Last edited 12 Aug 2018

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The TT Races and the landscape

In a way that is perhaps unique among the world’s sporting events, a symbiotic relationship has developed over the past 111 years between the TT Races and the island’s physical landscape.

The TT Races and the landscape.jpg
Hostelries lining the course have acquired a special place in the hearts of fans around the world.

The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy (TT) is arguably the most famous motorcycling event in the world. It is also, with the possible exception of the tailless cat, the most distinctive aspect of the culture of the Isle of Man and best known to outsiders.

The TT began in 1907, when a group of British motorcycle enthusiasts, disillusioned with the indifference to the rules and British sense of fair play which they encountered at continental meetings, resolved to set up a road race in Britain. Their objective was to test the products of Britain’s fledgling motorcycle industry, but the law in the UK did not permit the closing of roads for this purpose. However, a precedent existed for this in the Isle of Man, where the autonomous parliament (Tynwald) had allowed roads to be closed for motorcar racing since 1904.

Since 1907 a TT meeting has been staged annually, with the only exceptions being the war years and 2001, when it was cancelled due to foot-and-mouth disease restrictions. It must be stated that it is not without controversy: with the course running through built-up areas, and lined by stone walls and telegraph poles, the margins for error are slight. The event has claimed over 200 lives and is believed by many to be too dangerous. However, it has an equally if not more passionate band of followers around the world, who consider it the greatest event of its kind anywhere, and many of these people make an annual pilgrimage to see it.

The relationship between the physical geography of the island, and the event, is a fascinating one. The current course, adopted in 1911, is the oldest racing circuit still in use in the world. The fact that it follows the line it does was influenced by a number of factors. The original intention was for the course to head south at Quarterbridge towards Castletown, but the Isle of Man Railway would not suspend services over a level crossing. As a result, the course heads instead west towards Peel. As motorcycle technology improved, the circuit was altered to avoid the narrow streets of Peel and take in Snaefell mountain. At its highest point the course reaches over 2,000 feet, and the inclusion of a mountain section makes the TT unique. Nowhere else in the world are riders and machines subjected to such varying gradients, and indeed such stresses. It is for this reason that the race has often been regarded by manufacturers as the toughest proving ground in the world.

The event was quickly embraced by the island’s hoteliers, and over the following decades a number of hostelries lining the course became strongly associated with it. With the advent of radio commentary, these places became useful reference points, and so the Highlander, Creg-ny-Baa, Ginger Hall and Sulby Glen Hotel acquired a special place in the hearts of many fans around the world. Other physical features dictated racing tactics. A particularly tricky spot is Quarterbridge, where a sharp right-hander at the bottom of a long descent is difficult with a full tank of fuel. Ramsey hairpin, a naturally occurring bend on the approach to the Mountain section, caused riders to slow down and was subsequently emulated by purpose-built race tracks around the world. Ballaugh Bridge, the only humped-back bridge on the course, has to be jumped correctly and the airborne riders make for a spectacular sight.

The landscape was also changed to accommodate racing, with the sheep gates removed from the Mountain in the 1920s (although the name East Mountain Gate remains). Racing even influenced the etymology of the island. A significant feature on the Mountain section is the cottage of a shepherd named Tate. In the 1930s Graham Walker (father of Murray Walker) misheard the name and called it Kate’s Cottage in his radio broadcasts. The new name has stuck ever since. Other names which have acquired permanent or semi-permanent status are Birkin’s Bend, Hailwood’s Height and Doran’s Bend. Miniature representations of the signposts at the various bends can be purchased as souvenirs. The author has observed on many occasions the house name of a TT fan resident in the UK – almost always it will be a bend or favourite location on the TT course.

The TT has its own architecture. There are myriad houses along the course with purpose-built balconies, not for enjoying the Manx weather but for viewing. There are several bridges over the course. The most impressive building of all, however, is the Grandstand, on Glencrutchery Road. This imposing structure, dominating the skyline in this part of Douglas, is a year-round reminder of the importance that motorcycle racing has in the Isle of Man. It is almost a temple to the TT and to the worship of speed. As evidence of the powerful hold it exerts as the epicentre of this event we can point to the number of people who make a pilgrimage to visit it when there is no racing, to stand on the now empty podium in the place of their heroes. Some even get married there.

Also of interest are the permanent marshals’ huts, and the temporary ones which are in place over the summer. The various memorials around the course, such as the Guthrie monument or the Les Graham shelter, have been the subject of study. Indeed, the memorialisation in the landscape of those who have fallen in the pursuit of speed has intriguing parallels with the memorialisation of those who have fallen in war, and deserves much deeper investigation than it has received thus far.

Academic study of the relationship between the TT and the landscape overall has been limited. Moore, Richardson and Corkill, writing in 2013, draw parallels with the Tour de France. They state: ‘An event like the Isle of Man TT Races stands as a useful exemplar where landscape, identity and motorcycle racing have become implicated in the creation and expression of distinctive national identities.’

They particularly draw attention to the 2011 film Closer to the Edge: ‘…picturesque locales and rural idylls have become the quintessential Manx landscapes, not simply a backdrop, but a defining feature for Manx culture. Outwardly there seems an incongruent tension between these natural and cultural landscapes, integral to Manx identities, and the TT Races… Indeed, this very conflict is played out visually in the opening scenes of the film… where a peaceful rural idyll is shattered by a speeding motorbike. A cursory examination would certainly suggest some discordance, when in reality the races are as embedded in the sublime as the Manx glens, bays and tholtans; the event is implicitly connected to these idealised rural landscapes.

‘The film… serves to illustrate this, peppered as it is with imagery that firmly situates competitors, spectator, the viewer and the event itself within the wider Manx landscape. The film represents the most recent expression of an imagery which can be traced deep into the events history, which pictured competitors at the course’s iconic locales: the TT Grandstand, Ballaugh Bridge or Cregny Baa. It is this relationship between the TT Races and the landscape which plays an important role in the reading and perception of the landscape, but also more broadly the reading of Manx identity.’

Other academic study has been carried out by Simon Vaukins, who discusses the way in which certain places are synonymous with particular sports. Vaukins writes: ‘The sport and the place embrace each other and constitute a distinctive element in a projected national identity consumed inside and outside the Isle of Man. ‘Indeed, unlike many other 21st-century sporting events which are increasingly divorced from the natural landscape through the development of super-stadia, or insulated from the inconvenient local climate like Centre Court at Wimbledon, the Isle of Man TT is deeply embedded within the natural landscape of the Isle of Man, and subject to all the vagaries of the island’s climate (as disappointed race fans will testify).’

While other sporting events have moved away from their roots within the landscape, or have sought to exclude its influence, the Isle of Man TT remains closely embedded within the physical geography of the island. Indeed, it continues to influence and shape the landscape from which it first grew, in a way which is perhaps unique in the world.

Further reading:

  • Ray Moore, Matthew Richardson and Claire Corkill (2014) ‘Identity in the “Road Racing Capital of the World”: heritage, geography and contested spaces’, Journal of Heritage Tourism, Vol 9, Issue 3: Sport Heritage and Tourism.
  • Vaukins, Simon (2014) The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy Races: motorcycling, society and identity, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle.

This article originally appeared in IHBC’s Context 153, published in March 2018. It was written by Matthew Richardson, curator of social history at Manx National Heritage. He has prepared several exhibitions relating to the TT (most notably the 2011 Mountain Milestones, examining the history of the course) and is the author of two books on the subject.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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