The town of Laxey is located on the east coast of the Isle of Man, and it is here that the famous Laxey wheel resides. The town, named from the Norse word for salmon, ‘laxa’, was once part of a thriving mining industry, now long gone.
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The mines here, opened in 1790, were the largest source of zinc ore in Britain by 1875. Lead with a high silver content was also mined. The wheel although commonly referred to as the Laxey wheel is, in reality, named ‘Lady Isabella’ after lady Hope, wife of the island’s lieutenant governor at the time. Its fame rests with it being the largest water wheel in the world.
The purpose of the wheel, which took four years to build, was to pump water out of the mines. The wheel, still turning for tourists, was designed by Robert Casement, an engineer of the mining company. The wheel was opened on 27th September, 1854. Its diameter is 72.5 feet, while its circumference is 228 feet. There are 168 buckets that power the wheel.
Water for the wheel was drawn from the Mooar, Laxey, and Glen Roy rivers into channels (called leats or lades) and collected in the original stone tank on the hillside. From there water went via a cast iron pipe underground to the base of the wheel’s tower. Pressure forced it to rise inside the tower to the top, where it ran underneath the viewing platform and spilled onto the wheel. The remains of a 51-foot diameter old stone wheel-case, used before the construction of the large wheel, are still in place at the rear of the Lady Isabella.
The mine closed in 1929. The wheel was then purchased by a local builder, Edwin Kneale, who preserved it. In 1965 the Manx government took over the wheel and conserved it. It is now owned by the Manx National Heritage.
A path leads to the mouth of the former mine that went to a depth over 2000 feet. The Old Adit Level, the first part of the mine to be opened in 1790, offers a short underground walk. Along the mine trail (about an hour return walk) are the remains of the pumping machinery in the old engine house and ruins of the compressor house. Views of the wheel and the town of Laxey are other trail attractions along this Mooar valley route.
When visiting Laxey be sure to include a trip on the Snaefell Mountain Railway. The terminus here leads to the Isle of Man’s highest point, Snaefell at 2036 feet. The line, completed in seven months, works by electricity and still uses the same cars from 1895. Go on a clear day for far reaching views of Scotland, England, and Wales. Laxey’s rail station also serves the Manx electric railway that runs from Douglas. It was begun in 1893.
The town of Laxey is located on the A11, about eight miles from Douglas. The wheel is located on a minor road and is reached by turning off the main highway.
Manx National Heritage
Mines Road, Laxey
Tel. 01624 648000
Open: daily, 10am-5pm, Easter-end Oct.