Question: Where in the world can you walk on water to a castle that was never a castle?
Answer: Tower of Refuge, Isle of Man
St. Mary’s Isle in Douglas Bay, off the coast of the Isle of Man, was a death trap for early 19th-century sailors. A submerged reef—just its surface appearing at low tide—was constantly felling boats that were lulled by what seems to be smooth waters. One of its near victims was Sir William Hillary, whose boat crashed up the rocky ceiling of the reef, nearly killing the 40 men aboard (who escaped very much by the skin of their teeth by all piling into the same small lifeboat). Hillary determined that something had to be done, and he came up with a two-pronged approach: he would build a visible marker and make lifeboats available right on the reef.
Working with a local architect for two years, Hillary crafted a solution that met both needs. He erected what appeared to be a castle, complete with multiple turreted towers on the highest part of the reef, but he kept the interior empty of fixtures to make room for lifeboat and rescue supply storage. The Tower of Refuge, as it became known, was much heralded, including by poet William Wordsworth, who praised it, declaring “Blest work it is of love and innocence/A Tower of refuge built for the else forlorn.”
The tower is a castle in aesthetic but not scope: it’s only 41 feet tall, so that from a distance, it appears toy-like. When the tide is high, its base disappears, so it looks like it’s floating on the sea (or, worse, sinking). As the tide recedes, you can actually walk to the tower from shore, but many visitors don’t wait for true low tide. Striding atop the barely submerged reef creates its own optical illusion as visitors appear to walk on water. The good news is that if visitors linger too long and the tide swallows up the path behind them, they’re at a tower built for the express purpose of rescuing the stranded.
12 Fun Facts About Isle of Man
- The Isle of Man is known to locals as simply Mann, with two n’s.
- The Isle of Man is not part of the United Kingdom, but a Crown dependency, belonging to whoever is the current monarch of England.
- The formal head of state is called Lord of Mann, regardless of gender; the current Lord is Queen Elizabeth, and when she passes her crown, her heir will become the next Lord.
- Because it is not actually British, it is also not part of the European Union, and is unaffected by Brexit.
- Though not part of the UK, Mann has become a tax haven for wealthy Brits, taking advantage of the fact that their national tax regulations do not apply.
- Despite having a monarch, Isle of Man is self-governing, and boasts the oldest continually operating parliament, the Tynwald, which has met without stoppage (unlike its counterparts in Iceland and elsewhere) for more than 1000 years.
- The most famous creature on Man is the Manx cat, known for its missing or stubby tail (locals distinguishing the cats as “rumpy” and “stumpy” respectively).
- If you live on Mann, you’d never say the word “rat,” which is considered unlucky, but rather call the rodent a “longtail.”
- The national dish is Spuds & Herrin’, a meal of boiled potatoes and herring.
- The International Isle of Man TT Race is the most prestigious motorcycle race on earth, and the island closes its roads to traffic for the duration of the event held annually for 112 years.
- Music-lovers may not know that popular Aussie trio, The Bee Gees, are actually native sons of the Isle of Man.
- Mann had its own language, Gaelic-like Manx, but the last native speaker died in 1974; only 2% of the population know even limited Manx today, so efforts are underway to preserve the language for the Isle of Man’s future.
Explore the singular Isle of Man during your Maritime Jewels of the British Isles & Ireland Small Ship Adventure.