Tag Archives: Isle of Man

Two years ago, photographer Phil Kneen and myself set out to recount the tragic story of the sinking of the Solway Harvester, in January 2000. Many on the Isle of Man knew the background to the disaster, but few, it seemed, had any real notion as to the human cost of the tragedy. The final exhibition, which ran for several weeks, proved to be a powerful reminder of an event that still remains the worst maritime disaster in Manx Waters. Reducing grown men to tears and even eliciting a quivering lip from a passing BBC journalist, the project tested mine and Phil’s relationship to the limit. It was a journey that I don’t think either of us were really considering undertaking again. But time, as they say, is a great healer. And so, two years on, here we are again, about to embark on an even more testing journey, this time to the wilds of northern Canada!

As with most journeys, this one started simply enough. A casual remark, a few scrawled notes on the back of an envelope and suddenly we were bound for the northern shores of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. The subject of this latest collaboration is the city of Yellowknife, the capital and pretty much only city in the territory. Lying some 500 kilometres to the south of the Arctic Circle and over 1500 kilometres from the next city of any real size (Edmonton in neighbouring Alberta), Yellowknife is home to around 20,000 hardy souls, a population which, remarkably, constitutes about 50% of the entire population of the Northwest Territories! This is a city very much on the edge…It was perfect.

Lying along the Canadian Shelf, surrounded by small lakes and forests of pine and birch, the city enjoys a reputation for eccentricity that only added to its appeal. The traditional homeland of the Yellowknives Dene, one of Canada’s First Nations people, the community today is an eclectic mix of characters and contrasts, with Mounties and miners sharing the lakeshore with truckers, huskies and, apparently, the largest collection of ravens in North America. Even its streets warrant more than a passing glance. ‘Ragged Ass Road’, one of the city’s most famous thoroughfares, made the cover of a Tom Cochrane album, whilst the ice roads that lead north out of Yellowknife, towards the diamond mines beyond the Arctic Circle, are amongst the longest and most famous in the world. The more we learned about this place, the more we liked it!

Yellowknife today is the self-styled ‘Diamond Capital of North America’, but it began life as a gold mining town back in the late 1890s, when prospectors on their way to the rich seams in the Klondike staked claims along the shores of Yellowknife Bay. Back then though the settlement was too remote even for gold-hungry prospectors and it wasn’t until the 1930s that any serious mining took place. As the gold began to run out the city’s prospects then took another turn for the better, when the discovery of diamonds at Point Lake in 1991 started the largest staking rush in Canadian history. This is a city whose pedigree and character is constantly evolving, being forged by the very landscapes that surround it. This is also a place that consistently refuses to lie down and take it easy and, after the intensity of the Solway Harvester project, this was just what we needed to reenergise our collaborative endeavours.

One of the greatest explorers of the last century, H.W. ‘Bill’ Tilman was once asked his advice on how to have an adventure. His reply was as succinct as it was simple: “Put on a good pair of boots and walk out the door”. Time constraints, alas, dictate that Phil and I have had to be a little more focused in our travel plans, but our philosophy once we get there still remains refreshingly uncluttered. How can you plan an agenda around a city that doesn’t actually seem to know what it is doing from one day to the next! The ultimate aim is to produce a series of photographs and stories that perfectly encapsulate ‘life on the edge’, documenting a way of life that, even in today’s social media obsessed world, still exists on the fringes of human habitation.

If nothing else, this promises to be interesting…

…To be continued.

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Over the years I have had more than my share of hairy moments. I have faced down machetes and had guns pointed in my face. I’ve pushed a broken down jeep out of a crocodile infested river and even been smacked in the nuts by a shark! But never have I faced such terror as I did last weekend. The sight of 30 pensioners disgorging themselves from a ferry like a rampaging horde of octogenarian Vikings, all hell bent on a drug and toasted tea cake fuelled weekend, was a sight to turn the bowels of even the bravest of men to water.

It had been sold to me as a ‘Heritage Rail Adventure’, on paper an innocuous and genteel amble around the Isle of Man’s delightful and antiquated rail network. How hard could it be – they’re pensioners for God’s sake? All I had to do was shepherd them around…

…How then do you lose an 80 year old woman with a walking stick?! I mean, I only turned my back for a minute! Then there was the asthmatic Irishman. Except he wasn’t asthmatic was he. No, he had pulmonary fibrosis and he was meant to bring oxygen with him. Instead, he turned up with two bottles of Bushmills! This had disaster written all over it.

Things did improve though. I managed to keep a close check on the 80 year old with the walking stick, although I have to admit I did lose the asthmatic Irishman. The trains and trams also proved to be a popular diversion, in between the endless rounds of tea and cake. The Isle of Man can boast some of the finest Victorian railways left anywhere in the British Isles, with the Manx Electric Railway bearing the distinction of being the longest narrow gauge vintage railway system anywhere in the islands. Now, I appreciate that to the adrenalin junkies out there that probably doesn’t mean much, but to an avid train enthusiast, especially one high on cod liver oil tablets and a surplus of caffeine, this is quite a thing to behold. And, I have to admit, the more I saw of the ingenuity of the Victorians, the more I came to appreciate the sheer genius of the pioneers of Britain’s Industrial Revolution.

In spite of having lived on the Isle of Man for over 15 years, some of this stuff was completely new to me and over the course of the weekend I joined them on steam trains and horse trams, negotiated my way up to the top of the mountain on the Snaefell Railway and even rode on the footplate of the Groudle Glen Railway. Heady stuff indeed and, remarkably, I found that I was enjoying the whole experience immensely. For all my flippancy I have to say I am a great respecter of age. Not only does it bring wisdom, but it also brings some fascinating stories. These were people who had lived through wars and rationing, raised families without the benefit of government handouts and knew nothing about social media sites. We had conversations. Real conversations. And not once did anyone try to update their Facebook status mid-sentence!

 …I do wonder what ever happened to the Irishman though, I never did find him again…

Contrary to a popular belief held by many, I do not in fact spend all my time trawling the backwaters of the old British Empire in search of despots and debauchery. I do sometimes turn my skills to more worthy endeavours. Last week was one such enterprise, when I guided a group from Dementia Adventure around the serene landscapes of the Isle of Man. OK, admittedly it did rain a bit, and we did have to contend with enveloping mist, howling gales and a royal visit, but all that aside, it was, I think, a roaring success!

Simply put, dementia is a decline of the mental abilities that can cause anyone living with it to lose the ability to function in ways that most of us take for granted. Sadly it is also incurable. It can however be controlled and recent evidence suggests that those struggling to cope with dementia can benefit greatly from a little outdoor activity and contact with nature. And this is where I come in…

…A few months ago a friend of mine approached me about putting together a trip on the island for a dementia group. Trying to find a happy balance of activities was quite difficult – not too much walking, not too much intensive culture and just enough interest to keep it fresh. Now, for someone who until a week ago had never even met someone with dementia, this was to prove quite a challenge. In the end we went with seals and steam trains, coastal views, castles and award-winning ice cream. What’s not to like!

Today there are around 800,000 people in the UK alone who live with dementia in one form or another. It is a disease that doesn’t discriminate between sex, class or creed. But people with dementia don’t need to be locked away. They are not a danger. They are parents and grandparents, husbands and wives. They are no different from you and me, they just need a little more patience and a little more consideration.