St Michael’s Mount – Cornwall’s jewel in the crown
St Michael’s Mount – 2nd day in Cornwall
Following the previous day’s escapade, I didn’t really want to get into more trouble with Ash. I’d already been in the doghouse for ‘needlessly’ dragging her across half of Falmouth and up many a hill to get to Pendennis. To day was going to be different – no walking. That was fine by Ash, so it would be a good day for us to drive to St Michael’s Mount. We didn’t leave the apartment until around lunchtime, so we thought it would also be a good idea to try the local cuisine on the way down, which we did not regret.
After an hour’s drive, we managed to get through the throngs of people waltzing around Marazion for their summer holidays, and find a parking space. One thing that I failed to mention to Ash that there would be a small element of walking. Just a short walk along the beach, along the causeway, and up a steep hill. Surely there would be nothing wrong with that.
What is it about the Mount?
I have been to St Michael’s Mount many a time on my trips down to Penzance, and I never tire of the place. There is definitely something mystical about this part of the world that draws me back to the area again and again. It could be that St Michael’s Mount is a tidal island – when the tide comes in, the fact the incoming sea isolates island gives a feeling that something is there that you should not see or understand. In fact, I recall reading tales of seafarers being lured to their deaths on to the jagged rocks of the island by mermaids. Perhaps the prospect of a half fish, half woman creature seducing me kept me coming back in hope. But I’m deviating right now…
Once you step on to Marazion beach, you cannot help but look in amazement and be inspired as this monolith in Mounts Bay comes into view…
Walking to the island from the beach was a relatively straightforward but slow walk along the causeway. Access to the island this way only happens when the tide is out. Otherwise, the trip would need to be made via a ferry-boat, which will cost you. However, if you time it right, you can just paddle in the water across the causeway while the tide is in the process of coming in or out – which is my favourite time to cross, especially on a summer’s day.
Once we reached the island, we spent some time admiring the quaint but picturesque harbour. After which, it was all uphill….steeply…much to Ash’s annoyance. Much to her relief though, it was a short steep walk to the top. However, once we reached the top, our efforts were rewarded with breathtaking panoramas across the rich blue of Mounts Bay. Could you imagine living here and waking up to this every morning? Nor can I – I’d be working nights to afford that privilege!
The tour of the Castle took around an hour. This took in the main castle as well as the Priory church. There were also opportunities to take in the panorama views over mounts Bay once you reached the roof of the Castle. Some parts of the property cannot be accessed as the St Aubyn family are still living here. The family had handed over the place to the care of the National Trust in 1954. But this arrangement has enabled the family to stay at their ancestral home for over 300 years. The arrangement has also kept the island and castle in a good state of repair for the general public to enjoy.
One final flourish which made the journey there worthwhile was our brush with a minor celebrity of sorts. As we made our way from the island back down the causeway we happened to see Lord St Levan of St Michael’s Mount walk past us. Well I didn’t – Ash did. Unfortunately we missed a photo opportunity there, so really you only have my word for it but it’s a talking point one day over dinner.
St Michael’s Mount has been a hive of activity for millennia. Evidence found indicates the place has been occupied from as far back as the Bronze Age. Indeed, St Michael’s Mount may have probably been the fabled Island of Ictis as mentioned in the Bibliotheca Historica. Ictis was a prominent tin trading centre from where seafaring traders exported the tin to the Greek trading communities in the Mediterranean. At the time, Cornish tin was a valuable resource and considered very high quality.
The Middle Ages
During the late 11th century BC, Edward the Confessor granted the island to the Benedictine monastery of Mont St Michel. Mont St Michel in Normandy, France is a very similar, albeit smaller, tidal island to St Michael’s Mount. The monks soon built a church on the Mount not long afterwards in 1135. Hence St Michael’s Mount became a sort of Cornish counterpart of its similar namesake in Normandy – this lasted until 1424 when the Hundred Years War with France effectively dissolved the association.
Sir Henry de la Pomeroy seized The Mount in 1193 after which the island was fortified. The subsequent period up until the mid-sixteenth century saw the Mount change ownership a number of times as well as suffered a number of sieges. Most notably during the English Civil War where the Royalist forces bravely fought against the Parliamentarians. During this period, the Mount also functioned as a priory, a centre of pilgrimage as well as a fortress. It was also during the 14th century that a harbour was also established. It was also during this period of instability that ownership of the Mount changed hands for the last time when Captain John St Aubyn purchased the island in 1659. Since then, the St Aubyn family have remained on St Michael’s Mount to this day.
The Modern Period
Improvements to the harbour in the 18th century enabled St Michael’s Mount to become a flourishing seaport. By the early 19th century, the population of the island reached its peak, and the village around the harbour reached its greatest extent. By the mid-nineteenth century however, St Michael’s Mount went into decline following the improvements of nearby Penzance’s harbour, and the extension of the Great Western Railway into Penzance.
Despite the Mount’s declining fortunes, it still acted as a strategic point for Britain’s defences during the Second World War. The Mount was fortified with pillboxes against a possible German invasion. Indeed, it was Nazi Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop‘s intention to make the Mount his residence in the event the Germans were victorious. Alas, thankfully for the British, this was not to be.
By the middle of the 20th century, the St Aubyn family gave St Michael’s Mount to the National Trust along with a large endowment. Part of the gardens were reserved, and part of the Castle was leased to the family where they still remain.
Like with most major National Trust attractions, the property has two cafes offering locally sourced food and refreshments. Vegan options are also available – take a look at their vegan menu. Just be prepared to wait in lengthy queues if you’re coming in the summer – it can get very busy! The property has two shops offering products for you to buy and take home as souvenirs of your experience. I usually buy myself a magnet, which provides a talking point for friends. As well as the obligatory souvenir, the shops offer local crafts and produce, making for ideal gifts for anyone.
St Michael’s Mount has extensive gardens that are open to the public. The day, the gardens were closed. However, I can say that you get all sorts of unlikely exotic plants flourishing in this part of the world where they would not elsewhere in the UK. This is due to the island’s proximity to the Gulf Stream and the island’s ability to absorb heat, acting as a radiator at night.
St Michael’s Mount is generally open on a Sunday to Friday basis (no Saturday opening). However times do vary depending on the time of the year. Please check the St Michael’s Mount website before planning your visit. I find arriving mid-morning or after lunch is the best time to go if you want to avoid the peak of the crowds.
How to get there
St Michael’s Mount is located in the town of Marazion. We travelled from Falmouth along the A394 which takes you across The Lizard into Marazion from the south. Coming here in the summer can be busy at times with tourists flocking all over the town, so be careful driving through. Cars and motorbikes can be parked in the car park next to Marazion beach, but be prepared to be directed to an overflow car park at peak times. Be sure to have enough change with you – the car park only accepts cash. From North Cornwall or the east from Penzance, follow the A30 – follow the signs to Marazion just outside Penzance.
Rail & bus
The best way to go via rail is take a local or intercity service to Penzance station. From there, you can take the bus to Marazion. There are also regular buses to Marazion from Penzance bus station.
Cornwall benefits from having an airport in Newquay. Aer Lingus, Flybe and Ryanair operate regular scheduled services from a number of destinations in the UK, Ireland and the European mainland. If you’re flying in to Newquay, your quickest option would be to take an hour’s taxi ride straight to Marazion. Not exactly the most cost-efficient way to travel. Alternatively you could add two hours to your journey by taking a short taxi to Newquay rail station and make your way to Penzance station from there.
Prices for adults start at £10.00, depending on if you want to just visit the castle or the gardens….or both. Children start from as little as £5.00 . For families of five, it can work out cheaper to buy a family ticket rather than pay individually.
I’m a National Trust member and I find this very good value for money. I can’t recommend highly enough to get a National Trust Membership. For a small membership fee, you can enjoy free visits to National Trust properties across England and Wales. If you’re a member of the National Trust, don’t forget your card!
Since Antiquity, St Michael’s Mount has been a natural and spiritual draw for visitors to the the Mounts Bay area. Its strategic location. The fact that the Mount is a tidal island. The unusual and exotic plants that defy the odds and thrive on this rock. All these factors help to accentuate this. The Benedictine monks of Mont St Michel knew this while building the church on the island. The pilgrims during the Middle Ages also knew this. Even von Ribbentrop wanted to make his mark here. Even today, the island regularly draws modern pilgrims of tourists every year.
St Michael’s Mount has never contributed anything really significant to history. But it has played a part in the defence of Britain, and added to the local history of Mounts Bay. The visual significance of this iconic landmark has etched itself into the psyche of the people of West Cornwall. After all, it is hard to not notice the Mount if you’re from these parts.
St Michael’s Mount is well-maintained by the National Trust. And for a minimum of £10.00, I think it represents good value for money. Not just for the history of the place, but also for the amazing views at the top of the island. For me, Cornwall is synonymous with St Michael’s Mount, and I think a visit to this region is incomplete without at least catching a glimpse of this jewel.
And the most important thing…Ash was happy with the walk.