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Howstrake
Groudle  Glen - 1893

 

At the time of the construction of the tramway and of the road to Groudle, the owner of the Bibaloe estate, next up the coast from Howstrake and one of the old treens, was a Mr. R.M. Broadbent who was evidently a man of vision. His plan was to construct a hotel and to commercialise the unspoiled Groudle Glen. At the same time that the hotel was being built at Groudle, Mr Broadbent had commissioned the architect Baillie Scott to design a house for him at Little Switzerland, in Douglas, and it is probable that Scott was the architect of both buildings. An application for a public house licence was put before the Douglas licensing bench in July 1893 and it was stated that the construction of the new hostelry was almost finished. Adjoining the hotel was a timber framed stable which could accommodate up to four horses. The total cost of stable and hotel was put at around £1,500.

When the first regular tram service to Groudle began on 7th. September 1893 the hotel there had been completed since July and awaited the arrival of its first customers. Although the tram service ceased for the Winter on 28th. September of the same year, over 20,000 passengers had been carried, in seventeen operating days, to sample the excitement of the tram journey, the delights of the coastal scenery, the liquid hospitality of Mr. Broadbent's hotel, and not least, the glen itself, which in the 1896 Board of Advertising Guide is described as the "FERN LAND OF MONA!...2 1/2 miles from Douglas by Electric Car. Fare 3d.". Later advertisements decreased the distance to "..only a short walk, (a mile and a half) from the Town of Douglas..", and mentioned the "..comfortable Hotel on the premises where all Wines, Liquors and other Refreshments will be found to be of genuine and of good quality..", although, in fairness, it also added that there were "..Several Temperance Restaurants in the Glen".

This astute venture on Mr Broadbent's part had come about through his existing lease from the Howstrake estate of a parcel of land which included the glen at Groudle. Realising the potential which had arisen following the acquisition of the estate by the Douglas Bay Estate Co. in 1892, he was only too willing to negotiate with the new owners and to agree to them taking over land required for the tramline to reach a point opposite which he proposed to erect his hotel. At the same time, in September 1892, he agreed to make a payment to the Douglas Bay Estate Co. of a portion of the entry charges to his glen.

Early postcards show that the hotel had an open verandah running along its frontage. This was originally a timber structure which formed a series of graceful arches on which climbing plants grew in profusion. Above this verandah was a wide balcony shielded by horizontal sun blinds. In the 1920s these timber balcony supports were replaced by less attractive masonry piers and in the course of this work the climbers disappeared. At one period the balcony could be reached from the outside by a staircase. The open verandah has since been enclosed by walls and now forms a part of the hotel's interior.

Initially it was intended that the hotel should be residential as, in 1894 under the heading of "The Newly-Licensed Hotel", it advertised as being "..replete with every convenience for boarders and its situation commands the best position as a health resort and Winter residence..". However, in the 1907 hotel accommodation listings, the only year in which the Groudle Glen Hotel appeared, the columns for both the number of bedrooms and of sitting rooms were left blank and it would appear that this side of the business had not been worth pursuing, although Frederick Saunderson, the civil engineer responsible for the road and rail links to Groudle, lodged at the hotel for a time.

By the Summer season of 1894 the glen, which covered some fifteen acres, had established itself as a popular attraction for the visitor and by the following season Mr Broadbent had added a small zoo in a creek on the headland to the North of Groudle beach. In that year also, work began on building a two foot gauge railway to convey visitors from the glen to the headland zoo and Mr Broadbent purchased the glen from the Douglas Bay Estate Co for £3,065. The rail link, an attraction in its own right, is reputed to have opened on 23rd May 1896. Within a year Mr Broadbent sold the glen back to the estate company, which then became the Douglas Bay Estate and Groudle Glen Co Ltd., for £25,000.

The glen, and the area bordering on the road, were more open than they are now with fewer mature trees. On the Northern side of the glen, huge letters, probably consisting of white painted stones, and reading "GROUDLE GLEN", had been laid out in a field and were clearly visible from the highway and from Bank's Howe.

The Groudle Glen must have been a delight to the working classes of the North of England. So close to Douglas either by foot or by tram, it offered so much in return for the 3d. tram fare at the time of the opening of the line, coupled with the modest entrance fee. By the mid-thirties the return tram fare had increased to a shilling, reducing to 9d. in the evening, and the entrance charge to 6d. Even when the glen re-opened after the 1939/45 War the fee for entry remained at 6d.

Access to the glen was through arched entrance gates to the right of the hotel and these varied in design from a simple steel arch with the words GROUDLE GLEN AND SEA LION ROCKS to a later ornamental steel structure built of tall, square sectioned latticed pillars, decorated with a diamond pattern. On the Douglas side of the gates, on the site now occupied by a dwelling house called "Glenholme", were Dobie's Refreshment Rooms which in later years were known as the Groudle Glen Refreshment Rooms, or as The Glen Cafe. The structure of this cafe had originally been at the end of the Iron Pier at the foot of Broadway and when the pier was dismantled a new role was found for the building at the entrance to the glen. To the right of these refreshment rooms was a small building which was built in 1911 to act as the office for the Groudle Glen and Hotel Co. Ltd. and from which to administer the Howstrake estate which that company then owned. The building still exists, converted to a dwelling known as White Cottage.

The glen was laid out with rustic style pathways and bridges over the River Groudle by means of which the visitor could walk through the glen and down to the beach. A water wheel, sited where the river runs through a narrow defile in the rocks, was an added attraction and was the subject of many post cards. The wheel had been removed from the defunct Little Mill, higher up the Groudle river, and is reputed to have been transported to its new site by way of the river-bed. In 1894 Mr Broadbent had it set up, with a new wheel house, in Groudle glen and it was used to pump water up to the hotel.

In the mid 1950s the glen was acquired by Cecil Mark Watterson. Both the wheel house and the wheel  were by then in a sorry state and Mr Watterson decided to have them restored. Mr Eric Cleator was engaged to undertake the restoration and in June 1995 he gave an account of the work on Manx Radio. Mr Cleator recalled that the wheel house and the wheel itself were both badly tilted towards each other and were in danger of complete collapse. The construction of the wheel house was timber frame infilled with what were said to be Ballacorrie brick. The roof was of clay tiles similar to those used on the hotel. The remains of the pump and piping which had supplied water to the hotel were noted. In the event, the wheel house was beyond repair and had to be demolished and completely rebuilt.

Keeping as close as possible to the original design, new timber framing was constructed which was clad in a render of cement and horse hair applied over expanded mesh. The clay tiled roof, however, was replaced by one clad with shingles. Most of the timber of the wheel itself was rotten and new boxes and spokes had to be made. Mr Cleator was fortunate to be able to obtain some lignum vitae, as had been used originally, to fashion new bearings for the wheel. Examination of old layers of paint indicated that the wheel house had been black and white and the wheel had been red and these colours were used on the new structure. (A post card of 1908 depicts the wheel house as being cream coloured with the surrounds of the windows picked out in red at that time).

Having rebuilt the wheel it was decided to have it perform some useful function. In an earlier period it had been used to generate electricity to power the decorative lighting in the glen. A generator was installed and some strings of lights rigged up and whilst a good flow of water was available the system worked well. However, the following Spring was dry and there was not sufficient water to overcome the resistance of the generator and the experiment was abandoned although the wheel continued to turn as a spectacle for the visitors to the glen.

In time the wheel again became inoperable  It was temporarily brought back into working order in 1986 to feature in the television series "Lovejoy". Thereafter, it served solely as a decorative feature. The centenary of the formation of the Onchan Commissioners occurred in 1994 and, as part of the celebrations, the water wheel was again restored to working order. On 11th September, one hundred years after it was installed at Groudle, the wheel began to turn again.

After the opening of the Groudle Glen Railway in May 1896, it was possible to take a ride, drawn by the two foot gauge steam locomotive "SEA LION", on the New Cliff Coast Railway, as it was advertised, to view the sea lions at the Headland Zoo. After 1921, when battery electric locomotives were introduced the line was advertised as being "The Smallest Electric Railway in the World".

The attractions of the glen changed over the years, but a typical visit in, say, the thirties, would start with a descent down the steep zig-zag path from the entrance. At the foot of this was the turnstile at which the entrance fee was payable. The location was a crafty move, as an intending visitor, on finding that a charge was made, would be unlikely to climb all the way back up the path again.

The upper part of the glen, under the viaduct and towards the Whitebridge, was not accessible and once past the turnstile the visitor turned right towards the sea. After a short distance as one followed the now narrowing path high above the ravine, a rustic bridge spanned the river and led across to an ingeniously contrived walkway which clung to the face of the steep rock slabs on the far side. Some brickwork, which supported the bridge, projected out from the path and may still be seen. This aerial walkway led down to join the main path below the water wheel.

Or, one could remain on the Onchan side of the glen and continue on down past the water wheel. Beyond that was a fortune teller's stall. A little further down was the famous open air dancing pavilion, now long vanished. Although roofed, this was open on two sides and in later years a completely open section was added to enlarge it. A quartet played here afternoons and evenings and it was a popular attraction, both with visitors from Douglas and campers from the adjacent Howstrake Camp. On the other side of the stream a kiosk sold chocolates, postcards and minerals. A further walkway, supported on railway lines above a stream running into the Groudle river, could be followed for some distance into the little side shoot of a glen known as Lhen Coan, the narrow glen. At another stall lower down the glen the visitor could try his hand at darts. Continuing down past the ornamental lily ponds the visitor passed under a fuchsia archway and arrived at the beach. Refreshments could be taken at Armitage's Cafe on the headland above and a photographer was at hand to provide a record of the visit to Groudle Glen. In the evenings the glen was transformed into a wonderland by multi¬coloured fairy lights.

The glen re-opened after its war-time closure and in 1948 a Major Price of Ainsdale, Lancashire, had an option to purchase the glen and the hotel and he proposed forming a company, The Groudle Glen Development Co., to revamp the attractions with a Tyrolean theme. The plan did not attract financial support and his option lapsed. In April 1949 the hotel and glen were aquired by Charles McCann of The Mount Murray Hotel. In 1961 a new company, Groudle Ltd., was formed and took over the railway and the glen from the hotel operators. However elderly rolling stock coupled with a decline in visitors forced a closure of both the glen and the railway at the end of the 1962 season.

In July 1967 the Onchan Village Commissioners acquired the glen. In 1974 they sold a major portion of it to Harbour and Glen Investments Ltd. on which to construct the Groudle Holiday Village. By courtesy of this company one may still enjoy the lower portion of the glen. The upper section of the glen is maintained by the government's forestry department. However, only the lily ponds, cleaned out in recent years by conservationists, and the water wheel, dating from 1894, remain of the earlier attractions. The railway has been restored by a group of enthusiasts and trips on it are well supported by the public and help to raise funds to complete the restoration. Over the Christmas holiday period in 1983 the "Santa Special" trips were started and in Christmas 1992 these carried 2,500 passengers.

In the Isle of Man, 1993 was designated the Year of the Railways and celebrated the inauguration of the electric tramway as far as Groudle. 1993 was also the centenary of the opening of the pleasure glen at Groudle. By Easter of that year, the Groudle Glen Railway enthusiasts had rebuilt an overhead canopy to the terminus at Lhen Coan and this had been made from component parts modelled on sections of the original canopy which had been unearthed near the site. The canopy was officially opened by a Mr Ronald Broadbent, grandson of the founder of the glen, over the Easter holiday period. Also in 1993, the rebuilding of the remaining portion of the original line to Sea Lion Rocks was completed and a new band stand was erected on the site of the original dance floor in the glen. This was declared open during the Easter celebrations at which The Onchan Silver Band performed.