Marine Drive, a step back in time on the Isle of Man
Marine Drive is located south of Douglas and I think it is a rather stunning aspect of the Isle of Man, in part this is due to its very close proximity to the island’s capital town, and you cycle through ‘busy’ into a time warp of tranquility. I only discovered the Drive as I was sorting out my first Audax Perm for the Isle of Man – Celts, Trams and Castles (www.gpsies.com/map) and I was trying to keep the route off the busy highways for the return part of the journey back into Douglas from where the ride started from.
My tourer at the main gates of Marine Drive:
On the Ordinance Survey map that I was plotting with, the route was not clear if it was ridable on a road bike or not. But infact it is ideal. Tarmaced and safe. Later, I was also to include this route with ‘The Three Peaks of Mann’ (www.gpsies.com/map) as it takes the intrepid cyclist along its windy path right at the start of the Perm as you cycle this route southwards in its proper direction. To find Marine Drive, you need to get to Douglas Head. This is basically the highest hill on the east part of the island, just above the ferry port or harbour housing Manx Radio station and the Victorian Camera Oscura.
The geology is wonderful to look at as well, as you meander past the strong cliff faces, the overburden strata of limestone, slate and granite layers are at 90 degree angles to the road that you are cycling on, which show just how the rock over millennia of time has lurched and buckled and been far more turbulent than it is today. The Marine Drive is a stronghold for many examples of wildlife too, in part due to its isolation from traffic, as it is quiet and serene. Only the weather can nudge you off your bike as the winds can be fearfully powerful along here on a bad blowy day, and you do need to watch out for suicidal bunnies as well. Generally though, as you cycle along you see ravens playing in the thermals and Manx Choughs are everywhere. These cheeky black crow-like birds advertise their species by their bright red legs and beaks and are a rare bird. At the end part of summer, looking seaward if you are lucky, you might see a glimpse of dolphins as they pass by. I gave this route out to a group of CTC tourists last August and they were rewarded by seeing a large school of dolphin as they cycled along. I have as yet to see any cetaceans of any species myself as yet. Farmers graze their Loughtan sheep along the sloping grassland. These are a very old breed of Manx sheep, shabby and brown in colour, they are small in size, but produce wonderful low fat meat which is high in taste, retaining a wildness about it. The tup or male sheep is a magnificent four horned chap, and is featured on the logo of my ‘Three Peaks of Mann’ brevet card. This chap was sleeping off his lunch and he lives at Cregneish Village. (The group of Loughtans grazing along Marine Drive were all ewes)
Marine Drive starts at the top of Douglas Head Road. There are no public notices anywhere along it to tell people anything at all about this unique Victorian artifact and ever since I discovered its delights, I have had ‘The Need to Know More’ about this pathway. So, together with the good ol’ internet, a book purchased by a friend (thanks Mark for lending me this) on eBay called ‘Douglas Head, Marine Drive and Electric Tramway’ by A.M. Goodwyn, and information from a loaned copy of ‘Double Century’ by Stan Basnett and Keith Pearson, (thank you Ian for its loan), I hope to tell you the story of Marine Drive from my own cycling perspective.
During the reign of Queen Victoria, the Isle of Man was one of THE places to visit as a holiday destination. In 1897 the year of her Jubilee, the Island boasted 107 hotels and 311,000 visitors landed on the shore of Douglas for the summer season. (Considering the size of the island, and the fact we have today 80,000 residents – far more than we did in 1897 the numbers are pretty impressive). The industrial revolution was causing a cultural change. The common man moved from the countryside to the towns for better employment opportunities, entrepreneurism was encouraged and the middle classes had money in their pockets, spare time in their day and needed to be entertained. Invention was the new paradigm of the day and electricity was in its infancy.
In 1889 two men, who looked at the creation of marvellous things and ideas, entered into partnership with one another, they were Mr. W Pitt and Mr GJ Cudden. Between them, they wanted to build great Victorian structures. Mr Pitt was encouraged by the sights of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, (he was one of the founders of the Blackpool Tower build project), and he liked the concept of the Marine Drive Carriageway ride in Great Orme in Llandudno, which drew the crowds in their thousands for the scenic route along the cliffs in North Wales. Take a look here: http://www.greatorme.org.uk/marinedrive.html
Infact looking at this website of the original Marine Drive specification, you can really see the how the idea took off. The lay out of cliff face, rock and seascape are indeed very similar. I can only assume that our Marine Drive was named after this particular one in North Wales.
Looking towards Douglas with the Gates in the distance.
The architects who were employed in the design of the Marine Drive in the island, were a Mr Maxwell, and Mr Tuke, they also happened to be the same architects for the Blackpool Tower as well. The capital to build the tramway was estimated to the cost of £40,000 and according to www.nationalarchives.gov.uk this Victorian sum of money was the equivalent to about £2,400,000 in todays cash. But this sum was to increase when the decision was made to extend the route further to Port Soderick Bay, which ultimately became the end of the line for Marine Drive in more ways than one.
Here is a picture of the Marine Drive gates:
There are three gateways through. The paying public would enter via the smaller gate on the left side in this picture, where a turnstyle counted them all in the bolts where it was fitted are still there today. On the seaside of the gates stood a lodgekeepers cottage, now demolished, but the scar of which can be seen in the next picture. When the gates were in operation huge wrought iron gates were opened to allow the tramcar though. The tramcar entered via the far right gateway, and the middle gateway was reserved for the carriages of the gentry, special occasions, maintenance wagons etc.
This picture is taken from the seaward side of the large gates, showing the marks of the old lodgekeeper’s cottage.
Even by Manx standards the electric tramway was unique in a number of factors. Firstly it was of standard gauge and not the usual narrow gauge employed by the Manx Electric Railway (still in its infancy) routes from Douglas to Peel and to Ramsey. The Marine Tramway also used double decked tramcars instead of single decked ones. The double decked tramcars were considered as particularly spectacular, as they were also open topped for the very best of sea-air views. The Victorian’s did indeed enjoy ‘taking the airs’, and no doubt the winds of the Isle of Man would of kept them very busy indeed emptying their lungs of any miasmias that they had encountered during the day – no wonder they wore so many layers! Marine Drive was the shortest tramway route on the island, which might of been just as well in all that wind.
The creation of this unique tramway had not been an easy one. There were three locations along its route where bridges had to be built to span the cut-away rocks. The first bridge was installed at Pigeon Stream, then Walberry and at Horse’s Leap. Initially the bridges that carried the tramcars over the craggy rocks at a height of 267 feet above sea level were built from pitch pine, but these were replaced just 3 years later and were made from steel girding. Walberry was the longest bridge and was completed in 1893 and spanned 256 feet. This bridge had a central support, and this is still in evidence today, although very eroded.
Tramcar at Wallberry Viaduct (steel construction that replaced the original timber framed model).
Here is what is left today, in the centre of the loose shale, you can see the remains of the central support, look immediately up the cliff and you can see where the viaduct began.
August 1893 saw the opening day of the Marine Drive in all its glory. I expect there had been a lot of pomp and show that only the Victorians could display, I bet it was a proper party day. More than two thousand eager participants paid their penny to pass though those impressive new gates, to board a tramcar and to travel at the heady speed of 8mph. On its first day of opening, the takings amounted to £18 two shillings and 6d. Which amounted to about £1,000 of todays money.
And on opening day:
The tramway line was laid out against the rock on the landward side of the route. It was a single line, with passing places so that trams could run in either direction. Pigeon Stream was an important place, as it was not only where the first of the three bridges were built, but it also housed the engine room which powered the electricity needed to move the tramcars. I did wonder at first if the powerhouse would be water-wheel driven, but of course the Victorians would be using their new modernisation methods to power their electrical trams. Coal – burnt to heat water to produce steam which drove the steam turbines. The water from Pigeon Stream was clean and had a good strong flow even during the summer months. The power house station was sited on the seaward side of the route. During the winter months when the tramway was out of use, horses were used to pull the cart loads of coal up to the powerstation at Pigeon steam. It must of been a hard slog for them in winter with heavy load of coal to climb up Douglas Head from the harbour below. Today Pigeon Steam has just a simple boring sign to show its presence and is now a car park. I understand from talking to people about this power station, that the power house was demolished and simply covered over and the car park plonked on top, so the heart and soul of the powerhouse station remain beneath in a dark tomb of rubble. Here is a website with a picture of the powerhouse at Pigeon Stream.
In 1899 further credit was taken out to the tune of £20,000 (or 1 million to us) to build the tramway extension to Port Soderick, taking the entire route to the length of 3.5 miles. At Port Soderick there were a range of leisure activities such as segregated swimming areas, bathing huts, dance halls and eating houses. It was a grand place to hang out. Sadly the amount of money borrowed was the straw to break the camels back. Fashions were changing. The motor car was just around the corner, the horse drawn omlibus was to have its own engine. By 1918, the Drive was in trouble in the finance department.
It continued to limp along, but things did not improve even after a spectacular 1920 summer season. The depts to the Marine Drive Company were steady mounting. By 1930 the Company had depts of the value of £4,500 (£134,000 to us). Maintaining the route was relentless. The wet, damp, salty winters were constantly consuming the steel construction of the viaduct bridges. Each winter a gang of workmen had to rummage beneath the bridges with hot buckets of tar to keep back the tide of erosion.
This picture is a close up of the viaduct end at Walberry, you can clearly see the stained rock beneath where tar had been splashed over the years of use. Look above and ahh at the overburden rock strata!
One man in 1927 fell to his death while working beneath the bridge at Walberry.
Marine Drive was seriously feeling the prod of competition. Not horses at this time of course, but the horseless carriages. Buses or coaches were not allowed to travel along the Drive, but private motor cars belonging to the privileged were.
According to the AGM in 1930 (Basnet and Pearson), the Marine Drive Company had profits of £590 (£20,000), but the tramsway was operating at a loss, even though over 100,000 had passed through and paid at the turnstiles over the summer season. By 1938, the shareholders no longer received their dividends. The Second World War was the next trial the Drive had to endure, and during this time the tramway ceased to run. Sadly this mothballing was the end of the line for the Marine Drive Tramway. Once the people-traffic from Douglas ceased to arrive, the life blood of Port Soderick too dried up, and so Port Soderick, as if in mourning for a loved friend, fell into a deep decay, where it lay empty and unused. Without the vital maintenance and repair on the viaduct bridges, they very soon also fell into disrepair and were considered unsafe. The Marine Drive Receivers disposed of the entire site to the Isle of Man Highway and Transport Board and by 1948, it was wound up and dissolved completely.
The entire route was unceremoniously stripped of its tramway track and over head cables and poles. The bridges were ripped up. At Walberry you can still see part of the bridge structure lying on the rocks beneath in a twisted rusty state. I assume it must of been too difficult to retrieve fallen steel work during its removal.
Many of the poles that carried the electrical cables that ran the tramcars were re-used by the Manx Electric Railway. They are quite distinctive. Slimmer than the poles usually employed by the MER, the ones from Marine Drive have 2 collars on them and usually a tear drop ornamental bauble on top. Some of the really old early ones have ornate curly decorative bracket arms as well, although I have as yet to find any of these. Many of the electrical cable poles on the Douglas to Laxey electric tram route are these re-cycled Marine Drive poles. You can easily spot them along the cycle route ‘Celts, Trams and Castles’.
This picture was taken of one in my home village of Baldrine on the Isle of Man outside the tramstop station. The ornate brackets are gone sadly, but the ornate bauble is there and of course the important collars that defined the Marine Drive poles, which were also slimmer as they only originally had brackets on one side and not in a pair as these ones are now:
Compared to the Manx Electric Railway ones, which are chunkier without collars:
This pic is one of the tramstop where the Marine Drive pole was located, but all along the MER route to Laxey you can see examples of them. I suppose at the time, lots would of been made and put into storage. And it is good to see them being used:
1956-63, the Isle of Man Highway and Transport Board proposed a new road scheme, to take people back to Port Soderick and to breath new life into the area. They demolished the boiler power house at Pigeon Stream and made a car park and picnic area in its place.
The bridges were not worth saving, and so at a cost of £240,000 (£4,180,000 today), they blasted out the rock and so passed the need for bridges. Douglas Corporation bought Port Soderick and rebuilt it, to include entertainment, eating and dancing facilities once more, as well as a large car park. In 1966 just 3 years after completion of the new road route though, the rock strata had its say in the matter. The blasting and subsequent removal of overburden had exposed the softer rocks beneath. Weathering caused frosts and water to penetrate this softer rock, and erosion did the rest. Part of the road slithered and slipped down to the high water mark beneath. So forcing closure once more. Again, history repeated its self for poor ol’ Port Soderick. I can remember visiting the pub there while it was still open when I was a lass, and it was very dishevelled and unloved at this time, it was difficult to get to, and was easily forgotten. In 1980, Port Soderick finally, and for the very last time shut its doors.
Since this time, Marine Drive its self has been re-opened. Albeit just to walkers and cyclists only. It is gated at either end by ‘kissing gates’.
So what of the tramcars?
Thankfully, in 1950, one of the tramcars was was preserved for prosperity in the National Tramway Museum, in Crich in Derbyshire. Here is the link to see the only perserved Marine Drive Tram: Scroll down to the ‘Collections’ bit and you will see Marine Drive Tramcar No 1 in her magnificence.
It is the first picture, Tram has a number 1 on the front of it and a stairway. She does looks stunning and one day I intend to find the museum and take a look myself. Sadly, it is the only remaining example of the tramcars used on the Marine Drive. I understand the rest became used as sheds and hen-houses.
I have always wanted to find out about Marine Drive, now that I have, the route is more alive to me as I pass the various structures that pieced together the lives of real people from a past era. I hope that by adding this to the CycleSeven Blog, that the lack of information on the route its self has re-addressed the balance to other curious cyclists who may marvel at the strange splendour of the Marine Drive Gates.