The Lady of Mann
by Stefan Brenner
Part 2, Part 3,|
Part 4 appear
in this issue.
|part 1 of 4|
The Isle of Man is situated in the Irish Sea between the coastlines of Lancashire and Northern Ireland. Hundreds of years ago, Celts from Britain and Ireland, and Norsemen from Scandinavia made the often perilous sea crossing with sail and oar.
The Industrial Revolution triggered an explosion in the numbers of holiday trippers; mostly workers from Lancashire mills and factories. However, the boom years were followed by a catastrophic collapse. Changes in industry and the rise of the cheap Mediterranean ‘package holiday’ wreaked havoc among the hotels, guesthouses and seaside amusements as owners were bankrupted and often forced to migrate abroad.
During the lean times only one group remained loyal, keeping the remaining holiday establishments afloat with their twice yearly invasions. These were the thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts who gathered on the Island for its two big road race meetings: the ‘Tourist Trophy’ or ‘T.T.’ and, staged for the ordinary club racer, the ‘Manx GP’.
Both races use the same course: this is entirely made up of public roads specially closed for the event. Traversing Snaefell, the Island’s highest peak, it is judged by many to constitute the motorcycle racer’s ultimate challenge and a sad roll-call of fatalities underlines its undoubted dangers.
Liverpool’s comfortable suburbs, with its spacious blocks of semi-detacheds, were a fading memory as the old Rover with its attendant bike trailer ran the gauntlet of these inner-city streets. The approaches to the ferry port bared their teeth in a weary grimace displaying jagged gaps. The aged terraced houses were rotten, crumbling, ruins or had been torn bodily from their foundations. Pot-holes and abandoned road-workings betrayed the city’s cash crisis. Workers had downed tools mid-job, the council shedding them like droplets into a rising flood of unemployment.
Moments later, Ruth and I broke through to the dock road and, forgetting the wrecked city behind us, we swung into the long line of traffic heading for a promised land.
“We’ve over an hour yet and I intend to use it constructively,” I said, as we slowed to a halt.
I climbed out of the car, checked the trailer straps for slack: finding none, I returned the driver’s seat, leaned back and closed my eyes. With the restlessness of a first-time traveller, Ruth was finding it hard to settle. But, finally, tranquillity returned and I lapsed into a state of semi-consciousness.
As my contact with the external world faded away, bright images of the motorcycles lurking under canvas shrouds on my trailer expanded to fill my inner world. Separated by the nondescript Honda trail bike that I would use as everyday transport were the two racing machines: my old Yamaha and my new Ducati.
Compact and purposeful, my Japanese Yamaha TZ350 two-stroke was starkly functional. Its battered form bore the partly-healed old scars from numerous past encounters with the unforgiving tarmac. The Yamaha might be past its very best in terms of sheer performance, but this faithful old companion had proved effective and reliable over countless racing miles.
With its 860cc V-twin four-stroke motor nestling in a hand-built chassis, my Ducati emanated beauty and raw power in equal measure. Two years of devoted labour and a second mortgage had created this sleek bruiser of a machine, an Italian wolf within a British lambskin. The Ducati certainly had the pedigree, but its performance in racing conditions was, as yet, an unknown quantity.
The two bikes were worlds apart in every way: one, a trusted friend; the other, an exciting prospect. In fact, such was the contrast between them that the trail bike between them seemed almost to be acting as some kind of referee; keeping the two machines apart to prevent the chance of conflict.
“Wake up!” Ruth’s words sounded oddly distant. But, however ineffective her words, the sharp pain which followed her index finger being jabbed into my side returned me to the car’s humid interior with a jolt.
The engine caught, I crunched the car into gear, and with a lurch we descended the boarding ramp into the bowels of the ferry ‘Mona’s Isle’ We paused only to hand over the tickets, our passes to motorcycle Mecca. For me, the greasy bacon and chips, the multiplicity of pints and stories of the crossing had become old-hat. But Ruth seemed unable to soak up enough of the smelly atmosphere. I left her to her own devices until, with land approaching, I finally called her up on to the fore-deck.
Through the rays of the setting sun, the granite back of a giant sea-creature heaved itself up out of the ocean. Its enormous dorsal fin projected skyward: wreathed in cloud, the summit of Snaefell, apotheosis of the mountain course.
* * *
Douglas appeared like a collection of cardboard cut-outs set down in the green folds girdling the Island’s central land-mass. A row of hotels and guesthouses lies behind a wide paved ‘Prom’ replete with horse-drawn trams, sunken gardens and iron railings. All are protected by a substantial stone jetty. North and South, black cliffs tower above the grey-green sea.
Siân and Tom were waiting to greet us as we emerged on to the quay-side from the fume-filled car deck. Siân, as trim and compact as Tom was scruffy and rangy. Each the antithesis and yet the unlikely complement of the other. Toms hands were grime-stained, his long fair hair unkempt, and his expression as unreadable as the faded message on his tee-shirt. His sole possession of monetary value was ‘Hill View’, a dilapidated guesthouse. But the rooms at ‘Hill View’ remained mostly empty; its hot water, lukewarm at best.
We had gathered in the garage. Ruth and I both were feeling distinctly hazy, with a liquid feeling in the guts which tended to follow an evening’s intake of the local brew while the two ‘Islanders’ appeared immune. Tom was silently giving the TZ a critical examination, searching for any failure or oversight on my part. Finally, his eagle-eyed scrutiny accepted defeat.
“She’ll not win, but she’ll do for a Replica,” was his severe but considered judgement.
“Unless of course,” he went on, “you go looking for stray sheep, or play silly beggars with some jumped-up short-circuit kiddie.”
“Oh no, never again,” I responded. “No more heroics by me. Ruth will back me up: this season, I’ve been safer than Fort Knox.”
Tom chuckled. “And slower than Bobby Moore on an off-day, I’ll bet,” he mocked.
“Well it looked pretty fast to me,” Ruth interjected uncertainly.
Tom quiet chuckle was transformed into a roar of laughter. “Just you wait till morning practice, then you’ll see fast,” he said with a smirk.
Ruth appeared startled by this revelation.
The normally unflappable Siân’s eyes flashed dark fire. “TOM!” Furious, she rounded on him. “It’s all right for you, living on this stupid rock all your life. Think you’re bloody Vikings, the pair of you! Come on Ruth, let’s get out of here: we’ll leave them to their stupid toys.”
Linking arms with the taller Ruth, she almost frog-marched her away with short, determined steps.
“Thank you Tom; thanks a lot,” I muttered darkly. Tom, however, stood rooted, defiant.
Pursuing the two girls, I paced rapidly back inside. My original intention was to act as peacemaker, but, finding the kitchen door ajar, I paused. I found them engaged in an animated conversation, a discussion which seemed to be centred on what had just occurred.
“What did you mean, Vikings?” Ruth was asking Siân.
“My name’s O’Rourke; at least it was before I married Tom. That’s Irish, Gaelic. I’m a Celt. Tom’s a Crellin. Now, the Crellins are all descendents of a Norse family: in fact, it’s one of the largest Norse families on the Island. Your Michael, he’s a Corkill. It comes from the name ‘MacCorghill’ or ‘McCorghill’.”
“’McCorghill’ sounds Gaelic to me,” Ruth objected.
“Yes, I agree. But you see the name comes from a much older Norse one, ‘Mac-Tor-Kil’, ‘Son of Thor’s Kettle’. What happened is that the name first became gaelicised and then it was anglicised. But that’s why I called them Vikings: the bravado, it’s in their blood. Look, forget it, it doesn’t matter. Let’s get the dinner ready: we’ve an early start in the morning.”
* * *
Monday before the dawn and ‘Hill View’ had become a hive of furiously co-ordinated activity. With breakfast frying, the tools and spares were loaded into the van. The serious business of getting that third Junior ‘Silver Replica’, to complement the trio of Lightweight 250cc ones, had begun in earnest.
Last year, I’d gained the third of these on a borrowed Rotax machine. However, the 350cc trophy had eluded me when I’d thrown the TZ up the road on the very first lap at Braddan Bridge, whilst dicing with a young short-circuit hot-shot. I’d been nothing short of a complete idiot: the Manx was not a race in the usual sense, but, rather, a ‘time trial’ or race against the clock. Man and machine against the mountain course. Steer clear of other competitors on the roads: it was a golden rule and you ignored it at your peril.
Dawn had broken, and the first weak rays of sunlight picked their way across the paddock as Tom pushed the TZ up to ‘scrutineering’. A perfect day for racing, I wondered? No, perhaps not. Already, high wisps of cloud were coalescing in a sky whose previous violet-blue perfection had been matched only by Ruth’s eyes.
So, wet maybe? It was impossible to tell: the Island’s weather was notoriously fickle, ever-changing in its moods. A rider on a single lap might find it to be belting down at Ballaugh and scorching hot at Signpost.
The TZ’s motor fired into life, expansion chamber exhausts crackling as the two of us pushed and I leapt into the saddle. With oily two-stroke fumes trailing from my silencer cans, I gently eased the throttle open, slipping the clutch as I wheeled the bike about, bringing the fairing nose-cone in line with the entrance to the pit-lane. As soon as the water temperature gauge reached its allotted mark, I was away, speed and excitement rising in perfect unison.
Joining a small batch of riders, I tackled the steep descent of Bray Hill for the first time this year. Braking for the sharp right-hander of Quarter Bridge, I recalled, too late, that I’d not yet greeted the Faeries at the Faerie Bridge in time-honoured Manx tradition.
Vortexes of mist drifted wraith-like across the road as I accelerated towards Braddan Bridge, nipping past a couple of slower riders on the entry line. I heeled the Yamaha over, flicked it upright and then leant it back over the other way, safely negotiating the scene of last year’s disaster.
The tachometer needle soared up towards the 11,000 rpm red-line in top gear as bike and rider hurtled through the open countryside and past the dry-stone walls of Glen Vine at over 150mph. Crosby, Greeba and Appledene: each new name on a marker-board triggered an appropriate response as I followed the narrow strip of tarmac, clinging to it like a leech.
At Ballacraine, the road splits in two: while one path leads to Peel and the coast, the other turns inland toward Snaefell. This second road forms my route. Braking hard, peeling right, avoiding the straw bales protecting the hotel’s facade, and then accelerating away under the trees up to Ballaspur. The simple dry-stone walls are replaced by equally solid banks as the turns tighten their radii and the road grows ever narrower. The early morning sunshine filters through the foliage lining the course, dappling the road with light and shadow. Doran’s, Laurel Bank, and 9th Milestone. Then the hotel at Glen Helen and up around the left-hander of Sarah’s Cottage.
Now foliated banks give way to the open, rolling, fields of the Cronk-y-Voddy straight. Up through the gearbox; speed climbing to the cross-roads and 11th Milestone. Handley’s, 13th Milestone, the sudden dip of Barragaroo and the right-hand turn of Kirk Michael. Through the village, past the familiar sun-warning boards at Rhencullen. Hard on the brakes for Ballaugh Bridge and prepare to go airborne. Leap, land and head towards the Wildlife Park.
The track surface becomes rough and choppy, trees close in once more and the dry-stone walls reappear. Quarry Bends, ripping between the painted kerbs and screaming up towards maximum speed again, rear tyre skipping down the Sulby straight. Peeling hard right for Sulby Bridge then left at Ginger Hall.
Now come some of the most dangerous sections of entire course. The overhanging trees create a gloomy tunnel and keep the road surface treacherously damp in all but the driest conditions Even the names appear dour: Kerroomoar, Glen Duff, Glentramman and the notorious Milntown Cottage. Ramsey and momentary relief: Parliament Square and the start of the Mountain climb. May Hill and Cruikshank’s. Down to first gear, clutch slipping, motor screaming to keep it in the power-band for Ramsey Hairpin. Empty space appears on the left for the twists of Waterworks and then hard right at The Gooseneck.
Climbing the Mountain Mile, a few hardy sheep are my sole companions. There is nothing but clear and empty air to catch the unwary rider who strays too far on exit at Mountain Box. Likewise Verandah, a narrow shelf of rock clinging precariously to the Mountain’s left flank. Across the railway tracks at the Bungalow, suspension working hard, then Brandywell and the highest point. Negotiate the left-hand turns at 32nd Milestone and on through the gap of Windy Corner, my handlebars braced against any stray gust of wind. The course now starts to descend and, at 33rd Milestone, the bike’s ever-increasing speed seems to draw the rider seductively towards the sickening drop bounding the road’s left edge.
Through Keppel Gate, then brakes and gears renew their fight with gravity at Kate’s Cottage. Now the course plunges steeply down the mountainside: accelerating, my front wheel aviating over the ripples, the Keppel Hotel expands to fill my field of view while the tight right-hand turn of Creg-ny-Baa approaches faster and faster. On with the brakes, then heel over and away, motor wailing, revs rising to the blood-line and beyond through Brandish. At the bottom, I apply the brakes early to avoid being forced up the slip road, or worse, the grass bank, at Hilbery. Traverse the swerves of Cronk-ny-Mona, Signpost, Bedstead and then back into Douglas for Governor’s Bridge. Once on the Glencrutchery Road, I flash through the start line and away for another lap.
After three sweaty circuits, I pulled into pit-lane, the exhaust-crackle subsiding into silence as I let the motor die. The sudden silence filled my head but it didn’t last long. Tom charged up, discharging his enthusiasm into the side of my fly-spattered helmet. “Ninety-eight for the flyer, brilliant, you haven’t lost it,” he yelled. “It’ll be the ton next time out, I promise.”
“Yeah, felt good: that Rep is mine,” I responded thickly through a visor streaked and spotted with the shattered bodies of a thousand unfortunate insects: creatures whose lives had been summarily terminated by my onrushing progress. I felt euphoric, carried away on a tide of adrenaline and relief. Practice week had begun.
* * *
Copyright © 2007 by Stefan Brenner