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Thomas & friends

  Good afternoon everyone! It’s Wednesday afternoon (3rd June) and I’m patiently waiting for the forecasted rain to arrive. I have even put my washing on the line, as that usually has the desired effect of convincing the heavens to open, but no luck so far. It has been the first overcast day for a while though. With a few of the restrictions further eased, I took the opportunity to have some long overdue electrical work done on my home. If you saw the interview I did with Pam Le Noury, you’ll have seen the rather strange looking wooden pallets against the wall in the background. They were erected by the previous owner and I decided I would rather have a plain wall with shelving or pictures, and channel the wiring into the wall. Hence, once the electricians had finished, I ended up with a pile of old wooden pallets on my front lawn. I’ve seen the news coverage of the queues at the local tips, so I called the Managing Director of the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway and asked if the firelighter could make use of them once they start operating again. The answer was affirmative and so yesterday I gingerly made several trips to load the car and then dropped them off at New Romney. I also took the chance, in the warmth of the evening sun, to litter pick along the formation from New Romney to the Warren Halt. It is a wonderful way to clear the head, have some exercise, do something useful and appreciate the area you live in. The Romney Marsh sheep (a special breed, I’ll have you know) look at me rather quizzically, whilst the local birdlife doesn’t take a blind bit of notice. I saw the peculiar sight of a low-flying heron trying to be graceful whilst being attacked by seagulls, and hoped that when the Premier League season resumes, that my own beloved Seagulls are just as menacing to the opposition! My attention now turns to what to write about this week. Before that, I should thank you all for the positive response to the Albania blogs. It has been interesting to receive your emails, and discover how many of you were also surprised by what the country had to offer.

 Every few days I call my parents to see how their isolation is going. Occasionally they are in, and answer the phone. Mum has also been very kind and written to me frequently. The Saturday just gone marked the 19th anniversary of when I first started my career at sea. I can vividly recall embarking the ‘Black Watch’ in Dover for a cruise up to North Cape and back. Even though it was just 19 years ago, it is amazing to think that the internet, particularly on a ship, was in its infancy. Mobile phones were only really starting to develop, and the only way mum and dad could really communicate with me was via a letter on turnaround day. I would then spend much of turnaround day standing in the long queue at the public payphones in the Cruise Terminal waiting for the chance to call my family. Contrast that to now, where on the Sky ships I have a satellite-linked phone in my office and can call anywhere in the world at any time. Whilst the internet connection at sea is variable on all ships, I still find it incredible that we have the technology to have one at all, when you consider that it is a satellite connection on a moving platform. That tradition of mum writing to me carries on to this day, but mostly when I am at home now. Various newspaper cuttings that she feels I will find useful or interesting are collated and, accompanied by a beautifully handwritten letter, arrive on at least a weekly basis.

One of the cuttings this week concerned Prince Harry – but not in a way you might think! On my last couple of cruises I have had passengers ask me what I made of the Harry and Meghan situation. It is always a tricky one when a passenger asks you something like that, as you know it has the potential to be a loaded question. All I’ll say is that, as a Martlet (someone from Sussex), I was really happy when my beautiful historic home county suddenly had a Duke and a Duchess. I was looking forward to rubbing shoulders with Harry as we watched Brighton & Hove Albion and singing Sussex Carol together in Arundel Cathedral. Having said that, their titles of Duke and Duchess of Sussex are just about all they have retained, so perhaps I will bump into them enjoying fish and chips at Osca’s in Littlehampton one day. So, why did mum send me a newspaper cutting which featured Prince Harry? The reason was that he introduced a special episode of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ on 28th April to mark the 75th anniversary of the publication of the first book in the famous series by the Rev. W. Awdry. No-one reading this blog will be surprised to learn that I was a huge fan of the books from as early as I can remember. I loved how the books were written in perfect English, with a good moral purpose, beautifully illustrated, and the stories were often inspired by events that had actually occurred on the railways. When Ringo Starr came along in 1984 to narrate the series on television with real models, I was probably the happiest I’ve ever been!

 As I sit to write this blog, I have a Thomas and James keyring on my desk in front of me, which were made in support of the National Autistic Society. Amusingly, throughout my childhood I never liked my middle name, James, as I associated it with James the Red Engine – who always seemed to get into mischief! The two keyrings were kindly given to me by a passenger at the end of Serenissima’s Caribbean season in early April last year. The passenger was a lovely lady called Veronica. I had discovered that she is the daughter of the Rev. W. Awdry and, along with her brother Christopher and sister Hilary, had therefore been one of the original proof-readers of the stories as their father read them aloud. I think that so many of mine and the following generations owe so much to Christopher, Veronica, Hilary and their father for making learning to read such a pleasurable experience.

 Where is all this leading, you might well ask… well, as I’m sure we all know, Thomas and his fellow Really Useful Engines all lived on the island of Sodor, which was said to be located in the Irish Sea between Barrow and the Isle of Man. One of your fellow passengers who has been emailing me is Anne and Rennie, who have been unable to return to their home in Castletown on the Isle of Man as they were on the cruise with me that ended unexpectedly in Turkey, and they have remained near family in England as the Isle of Man still has a mandatory 14-day quarantine in place for anyone arriving there. That started me thinking about the Isle of Man as a subject to write about. Then, whilst watching the new version of ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ on 12th May, Dr Andrew Townsley reached the £1m question – and decided to take the money, when the correct answer was that the Isle of Man TT races are older than the Le Mans 24 Hours Race, the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indy 500. A good quiz question down the years has been, “what does the TT stand for in the Isle of Man TT races?” I’ll put the answer at the end of this blog. That also made me think about the Isle of Man as a blog subject. So here goes…

 I mentioned earlier that I started cruising in 2001, so it may come as a surprise that it took until 2012 for me to visit the Isle of Man. I had completed many cruises around the UK by then, but in terms of islands we would always call into Guernsey and/or the Scottish islands. I think this was partly because I was working on ships that had to anchor quite far out in Douglas Bay and there was never a guarantee of being able to operate the tenders to transfer the passengers ashore. The prevailing winds could make it impossible to launch the tenders, and so alternative destinations were always used where we had either a guaranteed berth or a very sheltered anchorage. I had always wanted to visit the island. My father had told me stories of him and his best friend taking their motorbikes over to the island in the late 1950s and having a wonderful time. It was on an inaugural cruise in May 2012 that I first visited the island. Inaugural cruises are always a rather tense affair. You can prepare as much as you like for the launch of a ship, but until all the passengers are aboard and you set sail, only then do some issues materialise. I was pleased that all was going well, and so I decided to try and enhance the cruise to make the inaugural a special occasion. I thought it would be a thoughtful idea to invite the local bishop, the charming Robert Paterson, on board to take part in a service on the aft decks. At first he was saddened to decline the invitation. I do not know if it had any influence, but I called him back and said that it was a shame he wouldn’t be able to come on board as one of our guest speakers, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, was keen to see him. It was also at this time that the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, had announced he would be retiring at the end of the year, and George was included in discussions over who should be the next Archbishop of Canterbury (which, of course, turned out to be Justin Welby). Suddenly, Robert managed to find the opportunity to come over to the ship and jointly-lead a service of thanksgiving and have a good chat with George. After the service, he kindly hosted a brief Q&A about being the local bishop. My favourite story was that he had a secretary who was forever writing to children. The reason was that his official title was ‘Bishop of Sodor and Man’. The name Sodor comes from an earlier diocese which included not only the Isle of Man, but also the Hebrides. The name for the whole area in old Norse was Suðreyjar (meaning “southern isles”). In Latin, the corresponding adjective was Sodorensis, later abbreviated in the English title as Sodor. What this meant today though, was that any child who looked up the address ‘Sodor’ was automatically given that of the Bishop of Man and Sodor, as it is the only official reference to Sodor. The bishop’s secretary therefore received many letters from children asking after Thomas the Tank Engine and all his friends and wanting to know how they could visit Sodor! The bishop was very sweet about it and told us that every letter was diplomatically replied to, although if said child had asked if he was the Fat Controller then the reply took a while longer.

 My most recent visit to the Isle of Man was with the Serenissima on Friday 6th September 2019. The cruise was a fairly short cruise from Oban to Plymouth, calling at Fort William, Jura, Douglas, Fishguard, Lundy, Tresco and Plymouth. The cruise itself could be another blog, as the weather forced a few changes at the start, but once we left Scotland the rain stopped and it was a glorious late summer. I was a fairly late addition to the cruise as Cruise Director, for reasons that escape me now, but my father had often talked about re-visiting the Isle of Man but had never got round to it. I remember booking them a cabin and their flights to Glasgow as soon as I was told I would be working on the cruise, and having to wait until they had come back from a short break to let them know I had done so. Fortunately they didn’t mind. I was thrilled that dad would be able to re-visit somewhere he had such fond memories of.

 

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Looking out on Douglas from the Bridge of Serenissima 

 The huge advantage of our ships is that they can reach places that others can’t. It puzzles me that one UK-based cruise line has started advertising their new cruise ships as “boutique” when they hold almost a thousand passengers! If that is what is now considered to be boutique, then it just emphasises how fortunate we are to operate ships of 100 passengers or less. The advantage of our size of ships truly became apparent because, for the first time ever, I was on a ship that was able to dock in Douglas, rather than having to tender the passengers back and forth. We were docked on Victoria Pier in Douglas harbour, and I was surprised to learn that the adjacent pier is called King Edward VIII pier. It was opened, rather obviously, in 1936 and named after the then sovereign and Lord of Mann, King Edward VIII, and is the only public facility in the British Isles to be named in his honour. The king sent the then Home Secretary, Sir John Simon, and the Lieutenant Governor of the Isle of Man, Sir Montague Butler, to conduct the ceremony.

Our coaches came alongside the ship and whisked our passengers away to explore the island. We passed by the huge permanent grandstands that mark the start and finish line for the TT races, we admired the scenery as we meandered through the countryside, we viewed the promenade where the horse-drawn trams still operate, and finally made our way to Tynwald Hill. The grass-topped, tiered hill was constructed using material from all seventeen parishes, and every year, on 5th July, all the laws that have been enacted in the preceding year are read aloud, in Manx and English, to the government and watching public. 

  

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Tynwald Hill, with me and my Manx friend Giverny caught in reflection 

We next ventured to Castletown, the historic capital of the island, which is dominated by Castle Rushen. The castle is thought to date back to the late 12th century and was built for one of the last Viking kings. Castletown itself has a quaint harbour area, suitable for small fishing boats, but it also houses a railway station. The station is on the only remaining section of the Isle of Man Steam Railway, which runs from Douglas to Port Erin. The line opened in 1874 and is now government run, using original locomotives and rolling stock. At a gauge of 3ft, it makes for a very comfortable ride. 

 

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 Our steam train awaits departure from Douglas

To avoid congestion in some of the places we were visiting, we had decided that some of the group would do the train ride first, and then the rest of the tour, whilst the others would do the tour first, and conclude with the train ride. My team on that cruise, which included Billy Tait, Christopher Venus, Alan Hardwick, Phil Wickens, James McClelland, Kevin Treacher, Becky Hodgkiss and John Love, all insisted that it would be good idea if I took the first group on the train, but then remain on the train all the way to Port Erin and back, to meet the second group. I was reluctant, but thought best not to argue with them. So it was that, having enjoyed a peaceful coffee in the morning sun at Port Erin, I was able to wave from the window at our passengers as our train steamed into Castletown on the return run to Douglas. As we came into the station, with our passengers crowded onto the platform, a line from the ‘Titfield Thunderbolt’ came into my head: “We’re going to need the Royal Scot to pull this lot!” 

 We were all back to the ship in time for lunch, with huge tides meaning it was one-at-a-time up the steep gangway onto deck seven. During the afternoon the passengers headed out using even more vintage transport, by way of the Manx Electric Railway from Douglas to Laxey, home of the famous wheel, and then via the Snaefell Mountain Railway to the summit of the Isle of Man’s highest point (2,037ft). I can remember looking across to Snaefell from Douglas, knowing that our passengers were heading that way, and praying that the clouds would part to offer a stunning view. Fortunately, the prayers were answered and the passengers all enjoyed the trip. 

 

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 The climb to the summit of Snaefell

Whilst I stayed aboard in the afternoon to prepare for the following day’s activities in south-west Wales, I remember going out on deck as a ray of sunshine fell upon the Tower of Refuge in Douglas Bay. It is a remarkable castellated structure in the middle of Douglas Bay, built upon a rock that caused many shipwrecks, so that stranded sailors would have somewhere to shelter until they could be rescued. To this day, it is owned by the RNLI and is a comforting sight to all seafarers who visit the island. With everyone back on board it was sadly time to leave, but both those who had visited the island many years ago, like my father, and those who were visiting for the first time, like my mother, all remarked on the very friendly welcome we had received and the hope to visit again in the future.

 

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The Tower of Refuge in Douglas Bay, complete with rainbow! 

  Noble Caledonia have visited Douglas quite a few times in recent years, and as we are always keen to try a variation on a theme, future visits to the Isle of Man have been scheduled to include bringing the ships to the Calf of Man and Peel. Peel is on the west coast of the island and is the seat of the Bishop of Sodor and Man, in the Cathedral Church of St German (or Peel Cathedral). The original cathedral lies within the ruins of Peel Castle on St Patrick’s Isle. 

 

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 Peel waterfront

A couple of our cruises will also sail close by the Calf of Man at first light. The small island is located at the southwestern tip of the Isle of Man and is a stunning setting, complete with four lighthouses to aid shipping, two of which were built by Robert Stevenson. The island is home to thousands of seabirds and the expedition team will be out on deck early to help you spot kittiwakes, razorbills and, as you’d expect, Manx shearwaters with their three legs. Shore excursions from Peel will include visits to Castletown and Douglas, with a ride on the steam train between the two.

 

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 Calf of Man

Serenissima is scheduled to visit as part of her “Circumnavigation of the United Kingdom” cruise, departing from Portsmouth on 13th August 2021, and finishing back in Portsmouth on 29th August. Other calls include the Channel Islands, Isles of Scilly, Fishguard, Llandudno, Belfast, Staffa, Iona, St Kilda, Scrabster, Unst, Lerwick, Montrose, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Whitby and Southwold.

 Serenissima will also visit earlier next year as part of her “Birds & Blooms of Britain” tour, departing from Plymouth on 6th May 2021, and finishing in Oban on 15th May. Other ports include Isles of Scilly, Lundy Island, Skomer Island, Llandudno, Rathlin Island, St Kilda, Inverewe Gardens, Shiant Islands, Colonsay and Oronsay.

Hebridean Sky will visit the Calf of Man and Peel on her “Islands to the Highlands” cruise, departing from Plymouth on 2nd May 2021, and finishing in Oban on 10th May. Other destinations include two days in the Channel Islands, two days on the Isles of Scilly, and calls to Lundy Island, Colonsay and Iona.

 I sincerely hope that you will be inspired to join us on one of those cruises to visit the jewel of the Irish Sea. In the meantime, I hope everyone is keeping well and looking forward to be able to travel again some sunny day. As for the TT races? It stands for Tourist Trophy, and not Time Trails as I wrongly guessed many years ago! Until next week… goodbye for now.

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The famous Laxey Wheel with me

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