26, 1000ft + Peaks Challenge – Day 1; 22nd May 2021

I imagine the title will make some of you feel exhausted, turn over and go back to bed, but if I can do it as an OAP, so can you. Not that I’m sure I can do it yet. Having various infuriatingly only partially diagnosed metabolic problems makes hill-climbing often painful and extremely tiring to the extent I have to rest for several days afterwards. But this is who I am and what I have done all my life, though without so many encumbrances. I adore being out in the hills, wind, rain, snow, sun, I don’t care. If I stop now I will lose a lot of my identity and what gives me purpose in life.

These 26 peaks take in the majority of the Manx Slate hills, which run diagonally north east to south west. We didn’t start with Bradda Head or the Carnanes the furthest points south as these are just under 1000′.

Cronk Ny Array Laa (437 metres): We started out gently at the car park on the Sloc road towards the top of Cronk Ny Array Laa. I don’t usually have a problem with this, but the group started out fast (as groups always do) and I found it difficult to lift my legs or breathe. Not a promising start. When we reached the trig point of this our first peak I advised the leader that I may discontinue and that I would take it at my own pace. Cronk ny Array Laa means Hill of the Day Watch. The cairn above it is a burial plot dating to the late Neolithics. Just beyond this you will see a stone memorial citing the Manx Fisherman’s Evening Hymn, written by W.H.Gill.

Round Table: The next section was downhill, flat and slightly wet as we crossed the moorland to the Round Table and the crossroads taking you either around South Barrule, towards Niarbyl in the west, Colby /Ballasalla in the south or Port Erin in the south west. This looks such a short section and yet it always take quite a while to walk through the peaty moorland.This is the meeting point of 3 parishes and also denotes the separation of the Northern and Southern divisions of the land. Just over the road is a kissing gate, and to the right of this is a flat mound or tumulus, an ancient monument barely visible and never excavated. It would originally have been square, but the story goes that the soldiers used to argue as to who should sit at the head of the table, so they made it round. It is strategically located, given its tiny size. It is the highest point in the dip between South Barrule and Cronk Ny Array Laa, and from here you can see the sea in all directions, so it must certainly have been some kind of lookout, perhaps like a keep. If you want to go and look for this yourself, on the Colby/Ballasalla road there is large white stone on top the wall, and immediately behind it should be the tip of the hillock. You are looking for a raised area of just a few metres diameter with an indentation in the centre and the hint of a surrounding ditch.

The walk across the moor from Cronk Ny Array Laa

South Barrule (483 metres) : onwards and upwards, on a well defined track and then a stony path for about 180 metres. Now you start to feel the wind, but it was really quite a pleasant day, though hats and gloves were much in evidence. The path starts gently with some sections rising, a little like terraces. There are a few outcrops where you can stop to admire the view or have a coffee break. On both ascent and descent, you go through a stone rampart encircling the top of South Barrule. This was an enclosure of 5-6 acres, and within this have been found 85 round huts, the remnants of many of which can quite clearly be seen. The rampart itself is made of turf and faced with stones, most of which have tumbled away and lie strewn across the ground. This was an Iron Age fort. Radiocarbon dating of a hearth in one of the huts showed it to have existed since 524BC. It doesn’t take much imagination to wonder why they picked here. It is one of the few places where (on a good day) you can see the Seven Kingdoms of Man, but it is also inhospitable, and is thought to have been inhabited partly due to climate change affecting the lower levels – plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose.

2nd Peak – yours truly in bobble hat and purple cagoule. Photo courtesy of Ken.

From here we made our way down through the gorse and heather in a northerly direction until we joined the Sloc Road and the Cross Vein mine workings (now defunct). Notice how barren the land is, almost like volcanic ash. The next section was road walking, but this is not an issue as there is hardly any traffic, until we took a detour for lunch in the Arrasey plantation. This was first planted between 1935 and 1967, and is continually being felled and restocked with Sitka Spruce, Pine, Larch and more recently Corsican Pine. After lunch we got our first view of the western coast and Peel, with field after field of soft green farmland, such a contrast to the higher moorland.

Slieau Whallian (383 metres): We walked around the edge of the plantation and rejoined the lane downhill until we reached a bend in the road at 210 metres where we turned uphill along a stony track. Under normal circumstances this would be the way to St John’s, but our leader had negotiated an extension with a landowner who kindly agreed to allow us to go onto his property so that we could reach our final top of Slieau Whallian. He had even put up ladders for us. Thank you so much, Mr. Farmer (not his name!); we appreciate your permission and your thoughtfulness. It was a very straightforward walk to the top and afforded us a wonderful view all the way back to our starting point and we could see all our stopping points in between. And of course we could see all the way to Douglas and beyond and Peel and the north in the opposite direction, with big hills right in front of us.

Then came perhaps my favourite part of the day. The hills are soft and gentle underfoot, but in places surprisingly steep, creating amazing vistas that somehow you don’t expect to see on this island. It’s not altogether obvious as there are few erratics scattered around compared with say Yorkshire or the Lake District, but the topography of the southern and northern uplands (over 200 metres) has been created by glacial drift, giving it its distinct undulating shallow upland basins and deeply incised streams/ glens. These round topped hills could be seen everywhere as we made our way down.

Our final descent was through the Slieau Whallian plantation. You have probably heard the story that it is called the Witches Hill – how they were put in a barrel with spikes inside and their body weight rolled it down the hill. I don’t imagine that would have been a pretty picture when they opened the barrel at the bottom! Our descent through the trees was far longer than I was expecting, but not difficult. The sun was glinting through the forest lighting our way, and eventually we made our way down to the back lane into St. John’s. Apparently my watch slightly undercooks distance and it was just about 10 miles; 1631 ft of ascent and 2769 ft of descent. My body battery was 79/100 when I started and 7 when I finished, and it has taken 2 days to get it anywhere near that level. I shall attempt Day 2 next Saturday and take it at my speed and hopefully make it through. I don’t give in easily.

Thank you to Ken for a great day, and to the group for being excellent company.

Wildflower Walk Port Soderick Glen – 15th May 2021

Another cool day with a blustery wind, very different from this time last year when we were bathed in warm sunshine for weeks. This was a short walk along the beautiful Port Soderick Glen to see what plants and flowers were coming into bloom.

I arrived early so had a brief walk down to the coast. I rarely see the cove when the tide is in so this was a (windy)treat. I was surprised to see a ‘new’ building nestling underneath the rocks, and our guide later informed us that there is more development planned for this area to include a resthome / apartments for war veterans. You can’t go further than the cove. This is not a coastal /beach walk at this point, though a short distance above you can walk to Douglas along Marine Drive. If you want to venture south, these days it entails a 1.5 mile detour inland before regaining the coastline, which is really disspiriting.

Anyway, I digress. Back to the glen. At this point we hadn’t had a lot of rain recently so the stream was fairly quiet. The trees are just coming into leaf and the spring greens are always refreshing, reminding us of new life and hope. And there are plenty of trees!

The first interesting plant we saw was a Garlic mustard, also called Jack-by-the-Hedge for obvious reasons. We were invited to taste it (along with several other leaves). It had a very pleasant taste, one that would be nice in salads. Other interesting plants were the beautiful Marsh Marigolds, standing majestically in their boggy terrain. The yellow colour was outstanding and you could see why the bees would make… a bee-line… for them. There were all the attractive spring flowers you traditionally expect to see in this type of woodland – golden saxifrage, wood sorrel, wood anemones, lady’s smock, bluebells in abundance. The native bluebells have a longer stem and the flowers seem to droop from the top. They also tend to be a slightly darker blue than the foreigners.

One plant that was pointed out to us to avoid was the hemlock water dropwort. There is plenty of this around. It is fairly tall and dark green with parsley shaped leaves, and it is poisonous. This one probably wouldn’t kill you, at least, not quickly, but there are others that do. This one would more likely make you vomit a lot and maybe hospitalise you, so please don’t eat it. Sorry, no photos but here is a picture from my book:

We learned of various plants that heal, from the common plantain to the woundwort, with the humble herb robert in between, that was regarded as a remedy for toothache, and the yarrow, seen all over the island, used to stop bleeding.

Then there were the more unusual species – the unique salmonberry, an imported shrub from the USA. This looks like an oversized raspberry. It grows in a couple of places along the glen. You really can’t miss it, with its long pendulous branches, shiny green leaves and at the right time of year its wonderful orangey-pink berries. Right now, the fuschia-pink flowers were just finishing and there were hints of the berries that would form beneath it.

The glorious pink flower of the salmonberry (Rubus Spectabilis)

To complete our walk, we followed the stream down to the sea, and there we found the omnipresent stonecrop, thrift, bittercress, stitchwort (looking beautiful at this time of year), and the less showy mousear snuggling amongst the grass. Simon pointed out some black lumps planted on some tree trunks. These are called King Alfred’s Cakes (look up the story if you don’t know it). They are actually fungi that survive for years on dead branches, mostly beech and ash. There was also plenty of sea scurvy. You will see this around the coast, looking like handfuls of dandruff on low stems. The other find was the sea beet, a relative of beetroot and swiss chard, also known as wild spinach, which is also edible. Again, you can’t miss it lining the pebble beaches. It only grows in well-drained areas and it doesn’t like shade, so the edge of the sea is a perfect location for it.

I do enjoy these nature walks. Simon Smith runs them. You can find details of his walks on Facebook (Wildflowers on the Isle of Man) or http://www.manxwildflowers.com

My next post will be rather different. On Saturday I did the first leg of the 26 peaks over 1000 ft on the Isle of Man. Look out for this in a couple of days.