Around Staarvey and along the Switchback Road, 13th Aug 2021

The tree lined avenue between St Johns and Tynwald Mills always cheers me. The colours and the dappled light look attractive at all times of year. Following this minor road over the bridge you meet the back road to Peel. I have often wondered where the track went immediately opposite the junction, and today I decided to find out.

I had been helping Dawn at Manx Wildlife Trust at Cooildarry with the young Watch group. We were investigating the traps Dawn had set, and the children excited meandered through the wood looking out for flags and traps, trying to guess whether there would be anything inside the traps – which were mostly positive with single woodmice ferreting about inside. We weighed them and measured them and sexed them. Then it was the hedgehog tunnels, with ink stained paper in the centre so that their footprints could be caught on the white paper either side of the tunnel. Only, we didn’t find hedgehog footprints, just a cat(!), mice and possibly a stoat’s footprints. It kept the children absorbed for about 90 mins.

From there, I stopped at the car park on the switchback road, which is a long 2 mile … switchback… with fantastic views towards Peel. There is a footpath uphill on the northern edge of the switchback, another footpath I had never walked along. It is a stony track suitable for bikes and pedestrians but not pushchairs or wheelchairs. Just as you take a rest, there is a chance to enjoy this surprise view, which you might expect to see in a mediterranean country rather than the Isle of Man.

If you keep on this path it takes you over the side of Knockharry, but I took the path to the right leading to Staarvey. There are wonderful views to the east but only occasional glimpses of the sea to the west as the path goes through farmland below the top. If you look very very closely, on the top left of the photo below you can just about make out the marquees at Patrick, signalling the Royal Show is on. This photo was taken just as I came off the rise but this view would soon be masked by the hills. The map tells me there are cairns close to the path but I must admit I didnt see them. This is a walk across fields full of cows, which as usual were interested to know what I was doing, but finally left me alone. Guess they think this is their land, not mine.

I am always amazed at the different atmospheres and vistas that this island gives us in different places; places where we walk or pass by regularly look so different from just a few feet higher up. I enjoyed this walk across the fields as there was a great variety of colour and the hay had been cut and it is clearly a living landscape. Some of the stiles were a bit iffy, particularly the one in the last field before the lane. I was tempted to climb the gate but persevered but it was impossible to find the rungs on the ladder on the opposite side of the fence on the photo below.

From here, I joined the road which was still a very pleasant, quiet walk down to Laurel Bank and around the hillside which eventually turned into the aforementioned track that had originally interested me. There are great views of Slieau Whallian and St Johns here, but my phone was out of juice so I wasn’t able to take any further photos and none of the switchback road which is disappointing. Another time. I turned right at the main road – this is a fairly busy back road and although it is fine to walk along it as a single person or even two or three people, I wouldn’t recommend it with a group. Just past the right bend I turned off onto the switchback road and followed this all the way back to the car. It is slightly uphill for about a third of the road and from then on small humps and hollows but nothing difficult or strenuous; just a delightful walk on a narrow lane with passing places. There was the odd car and cyclist, but this road is safe for pedestrians.

I haven’t been able to do much walking recently due to physical constraints (what’s new!) and jobs I have to do in the house, mostly putting things in the roof or decorating before my new carpets come. One job seems to create another. Then of course, I do have my ‘work’ teaching Psychology. I am thrilled to say that all my students, even those I assessed for another organisation, retained the grades I gave them, so if I have to assess private candidates next year I shall feel confident to help them all.

I shall be busy over the next couple of weeks with more Watch meetings for young people, helping at Ballachurry Nature Reserve and my usual duties at Scarlett Nature Reserve; and I still have more peatland to survey, so whether I can get out doing any serious walking we shall have to wait and see.

The walk I have just described shows how a short walk can be just as pleasant and rewarding as longer walks and revive the spirit.

Distance – just under 4 miles; total ascent 476ft; total descent 479ft

MWT Wildflower Walk – Bradda Head

What else could you wish to do on a cool but sunny evening, other than walk along the cliffs, explore nature’s haven and watch the sun set?

A small group of nature lovers met at the Bradda Glen car park, wondering if we were at the right place, when our leader Andree Dubbledam appeared out of the blue, having confessed to falling asleep and almost missing the walk! Such is the laid-back attitude on the Isle of Man that nobody blinked an eye, half-suspecting that this could happen :-). We don’t have the famous manx idiom ‘Trai dy liooar’ for no good reason.

This was a very short walk, only about 1.5 miles in total, and started just steps away from the car park as Andree described how bluebells and ramsoms (wild garlic) colonise different types of terrain just yards away from each other, often on different sides of a path, and how the nutrients leech through the soil making this possible by changing the acidity of the soil. And how the pesky three cornered leek, being a very hardy comeover, and later stopover, is gradually denuding sites of their natural wildlife. It’s hard to be angry with it when it looks so beautiful, but then the bees really do like the bluebells. I didn’t know that the nectar sacs in each tiny flower bud on the bluebell refill every night so there is a constant supply for the birds.

The three-cornered leek

We also began to fall in love a little more with the sycamore trees. At this time of year the leaves were just coming into their lushious greenness, and if were to inspect the leaves you may well see aphids nestling in there, which will become food for the bluetits. Apparently they hibernate in the crevices of the sycamore and provide nourishment for birds during the winter months too.

Then there is the brilliant European Gorse in all its fine yellow, parading over the hills. You can’t miss it. It grows tall and bold, showing the world who’s boss. Occasionally, in between its wide shoulders you can spot samples of the less showy Manx Gorse, which is more compact and smaller. The Manx Gorse flowers later in the year from August to October, so you can expect to see one or other type of gorse flowering at most times during the year.

As we reached the mines area the turf is very very short and it’s hard to imagine that anything much grows here. How often have you stopped to look at what lies beneath your feet, or do you simply tread carefully on your way up to Milner Tower? Andree explained that the earth disturbed by the mine workings brings different elements to the surface that allows flora to grow that otherwise would not. One example of this is the dainty spring sandwort. Unless you are knee thigh to a grasshopper you will find yourself crouching down and searching amongst mosses and plantains to even notice this tiny flower, about half the size of your little fingernail, at best. You may be more familiar with the thyme and plantain, but even they were hard to spot. Hard to believe that some of these will become very noticeable plants as the summer comes along.

The self-conscious tiny spring sandwort

Beside one of the mine shafts we spent a few minutes (or rather Andree did) rummaging about in a very shallow muddy ditch looking for and failing to find any interesting specimens. He did point out a small hawthorn tree amongst the gorse and informed us that given a few centuries this area, if undisturbed, would revert to a natural small woodland.

At this point, shaded by the lofty Milner Tower, and wrapped around by an ever-present breeze, that was occasionally blusterous enough to lift us off our feet, the air turned very cool so rather than continue on along the cliff edge with the prospect of losing a group member off the side of the cliff, we turned inland to examine large tufts of grass. The main path is pretty much devoid of anything other than grass but to either side of it are these small hardened mounds with grass growing over them. One of two had very small areas of shaved earth and loose soil towards the top, which are an indicator of the living residents within. I’m sure you have heard of termite mounds; these are the manx equivalent and are the yellow meadow ants’ home. We didn’t see any because like any sensible creature if it gets cold you go inside, but we were assured that they would be there snuggling up, keeping warm and protecting their young.

The anthills are just a bit further down from here on either side of the path, though these could be some small anthills developing.

From here it was a short walk back to Bradda Glen, and for me a further walk back home along the cliff edge where I spied a number of other spring flowers that adorn the cliffs at this time of year, such as squill, sea campion, red campion, thift, primroses and the occasional brilliant white bluebell.