Once upon a time (in late 1982), I was planning a (honeymoon) trip to Europe on my motorcycle (for summer 1983). This is a very enjoyable activity requiring much contemplation of motorcycles, motorcycle accessories, accessories to motorcycling, and motorcycle roads. One more thing... motorcycle Events. In the midst of all these mental gymnastics, the October issue of my monthly prescription to Cycle World arrived in my mailbox. (It is a prescription because I suffer withdrawal without it.) Contained therein was an article written by a fellow named Peter Egan entitled "Old Stone, Green Trees & Speed." Maybe you know Mr. Egan's work and maybe you don't. Suffice to say that after I read that article, I never forgot the name and furthermore, set about eagerly looking for it in the mastheads of the assortment of cycle rags that came into my ken. But, I digress.
When things happen that change your life forever, you rarely recognize it at the time. Furthermore, it is extremely rare to be able to share the experience later, with a friend. Peter Egan's article did it for me. A funny thing is, it did it for another friend of mine whom I did not meet until about ten years after the article was published. Were it not for that article, I might never have gone to the Isle. And my friend has his own stories to tell.
"Old Stone, Green Trees & Speed" gave me goose bumps when I read it. I read it aloud to my fiance. It gave me goose bumps again. It gave HER goose bumps. In fact, as I beat this out on the keyboard, I am getting them all over again. That article was about Mr. Egan's Isle of Man Experience. The "E" in Experience is capitalized for good reason... something akin to capitalizing the "P" in Pilgrimage. If you've been, then you know. If you haven't been, then you can only wonder and I can only hope to try to share. At any rate, a quick check of the calendar revealed that it would be convenient and a Good Thing to schedule TT Week on the Isle into our itinerary. The completed itinerary was actually rather sparse, consisting of a flight to Manchester, England, a week's hotel reservation on the Isle (a week after arriving in England), and a return flight from Frankfurt, Germany some three months later. I had a book with some scheduled events and ideas about where we might ought to try to be and when, but this was an Adventure tour. We paid a US$200 deposit on the room on the Isle in a quaint little hotel on the main drag in Douglas.
After arriving in Manchester and chatting with some folks in the hotel bar, the Lake District seemed to be the place to go for the few days we had to spare before heading for the Isle of Man. Bright and early the next morning, we set out in that direction. There was a horrible traffic jam on the M6 ('M' as in Motorway... freeway with all the traffic on the wrong side). It seemed that our trek toward the Lake District had coincided with the annual vernal opening of Blackpool, a British version of a theme park a la Disneyland. Stuck in the jam, I began to wonder about splitting lanes. I saw some bikers doing this, but was concerned about the legality. As luck would have it, along came a policeman on a BMW R100RS. Waving him to a stop, I asked if it was legal to split lanes (as he was doing). With a nod, he was off again and we were hot on his tail. I had never really exercised this particular skill before. As the petrol in the eight gallon tank diminished, a great deal of forearm strength was necessary to keep the sloshing gas from pushing the bike into one of the side panels of the wall of cars on either side of the two foot wide path to the end of the jam. Splitting lanes for twenty miles became exhausting and nerve wracking. So, when we spotted a beautiful red and silver Ducati motorcycle stopped on the shoulder, we thought we would stop for a break and see if we could help. This chance meeting with Ray King proved to be certainly one of the best things of the entire trip.
Ray was busy scanning the parking lot occupying the six lane motorway, waiting for his wife, Cristine, and friend, Rick Buckler who were stuck in the horrible morass of traffic in Rick's truck carrying their motorcycles along with all of Ray's money and his ferry ticket. Mr. King suggested that we purchase tickets for our intended date to the Isle immediately, as waiting a week might make obtaining ferry tickets to the Isle on ANY date impossible. As this conversation was being held, a policeman came along and told us we could not park on the shoulder. Ray told the officer that his front pipe had come loose and we were waiting for it to cool a bit so we could handle it to tighten. Since *I* had the tools, I was waiting with him. The officer mumbled something about not being very long about it, and hurried off on his way. Ray answered affirmatively when I asked if his exhaust nut was loose. And I did indeed produce a shock adjusting wrench which, in conjunction with a screw driver, served to do the deed.
Just after that, Ray spotted the balance of his party, who had slipped by us during the reparation procedure. A mad dash for the ferry followed; as it was to leave at any moment. Luckily it was thirty minutes late and we were only twenty-seven minutes late. At the ticket window, we were told that we could NOT possibly buy tickets for the day(s) we wanted, but we could indeed, go NOW. With the last of our (pounds stirling) cash, we bought the last two tickets for that sailing and rolled down the ramp and onto the boat as the big sea doors creaked to a heavy metallic close. We were the very last vehicle aboard and it just so happened that Mr. King was the next to last.
After getting the bikes on their stands and properly secured, we headed up the stairs behind Ray. Finding his wife and friend in the ship's lounge was no problem, and in short order we were sampling the available bottled ales. The three of them had been to the Island before. Ray had been several times. They were full of good information and the voyage was passing rapidly. At some point I realized that I was out of cash. This was a Saturday. The banks were not open on Sunday and it turned out that Monday was going to be a bank holiday (Saint Swithin's Day, or some such nonsense). Furthermore, our hotel reservations in Douglas were not to begin for almost a full week. What to do, what to do...
After a brief private conference between Ray, Rick, and Cris, they extended us their hospitality in a most generous manner. Ray offered to lend me 100 pounds until Tuesday when the banks opened and they would share their accommodations with us. It turned out that they were supposed to be four, but Rick's lady canceled at the last moment. Their "hotel" was the Cherry Orchard Apart-Hotel in Port Erin (which I highly recommend). It was actually a full apartment with two private bedrooms and a fold-out couch. Lee and I would get one of the bedrooms, Ray and Cris would take the other, and Rick was to bivouac in the living room on the couch. Splitting the cost between the five of us rather than three meant that everyone had a terrific room at a low low rate.
One of the subjects covered during the crossing was the lore of the "Fairy Bridge." It seems that there is this little bridge between Douglas and Port Erin (which is off the Circuit, on the Sea, and makes for QUIET sleeping unlike Douglas). Legend has it that the bridge is possessed by fairies who used to collect a toll in times of yore. Nowadays, all you have to do is say, "Hello, Fairies," as you pass over the bridge and they are happy. I was duly warned that I MUST say hello to the fairies under penalty of mechanical malfunction. Ray went so far as to tell me that he would flash his brake lights and wave his arm as he went over the bridge so I would be sure to not miss it.
Leaving the hold of the ferry was pretty much exactly as Peter Egan had so eloquently described it... [Cycle World Oct'82 v21,n10,p38]
"If Frederico Fellini ever gets a little farther out and wants to film a truly bizarre spectacle taken from real life, he should bring his camera crew and sound men into the cargo bay of the Isle of Man ferry on a night when approximately 500 motorcycles are being cranked over or kick started all at once, packed together in a steel room about the size of a small gymnasium and lighted by a dim row of 40 watt light bulbs. The microphones would pick up an ear splitting confusion of shrieking RDs, high-revving unmuffled Fours, and the general chest-pounding thunder of Ducati 900s, Norton 850s and 750s, Harleys, Triumphs, BSAs, BMWs and piston slapping British 500 singles, all of it bouncing off the walls in an incredible rising and falling wail. The camera crews would get footage of several hundred leather-clad people flipping down face shields and punching starter buttons, with others in the mob of bikes heaving up and down on kickstarters like erratic pistons in some kind of insane smoke machine, headlights flaring on to make a blanket of brilliance and flashing chrome at the bottom layer of the smoke cloud. They could catch the bikes launching themselves row by row up the ramp into the dark night, people spinning their tires on the oil slick steel ramp or catching traction in half-controlled wheelies. What no film could capture is the mixed smell of Castrol R, several dozen brands of two-stroke oil and all the other choking thick exhaust fumes, or the instant, furnace-like heat given off by hundreds of motorcycles lighting their engines in a confined space. Also, they'd have to film it through the distorted star-burst pattern of a really scratched yellow face shield, just to get the last effect of profound unreality... Our turn came and we slithered up the ramp with a wave of other bikes. We landed on the docks and the white gloves of a row of nearly invisible policemen directed us onto Manx main street. We were on the Isle of Man."
Somehow, along the way between Douglas and Port Erin, either Ray got out of sight, or else I was looking off in another direction. I missed the signal for the Fairy Bridge. Coincidentally, a single metal strand on one of my throttle cables came loose and, while the bike remained ridable, it lost all carb balance and certainly would not settle back to an idle. There was a BMW dealer in Castletown, so this was not a big problem. But you can be sure I said "Hello, Fairies," every damn time we crossed the bridge after that. Over the course of the two weeks we spent on the Isle of Man, I noticed that almost every time I crossed that bridge there was a vehicle broken down on one side of it or the other. I saw bikes with flat tires, riders walking back up the road carrying a chain, gas being transferred, apparent electrical maladies and so forth. Whether you believe in that sort of crap or not, take it from me, say hello to the Fairies when you cross their bridge.
When we arrived at the Cherry Orchard, the first order of business was to get the gear sorted out and settled in. Our new friends had brought a five gallon "box" of Real Ale from their local brew-pub which was the first thing to be "placed" since it would need a full 24 hours to settle from the insult of the long journey. Next we unloaded Cris and Rick's bikes from the truck, "Tonka" which was located directly outside our window in the wall- enclosed parking lot. Rick had a gorgeous 500SL Ducati Pantah. Cris had a very fine 400SS Honda with the four pipes swooping into a collector. It was painted red with silver accents and had a full fairing. But, Ray's bike was one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen on two wheels... form and function intertwined into a glorious package of color and metal. It began life as a 900SS Hailwood Replica Ducati... one of 1000. Then when the 1000 sold out in the blink of an eye, Ducati decided to make more. Coincident with that, Ray had a crash. This crash lead to his meeting Cris. (That is another story for another time.) It also lead to him talking his friend Steve Wynne, the guy that built Hailwood's bikes, into pulling a set of glass body bits off of the original molds that Hailwood's famous 1978 900SS fairing and seat cowling had been pulled off of. Ray had done an excellent job painting them in red and silver. And he had fabricated a bevel cover (Desmo-vue) out of aircraft plastic so that you could see the oil swirling at the top end. A simply stunning bike. With the Conti exhaust system, it sang a song that strikes a chord deep inside a person, whether or not they know motorcycles, they Hear the Music.
It turned out that that night was to be Lee and my two week anniversary. Well, whadaya know... that night was to be Ray and Cris' ONE week anniversary. Somehow, it just seemed like destiny. We had a delicious dinner at the hotel's elegant dining room accompanied by a bottle of Champagne provided by Rick as a gift to the two happy couples. While time has blurred the memory somewhat, I do recall that the waiter was the best ever. He was, at times condescending, at times self effacing, but always efficient and constantly amusing to the point that all of us (including him) laughed so hard we had side stitches.
It is difficult to capture the Spirit of the Isle of Man... imagine a world where almost everyone rides a motorcycle. People walk around in full leathers carrying their helmets without being given a second glance. Imagine a world where the money and the stamps have famous motorcyclists and their famous motorcycles emblazoned upon them. Imagine a world where the speed limit is 35 mph in town... and there is no limit out of town. Now take all the topology of England and compress it down until it will fit onto an island thirty-one miles long. Add ocean vistas, historical architecture, well-paved twisty roads sparsely populated by people who know how to drive. And, oh yes, motorcycles. Add motorcycles. Almost every motorcycle that you have ever heard of or thought about. Rudge, Brough, Hesketh, VanVeen, Bimota, Vincent, Laverda, Douglas, Scott. Special parts? Harris, Raynor, Egli, one-offs and more.
Since our friends were T.T. race-watching veterans, we let them guide our race-watching and sightseeing activities. We visited the castle at Castletown, after a stop at the BMW shop for a throttle cable. Then we went for a ride 'round the race course which is plainly marked with HUGE signs as you approach the turns. Only after riding the thirty-seven mile loop can one comprehend the Feat that the racers accomplish. Thirty-seven miles with literally thousands of bends. Some of the road is out in the open, some of the road goes through towns with four foot high stone walls on both sides. There are elevation changes, from sea level to very nearly the summit of Mount Snaefell some 1600 feet up.
Over the years, a very reasonable system has been developed for TT "week." The "week" is actually two weeks. The first week is for practice and the second is for the actual races. There are "on days" and "off days." That is to say that every other day is a normal day with traffic on the roads as usual. The complementary days are practice/race days when the course is closed to normal traffic for about a half day. Traffic can proceed as usual off the course. But since the course uses a considerable portion of the main roads, virtually everything simply shuts down to watch the goings-on.
Because our "hosts" knew all the back roads, we had the luxury of being able to change location during a lull in the activity. We watched the practices and races and attended other events at places with names like the Bungalow, Glen Helen, Bradden Bridge, Creg-ny-Baa, and the Gooseneck. We sat out back of the pub at Ballacraine and hung over the wall with a pint in one hand and a sandwich in the other as the racers came 'round the 90 degree bend and very nearly kissed the spot where we looked down upon them... close enough to touch if we had dared to lower a hand.
On the "off" days, we went sight-seeing. There was the Laxey water wheel, the biggest water wheel in the world (once a sump pump for the lead mine, Murray's Motorcycle Museum, the post card shop, the stamp and coin store (one of the reasons to put bikes and racers on coins and stamps is so that collectors will buy them), the IoM photograph shop (need a picture of Ago and Hailwood dicing at the Gooseneck?), assorted vendors' shops selling everything a biker could want or need. There were scenic vistas to visit and see. Fly fishing is reported to be very fine there. One of the finest dressage schools in Europe is located on the Isle and Lee managed a riding lesson while I managed to do a loop of the race course in over a mile a minute. Lee and I even went deep sea fishing for a morning; and everyone on the boat except we two and the captain got seasick. Lee caught the only fish... about five inches long, which we gave to the captain when he said it would be perfectly fine to eat. And speaking of eat... There were restaurants to try: Indian, Chinese, French, and so on. The fish and chips place around the corner from our hotel served fish that had been swimming in the ocean that morning with cider vinegar from a cask in the basement and tartar sauce that was a secret recipe made on the premisis. On a scale of ten, with Long John Silver and Captain D located in the zero to one range, this place was about a fifteen... but priced to match the others.
Lest you get the wrong idea, the Isle of Man has weather similar to that of England. There are sunny days and rainy days. To throw in an additional kink, there is mist on the mountain. Sometimes you sit under a blue sky basking in the Sun waiting for the Race to start while hearing reports on the radio that there is rain and mist up on the mountain delaying the start another hour. You must have a radio to watch the race because of the way it is run. Two riders are started every minute. It is important to know who started when and was passed by whom since they only come by your position every twenty minutes or so. Having Rick's Tonka was wonderful. He and the ladies would get in front while Ray and I would sit in the back wearing our helmets with just our heads poking up at the edge of the tonneau cover. In this manner, we could all go for a drive to a pub elsewhere on the Island, stay dry, and all (except for one) drink entirely too much ale whilst engaged in raucous conversation about every subject imaginable with bikers from nearly every corner of the globe. And, yes, there IS a pub with one of Hailwood's bikes built into a glass wall between rooms.
Also on the off days were the various brand "rallys." There was a Vincent rally which looked rather paltry to me. But then I am rather jaded as three of my friends at home in the USA own some 12 or more immaculate, yet ridden Vincents. During the rally a fellow rode up on a bicycle with a tiny motor attached. Several attendees scoffed at it. I asked in a loud voice, "Is that a Vincent Firefly engine?" And with a huge grin, the rider said, "It certainly is!" A crowd quickly gathered to see what they had been missing. My stock improved greatly with our hosts. I had seen a Firefly about two weeks before we left on our trip, disassembled on the workbench of my friend. The piston was the size of the tip of your pinky and the carburetor barely as big as your thumb. Lilliputian, yet boldly emblazoned with a diminutive script proudly proclaiming it to be a Vincent.
The Ducati rally was rather morose. It had just been announced that Ducati was purchased by Cagiva. Someone crossed out the word "Ducati" on the rally sign and wrote "Cagiva." This nearly lead to a bout of fisticuffs. In retrospect, it was the best possible thing to happen to (for) the Ducati marque. But at the time, the rally was more like a wake.
Besides the TT races, there are drag races held in Ramsey where we saw Tom Galliene, our friend from Toronto and the plane trip over. We also saw and heard the Vincent Super Nero, nitro-methane monster drag bike take a run down the drag strip in Ramsey. Demonstrations of observed trials are held during the week.
At some point, we realized that we needed to clear up the matter of our pre-booked hotel reservations. This proved to be the only awkward moment we experienced on the Isle. After a consultation with our British hosts, we decided that we would go to the strand in Douglas where the hotel was located and take a look at the room. Depending on what we found, we could then make a decision whether to remain at the Cherry Orchard or depart for Douglas. The desk clerk greeted us with a certain disdain, telling us that "We are all booked up," and turned his back on us. When I explained that we had reservations, he was extremely surprised and unhappy that we did indeed have them. We were "motorcycle types." We looked at the shabby, overpriced room with the sacked out mattress on tired springs. We looked at each other. Downstairs, I asked for my $200 deposit back. Nothing doing. We went out to talk to our friends about what to do. While considering our options... out came the desk clerk with US$200 in hand. He told me he was within his rights to keep my deposit, but he was going to return it anyway. (He probably did a good thing since we were in the process of considering sub-leasing the room to the nastiest bunch we could find.) We followed up the not-so-pleasant experience with a ride along the strand in the horse- drawn trolley cars. This is a perfect effortless way to amble down the main drag and admire the row of bikes parked bar to mirror for quite some distance... Ducati, Rudge, Cossack, Yamaha, Honda, Harley, BMW, Suzuki, AJS, BSA, Hollandia, Vincent, Kawasaki, Moto Guzzi, Laverda, Moto Morini, CZ, Penton, Norton, Triumph, Velorex, Hesketh, Zundap, Steib, Indian, MV Agusta, Dnieper, Condor, Douglas, Scott, Velocette, Panther, and more. It is a classic and sport biker's wet dream. The only bikes that you hardly see are the big American-style touring rigs.
After the Senior TT (Joey Dunlop was the winner) there is a "Lap of Honour." This is a parade lap where all of the men and machines that have won the longest running road race in history go out for a lap. In the program are the names, numbers, and marques of all the winners from 1907 to the present. We saw Stan Woods astride his 1923 TT winning Rudge. We saw, heard, and felt the power of the BMW Rennesport sidecar outfits. The AJSs, the Manx Nortons on their namesake road, the MV Agustas, and more. Just to sit by the track while the History of Motorcycling, both men and machine, roars by you is worth the trip.
We found ourselves, one day, a few minutes early to a meeting to gather for dinner, waiting in front of a house on the circuit. An elderly gentleman came out of the house to collect his mail. He struck up a conversation with us (clad in leather with helmets in hands). We asked him what he thought of all the bikers and TT week... his reply surprised us, though it shouldn't have. He loved TT week. He had been watching the races from a lawn chair on his front lawn for over fifty years. He loved the bikers. He said that the revenue brought in during TT week had kept his taxes low enough that he could afford his house. Most of the people riding motorcycles were fine people and the few that weren't were no more than in any other group of people. No, he had never ridden a bike. He preferred an automobile. But he loved to look and listen to all the bikes that passed by there. He told us about the sound of the Guzzi V8 screaming through town and about Ago and Hailwood dicing, "Just over there." "Hailwood was God here. He could walk on water." This, from a man who didn't even ride motorcycles.
From atop Mount Snaefell, whose summit is a short walk from behind Murray's Motorcycle Museum, they say you can see seven Kingdoms. I'm not all that sure whether you're supposed to be looking up or down to see one of the seven... the Kingdom of Heaven. There is a Heaven on Earth... if you're a motorcyclist. And it is located in the Irish Sea.