folder Filed in Isle of Man, Stories
Fairies and Vikings help a fading tourist island
Editor access_time 10 min read

One of the objectives of the media and marketing work Grafton PR was doing for the Isle of Man Government in the 1970s was to emphasise the “differences” between that place and the rest of the British Isles. Press releases to travel and general media and TV holiday programmes, like Wish You Were Here, always stressed what made it such a unique place.

The Isle of Man might be geographically part of the British Isles, but it was not a member country of the United Kingdom.

England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Island comprise the UK, while Eire, the Channel Islands and the Isle Man are independent, each with its own Parliament and self-governance and own taxation. Not a lot of people knew that at the time. In the case of the Isle of Man (and the Channel Islands), the income tax was so low it has long attracted wealthy UK executives to practise the art of tax avoidance with offshore companies, residences and secret bank accounts.

That one “difference” earned the Island – and Channel Islands – loadsa dosh.

But, tourism in the Isle of Man, the traditional “big earner”, was shrinking, as package holidays to Spain and other sunnier climes reduced the Manx arrivals to a fraction of what they had been in the halcyon years of Wakes holidays. That was when half the populations of Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool and industrial places north of Birmingham caught the ferry across from Liverpool for a holiday in the Isle of Man.

They came for the green countryside, long sandy beaches, magical leafy glens and great nights out in concerts halls and old-fashioned real pubs that, by local decree, could sell only real ale. There were, and remain, typical seaside attractions in Douglas and a range of heritage transportation – steam, electricity and horsepower – to visit scenic places and resorts.

The island may have mature palm trees and semi tropical greenery, but the weather is really no better than mainland Britain. The Isle of Man is washed by the warming Gulf Stream that keeps it very temperate, but it can be deluged by Atlantic rain clouds that deposit bucket-loads – bounced across the Irish Sea from the Mountains of Mourne. Mainly, though, the Mourne Bounce rain clouds reach the Lake District on mainland England, where the very name provides its regular weather forecast.

Not much that’s different in the climate, so how to boost the important big earner of tourism and regain some of the traffic lost to Spain and other Med destinations? With tourist board officials, we looked carefully at the prospects for special interest holidays, like fell walking, bike trails, vintage trains, dance and sporting festivals, fishing and whale watching. These activities, and others, existed and could be developed with targeted investment and marketing.

The Manx Government realised tourism would no longer be a numbers game – the mass market was lost to the Costas, probably forever. Their tourism bosses were keen to pursue niche and special interest markets.

1970s tourism strategy still works well in in the 21st century. Here's The Sun's endorsement
1970s tourism strategy still works well in in the 21st century. Here’s The Sun’s endorsement

The biggest special interest had to be the famous Isle of Man TT Races, when 40,000 bikers descended on the island. They came to watch daredevil racers whizzing along standard roads and streets at speeds up to 200 miles an hour. It was always a week-long fest of adrenalin-fuelled racing and alcohol-fuelled mayhem that meant everybody had a great time and threatened to return to the most dangerous race on the planet –“‘til death do us part.” There have been 242 deaths in the 107 occasions the races have been staged.

The carnival atmosphere of TT week peaks on “Mad Sunday” when every visiting biker has unfettered access to the 37-mile long course and can give it some throttle. Thousands of bikers soaking up the thrills of sharp bends, long high-speed straights and the sensation of flying in the air across humped Ballough Bridge adds up to a unique experience.

The locals had a wonderful time too and spent days afterwards counting up their newly provided wealth and deciding how to spend it at the end of the holiday season. Many headed for a Costa holiday.

TT detractors often count up the dead riders and biker fans that never made it round the circuit and call for the event to be abandoned. It has been described as the most dangerous sports event on the planet due to the high death rate.

Because of this, it lost its official status in 1976, after 10-times TT winner Giacomo Agostini and other pro riders boycotted the event and the once most prestigious race on the Grand Prix calendar, was stripped of its world championship involvement. Despite that setback, the event continues to prosper and attracts record numbers of fans from around the world.

But, the island needed other “special interest” visitors to survive against the Mediterranean attractions and what role could the media play in getting that message across?

Would it be possible to attract enlist the aid of prime opinion formers, the ladies and gentleman of the Press who would love a freebie trip to the Isle of Man and could help to put in a good word to their readers?

After meetings with the Manx Government we finalised a special interest tourism strategy that we could test via an official press trip, the biggest ever, to the island. And we had a tv crew included.

The media people could experience all the special interest activities like hill walking, beach combing, bird watching, cycling, golf, tennis, rugby and football etc we were hoping would replace the lost beach holidaymakers and help the island’s tourism survive.

We put together an invitation list that covered travel media, provincial, special interest and national media and we finished up with a dozen journalists assembling at Liverpool Pierhead to board a brand new ferry, the Lady of Mann II for the 77-mile crossing to the Isle of Man.

The new ferry was fast, smooth and comfortable and the local Manx ales travelled well enough to keep us occupied and excitable when we were invited by the ship’s master to the bridge for the first view of the Island.

When we disembarked we did a press team photoshoot with my new Citroen CX company car, driven from the car deck of the ferry, included.  It was the first of that model seen on the Island. I thought it would be useful for side trips to distant attractions – especially as there are no speed limits on island roads.

Our party was booked into the Palace Hotel & Casino on the promenade of the island capital Douglas, where everyone was given a bay view room in the newest part of the hotel and invited for welcome drinks with officials and to sample local cuisine at the restaurant.

The heart of Manx social life is the infamous Round Bar at the Casino and that’s where we assembled for our first look at something different – Britain’s only public casino. It’s not Monte Carlo, but there are gaming tables and one-armed bandits and free drinks for gamblers who can stay until 3am or whenever they have lost all their cash – whichever comes sooner.

There were cabaret and dancing, but despite those temptations, everyone in the press party boarded the coach next morning on time for their first look at this different place.

The Manx themselves are different and harbour superstitions about fairies, giants and certain animals. A few miles south of Douglas and our guide on the coach PA warned the passengers about the wrath of the fairies who live at Fairy Bridge that’s “coming up in a few minutes”. It is the custom that every Manx person adheres to, that they should greet the fairies as they cross the bridge and if they don’t, something untoward will happen to them.

The press party were encouraged to practise “Good morning little people” as the coach crawled slowly across the tree-lined haunt of the fairies. An onboard film crew recorded the muted response and then demanded a stronger communal greeting. The coach went back and forth a couple of more times before the sound recordist was happy, antics that presumably had the watching little people in raptures.

But, our greetings meant were we were protected from the wrath of the fairies for the rest of the day. I noticed one of the journalists had not fully participated, but you couldn’t blame a serious writer from a broadsheet national newspaper for being a mite dubious could you? Although, I couldn’t help wondering what his fate might be? 

We pressed on, toured Castletown Brewery and the 12th century Castle Rushen that had been the last Royalist stronghold to fall in the English Civil War. It is said to be the best-preserved castle in Europe and big enough to get lost in – as happened to the guide in this video tour.

A large clock presented by Queen Elizabeth I in 1597 stills keeps good time for the townsfolk who are used to the fact it lacks a minute hand. Time passes slowly on the island, based on the old saying “Traa-dy-Llooar” which means “Time enough”. It makes the Spanish “Hasta manaña” look pretty dam quick. The national emblem displaying three legs and a castle clock with only one hand are notable differences on this island.

So is an annual Viking invasion enactment that sees a fleet of longboats landing on Peel beach to slug it out with staunch defenders. The Vikings always win, but then they have to lay on a boozy feast in their nearby Longhouse. It would test the stamina of Fleet Street’s finest drinkers.

There was also something different about our fairy-sceptical reporter as we returned to the coach. Since leaving Liverpool Pier, he had been wearing an expensive astrakhan Nehru-style hat and it had been on his head throughout the first morning. Now it was missing and he was very concerned.

I thought about his subdued greetings at Fairy Bridge and couldn’t help wondering… Anyway, the headgear was never seen again and cue more folklore of this different place.

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