Get away from it all on the Calf of ManThe Calf of Man is a small islet of some 600 acres separated from the Isle of Man by a narrow channel through which tides race four times each day. Named by our Viking forebears (Kalfr means a small island lying off a larger) the Calf has a fascinating history with lessons of self-reliance that carry messages for us today.
Blog written by Chris Callow, Island Heritage Tours.
We visited 20 years ago on a boat-trip from Port Erin spending a couple of hours ashore. Now we’re going back but this time to spend two nights in the bunkrooms booked through Island Escapes on behalf of Manx National Heritage, custodians of the Island. Since 1959 the Calf has been a renowned bird observatory, now staffed each summer by Manx Wildlife Trust wardens living in the former farmhouse, a wing of which provides the guest accommodation.
Back in the days the Calf was farmed by a resident family, access was by rowing boat at slack-water across the Sound; but today visitors travel by motor launch from either Port Erin or Port St Mary, depending on wind and tide. Even in the summer landing can be difficult and visitors are warned the return journey cannot be guaranteed to operate as planned.
We are travelling from Port St Mary and meet our fellow-guests on the quayside. The weather is fine and en route to South Harbour on the Calf we pass striking coastal scenery and hover to count the seals swimming in the Sound. Before landing we divert for a close-up view of the famous Burroo known as the ‘drinking-dragon’ rock formation that can be distantly viewed all along the south-east coast of the Isle of Man.
We are met at the harbour by Daniel, one of the three wardens on duty who transports our baggage to the farmhouse by tractor and trailer – it’s Shanks’ Pony for us, there is no other motorised transport on the Calf and the roads are unmetalled. The farmhouse is charming, set in a sheltered valley in the centre of the Island.
The accommodation is basic – bunks for 8 in 3 small rooms at one time occupied by farm servants, a comfortable lounge with an open fire and a well-equipped kitchen. Water is a major concern on the Calf, being supplied from a single spring. Currently the bathroom and toilet are shared with the wardens, and no showers are permitted in normal circumstances.
How do you pass your time on the Calf? That’s entirely up to you. Many come to assist the wardens in their work, and for the uninitiated the wardens are happy to share what they are doing. Otherwise, there are marked paths to follow as you explore – you’re encouraged to keep to them to avoid interference with wildlife.
On our first evening we take ourselves down to the two Stevenson lighthouses and enjoy a stunning sunset. These granite towers with keepers’ houses are a reminder of the dangers of the Manx coast to shipping, especially in the days of sail. Sadly derelict, it would be wonderful to see one of these fine buildings converted to visitor accommodation.
On our second day we visit the tiny harbours on the North side of the Calf and marvel at the number of seals hauled out on the rocks at the Clets, then tackle the clifftop walk around the south eastern side, viewing a project using decoys to entice breeding puffins back to the Island. The evening saw the highlight of our visit – we meet the wardens at midnight down at South Harbour for netting and ringing Manx Shearwaters, another species formerly extinct on the Calf, but where numbers are now recovering thanks to the control of rodent predators. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the thrill of viewing through infra-red binoculars as these marvellous birds swoop in to land on the short turf, and then gingerly handling their miniature penguin-like forms as they were expertly measured and ringed before release.
Day three comes all too quickly! Tides dictate everything on the Calf so we are down at South Harbour again at the appointed hour for collection. This time we’re in a high speed R.I.B. so shoot back to Port St Mary in a quarter of the time taken on the outward journey. On the way the skipper takes us within touching distance of the towering Sugarloaf Rock below the Chasms to view the deafening guillemot colony, a fitting end to a wonderful few days.
The best part of visiting the Calf? You could be on a desert-island – no phone signal, no wi-fi, no data, no television. You find yourself talking more – to each other, to your fellow guests, to the wardens. Is there enough there to fill three days? Well, we’re going to book a longer trip for 2022!