Cold ale and chain grease
Get out and about, for Thornbridge's big summer party
Wednesday 31 July 2019
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We haven’t even arrived at Heysham ferry port yet and our bags have already been thrown across a potholed car park. “Sorry mate,” they say with a shrug in the pub with the ‘£5 day TT parking - cash only’ sign in the window. “Need the space for guests.” Beyond the barren expanse of greying tarmac, the nuclear powerstation bears down on our insignificant misery. Spinning the car around to dump it anywhere, we have just 30 minutes to get to the boat.
We reach the ferry terminal, loaded with a week’s worth of camping gear, in time to watch a slow parade of motorbikes snake up into the dark; a four-stroke roar with a distant two-stroke brap soundtracking a thousand blank visors. Inside, a portable bar on silver castors was starting to pack up. I break into a run; don’t put that away, we need you. Two Guinnesses are drunk in record time. We made it.
On board, the visors are stripped away to reveal faces braced for five hours at sea. Three pints in, the weather grips us and the boat begins to corkscrew through the water, hurtling towards the rock we’re aiming for, through waves that lash the windows and soak smokers on deck.
A boy and his proud parents show us his bike helmet, signed by his favourite racers. “He’s met John McGuinness seven times,” beams mum. A man heaves up his lunch deal somewhere in the stairwell.
A friend arrives to kidnap us in a van as soon as we’ve set up camp. It belongs to Richard, who’s racing this week, and driven by team mechanic Dan, who is introduced to us as the seventh-best trials rider in the UK. He tells me it’s a lie.
“Probably a lie,” corrects Richard.
The side door slides open and a hand reaches out of the dark. We get in, the door slams and we roll off into the evening. When we skid to a stop in Douglas, a grey swipe of emulsion lies where the horizon should be.
Richard’s stressed and frustrated. The weather hasn’t eased off all week – nobody can remember when it was ever this bad. He says that a mate of his is banned from visiting on race week because with his arrival comes rain. He’s a bad omen. That’s how I feel now.
I expect grizzled ponytails and intimidatingly-patched leather waistcoats to line the bar at our first stop, but instead we find gin balloons, sharp elbows and surreptitious vaping. We stay for one – an Okells bitter – and exit out the fire escape.
Across the road, the Hooded Ram brewery’s taproom beckons, based on our recollection of its beers we drank at the TT last year. In front of the pub, Douglas harbour sleeps, rippled and purple in the late dusk.
Like Okells, Hooded Ram is local to the Isle of Man, but its focus is on hop-forward styles. There’s a definite sense, in this pub at least, that the breweries attract very different punters. For one thing, people want to talk about the beer they’re drinking, rather than how the weather’s affecting their Dunlops. From here we lose the racer and his mechanic (early start tomorrow) so us remaining few continue getting reacquainted with the local pubs, retracing memories in the dark.
The white noise of light rain on tent canvas wakes me up before I open my eyes. I know it’s early. I give up on a lie in and grab my jacket, unzip my tomb, and follow the smell of frying bacon and slightly burnt coffee. At the campsite café, I find an abandoned adventure bike magazine, its photos of dry dust and Spanish mountain ranges seeming brutally unfair given the enclosing black clouds softly blurring the landscape around me. The rooks flying wheezily overhead foretell a raceless day. They are right.
It’s Sunday, and our friend’s last day on the island. The watery sun is weakly illuminating a low, white sky, and we’re listening intently to the fizz of our radio scrunching through ghost signals to get to Manx Radio’s schedule announcements.
Engines start up all around us. The campsite suddenly crawls with life. A man literally “woohoo”s. An announcement from the paddocks cuts through the feedback: roads are closing in 45 minutes. Qualifying will go ahead today. We chuck snacks and cans into a bag and hike six hundred miles up a million vertical back streets to Douglas.
Watching racers hurtle down Bray Hill feels like handing someone my lungs to hold and watching as they let them almost slip from their arms, over and over again. Each distinctive roar from the starting line opens up into a flash of noise and colour across a tiny frame, burning an imprint of wheels, leathers and metal into my brain. I’m hyperfocused and on edge, out of practice as a spectator and fretting about safety, thinking too hard about each racer’s face beneath their visors.
Some invisible undulation in the road directly in front of us is catching riders out, throwing front tyres into a wobble. Michael Rutter lands his Bathams Honda RCV like he’s riding a ram through a supermarket. I can feel my head lightening and my hands freezing into fists. I’m panicking, and I can’t look away from the road, which has begun to rise up from the earth and ripple away towards Quarterbridge, cracking and breaking and fading away. A hand lands on my shoulder and I disintegrate.
And then it’s over. Our first TT race of the year.
“Was alright that, wa’n’t it?”
I nod, and take a calming swig from my can.
After the last race of the day finishes, Douglas transforms into a festival around us. Now the real drinking can begin. The pavement rumbles from Little Switzerland to Douglas as a tide of spectators bursts from behind the road barriers and into the town’s heavily prepared pubs. To accommodate the rush, Bushy’s TT Village infiltrates some of the rush on the Victorian promenade. This fringe beer festival is integral to the unofficial TT experience, and its main stage, street food, bars and merch stand serve as the discerning TT-goer’s main drinking location.
For me, it means two choices: Bushy’s Norseman lager, or the hoppy, pleasingly bitter, good for-several-pints-without-regretting-your-choice, Shuttleworth Snap. I have one of each, and let the happy bassline of laughing bikers help me to relax. I start to smile at strangers.
Craving seats and proper pint glasses, we walk into town for a session at The Rovers Return. Two Norsemen are poured and pushed into my hands before I get to the bar. Two nights out in Douglas and we’re already regulars here. In the tiny snug near the jukebox – blasting Iron Maiden’s The Trooper (of course) – we’re blurrily scrutinising a black and white photo of the nineteen-eighty-something Blackburn Rovers team. The previous owner was a fan, apparently.
From deep within a haze of softly landing pints I’m shouted into the main bar by the shape of a man who’s hand I briefly shook a day ago on two hours’ sleep. I’m to meet Curly, one of Bushy’s brewers, right now. A bit of roomspin shouldn’t be a problem.
Curly says he started as a driver before they asked him to help out in the brewery.
“I like making real beer,” he said. “None of this fake ingredient shit. I like real beer I can taste everything in.”
Is he mad he has to make lager?
“Nah,” he says. “I get to make it properly, we lager it for at least five weeks, and you can taste that it’s good. Do you like it?”
I do, Curly. I do. But I need to go home now.
“It’s the worst weather we’ve had since ‘81,” says Martin, taking an authoritative sip of Okells bitter. Martin was born in Ramsey and we’ve never met before, but we’re getting on like a house on fire. We’re stood at the bar at The Plough in Ramsey because we’ve given up on the Ramsey Sprint. Unlike the hardcore crowd lining the promenade for the traditional drag race, a bit of torrential rain was enough to convince us to head indoors.
“You ought to come for the Southern 100,” he says. “It’s better. Oh, the TT is good, but it’s nothing compared to the 100. Or the Classic. Or the Manx Grand Prix.”
He tells us about the racers he’s seen, nodding his head while he remembers the wins of his favourite riders, tracing well-worn memories through the 60s, 70s and 80s.
The pub’s only local beer is Okells Bitter which I know well, so I choose one from home. My pint of Landlord is fresh and clean, and I’m drinking it in gulps. It’s June but the fire’s roaring and I’m lulled by rushing waves of conversation I can barely understand: superstock hybrids, practice timings, problems with McGuinness’ Norton, German, Dutch, French, heavy accents, badly tuned radios. I could stay here forever, folded in a corner, quietly observing the racing seasons as they come and go. We say goodbye before I become attached.
The next day we’re sat in the front garden of Union Mills Methodist Church with around 60 spectators clutching mugs of tea, waiting for thick clouds to pass back overhead so the sun can warm my skin.
Union Mills is my favourite spot to watch the racing from. There are definitely scarier places, like the verge at Glenlough near Ballagary where Dean Harrison flew past so close he ripped my soul from my body, but here it’s easy. You can watch the bikes dance through the s-bend that links each roadside home into a village, trying every time to be the first to spot them as they tip round the bend and down the hill past the Railway pub.
The distant chopping of the race helicopter is our starting gun. We stand up out of our chairs, waiting for the scream of the first Superbikes to reach us and here’s Connor Cummins first – leaning over, then banking towards us in slow-motion, then shooting off leaving reverberations behind.
We’re suddenly alone, far away from the people we’ve come to see, sat in rows along a country lane drinking cans of lager, with nothing but radio commentary linking us to our reason for existing.
Later, I ask Richard why he rides if he knows he’s risking his life. He shrugs.
“That’s the way it is,” was his underwhelming reply. Typical racer. In the press they ask riders the same questions every year: why do you do it? Are spectators to blame for pushing racers too hard? Their answers rarely vary. They do it because they want to do it. They’d do it even if nobody was watching.
I get asked a similar, albeit less intense question every year too. Why do I do it? Why do I spend so much time on the Isle of Man to be rained on, to live in a tent, to wait around for announcements, to watch bikes flash past me in a split second?
The Isle of Man is a beautiful and brilliant place, but that’s not it. I went to the TT for the first time in the early 90s, when I was a giddy kid in an oversized Kawasaki jacket. Foggy became my hero. I wore a hat and a t-shirt with his name on for months. Then I grew up, decided I had other interests, and bikes faded out of my life. Rediscovering my love for this weird, dangerous sport has brought back part of me I didn’t know I’d forgotten.
On our way back from the ferry terminal to the car, a line of bikes from the same shipment rode past us, heading the same way, going home from the TT for another year. I couldn’t help it. I waved at them all.
“See you next year!”
Almost all of them waved back. I was six years old, glittering with joy.
I guess you just have to be there.
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