he said, a limited independence; and it was easy to perceive, by his easy gesture and action, that he was a man of leisure, for not only did he appear glad to render service to a stranger, but happy to find for himself a little to do. Ruddy in his face and round in his person, of breadth nearly equal to length, his activity withal was rather remarkable; for by a harlequin leap, between a jump and a roll, he cleared the ditch and bank fences on the way, contriving every time, one could scarcely tell how, invariably to alight on his legs. He repeated this feat half a score times and more, as on our way to the Point we crossed several small fields divided by the aforesaid double ditch and bank, the latter so wide that a cart might be driven thereon without difficulty.

We walked to the church-yard, where inscriptions proclaim the welcome of many a drowned mariner to his last home; and here, among strangers and his own parishioners, a late clergyman of the village takes everlasting repose. He was long before his death, my companion informed me, a suffering, infirm man, but being stout at heart, and devoted to his calling, the more helpless the more militant he grew against increasing age and infirmities. In sickness and in sorrow he was always at his post, even to leave his bed to go to the pulpit; and when no longer able to walk, so long as he could read the liturgy, rather than be absent on the Sunday, was wheeled to church in a common barrow. Like a hero in battle, the poor minister of Jurby, to the last hour of his life, did his Christian duty: like a hero while living, when assailed by mortal troubles, he vigorously repelled their assault; and like a hero now dead, he lies buried on a spot where the four winds of heaven dash fiercely upon his unsheltered sepulchre.

My new acquaintance, after we had passed through the church-yard to Jurby Point, accompanied me to the spot where I had left my horse tied to the rail. Anxious for occupation of any sort, he now proceeded with great nimbleness to tighten the girth, in despite of a caution I thought proper to offer, and the steady, oblique glance to boot with which Paddy, as if fixing his fancy on a particular spot for a mouthful, intently regarded his fat ribs: luckily, however, his rashness was attended with no disaster.

I now bent my way towards the village of Kirkmichael, through a country of extraordinary fertility, along a flat, even road, whereon the horse Paddy, in whose groggy hoofs the blood was now in full circulation, cantered along most gaily. Within a mile of the village is the residence of the bishop, a fact which amounts to a proof, probably, that the spot of all others is not the worst in the island. The edifice is plain and unpretending, situated at the termination of an avenue of sycamore trees, adjoining the main road from Ramsey.

The diversity of scenery within the small periphery of the Isle of Man, is really extraordinary, whether one proceeds along the line of coast, or travels inland. The attention of the traveller is by turns allured to the bluff rock—the shingled or the sandy beach—the black, angry, wave- beaten shoal—or the wide-spreading, hospitable bay. Already I had traversed mountain and moor, together with extensive tracts of rich arable and pasture, and lastly I encountered some thousands of acres of deep and spongy morass, as pure bog land as is to be met with in any part of the kingdom. A great part of the country, inland, between Kirkmichael and Jurby, consists of a bed of pure black peat, distinguished provincially by the appellation of "The Curragh," the whole surface of which is laid down to pasture, and drained by clean even-cut ditches, with a bank in the middle, surmounted by a thriving alder hedgerow. These ditches discharge themselves into a main watercourse about twelve feet wide, whence the drainage is so perfect, that there is not, as I have elsewhere observed relating to the whole island, even here, either lake, pond, or deposit. In those places where turf is dug for the purpose of fuel, it is cut in layers of a yard and a half, or thereabouts, deep, and being black and soft, is moulded into form previous to being carted, by the hand; and here, only a few years after a thick stratum of the surface has been thus removed, the soil again becomes covered by a thick coat of herbage. Abundance of bog wood is furnished from this morass, and fossil remains of animals have also frequently been discovered. I saw in the possession of a medical gentleman in Douglas, a fine specimen of horns, stupendous in size, of an animal of the deer species, and of which I believe another pair, the counterpart of these, is preserved in Edinburgh Museum, the gift of the late Duke of Athol to the establishment.

The road from Ramsey, after proceeding a considerable distance inland, again approaches the sea at Kirkmichael, which little town and its neighbourhood, including the rural village of Glenwillan, both fronting the sea, and seated at the base of an amphitheatre of mountains, are among the most beautiful spots in the island; especially the neat fishing hamlet just alluded to—for so it is at present, consisting merely of a few fishermen's houses in the bosom of the glen—is entitled to that distinction. Hence a small rivulet, descending from the mountains in the rear, trickles along a broad level plain below, so protected by the aforesaid mountains on the one part, and the precipitous banks of the ravine, that here diverge rapidly towards the sea, on the other, that the extensive space between of pasture land, as level as a bowling-green, may well and deservedly be called the valley of shelter and sunshine. I have no doubt, since a few ornamental cottages have already been built, and a small spring hereabouts is strongly impregnated with iron, that, in the natural course of things, ere the lapse of many years, this situation will be chosen as the site of a watering-place, and a point of summer resort.

The banks of the glen are composed of the same rich mixture of red marl and sand before mentioned at Jurby, and are covered also with equally luxuriant vegetation. In form, they are unusual and extraordinary, for the cause of which I will not pretend to account: however, the ground above consists of a parcel of small undulating hillocks, whose tops towards the verge of the glen are, as it were, shaven off, so as to form so many flat tabular surfaces, that precisely resemble the remains of an ancient fortification. A pleasing opportunity is here afforded, from many a sunny nook among the sloping sides of the ravine, with reference to the course of the rivulet that meanders below, of reflecting, that, notwithstanding its diminutive size, it has probably, aided by the hand of time, been a mighty agent in the formation of the surrounding scenery. Descending through succeeding ages along its narrow bed, year after year, over a surface of tender, crumbling mould, wearing its way, by degrees, through stratum after stratum, and forming for itself continually a lower and a lower level, the earth meanwhile has risen at the sides in fantastic fragments, of magnitude continually increasing. The parent stream renders these still larger and larger, by gradually undermining their bases; and, finally, remains itself a mere streak in the landscape, compared with the above mentioned grander features of its own creation.

From Kirkmichael I rode to Douglas by a mountain track, or bridle-path, that leads hence in a line nearly direct across the summit of the hills, and strikes upon the Peel Town road at Kirkbraddan. Another route to Douglas across these mountains extends from Sulby four miles from Ramsey; also by the way of Kirkbraddan. I had a pleasant ride over green hills, where the spread of sheep walks is so extensive, as to promise, under a proper grazing system, a good return for the farmer. The few sheep that at present occupy these heights, though hardy in their nature, cannot be expected, thus living from generation to generation without a sufficiency of winter keep, to thrive, and are consequently a lean, half-starved race. Packs of the red-billed chough scream in concert on the dreary waste, thereby inflicting a greater appearance of desolation than ought, under favourable circumstances, to attach to the spot. I saw no good stock of any description while in the Isle of Man; neither is it probable, I think, that the case will be otherwise while the land continues to be tilled by the present mixed breed of agriculturists—half farmer, half fisherman; he who, possessing a source of profit in another direction, is thereby induced U> devote a part only of his time, care, and capital thereupon. Formerly, a peculiar breed of Manx pony was in high estimation; but of late years, even these animals have dwindled away, and are not to be found. I ought to make an exception with regard to a particularly fine race of pig, almost, I think, indigenous; at least I have never seen in England any of this marked character. At different places here on the western coast I saw three or four, weighing each upwards of twenty score, and exquisite in form; possessing length and depth of carcase, smallness of bone, diminutive legs, and a broad shoulder, the back remarkably hollow, the belly touching the ground, the ears pointing forwards, and the small nose like that of a mole. In short, they have the form of the Chinese pig, with increased length and size, and a remarkably long-tufted stern.

I had considerable difficulty in finding my way by the aforesaid track, by reason of meeting neither traveller, inhabitant, nor directing post in the way: of the latter especially, there is, I suppose because wood is scarce, no such thing in any part of the island.

Halfway, nearly on the extreme summit of the ridge, is a dreary, chilly dwelling, very deservedly deserted by its inhabitants, at present represented by an aged man and woman, whose presence is hardly sufficient to cheer and preserve from dew the damp cold walls; nevertheless, the house is one of some pretension, surrounded by a belt of plantation. The trees, such has been the little care and heed on the part of the proprietor to aspect and situation, that, firs though they be, they actually refuse to grow. The aforesaid domain, evidently intended for a gentleman's residence, but obstinately placed, in defiance of the elements, in one of the most disadvantageous positions in the whole island, is called Ingebrack, from a village of a few houses of that name lying a little below on the southern side of the hill. It is a singular example of the mistakes that people are apt to commit, and frequently most unnecessarily into the bargain, in the choice of a suitable spot for building.

George Head, A Home Tour through various parts of the United Kingdom (London: John Murray, 1837) Conversion to HTML and placename mark-up by Humphrey Southall, 2012.

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