We made a long planned visit to St Michael’s Mounts this week, finally taking advantage of the gentler pace of life that arrives with autumn in Cornwall. Autumn is such a special time of year – the days are still warm and those special spots are far less crowded – just right for a visit in fact!
St Michael’s Mount has an ancient Cornish name – “Karrek Loos yn Koos” referring back to a time before the swampy forest in what is now Mounts Bay was submerged under the seas. The journey to the St Michael’s Mount today encompasses the long history beginning with the pagan legends of giants, with a causeway at low tide that follows a pilgrim’s path towards a monastic island where the archangel St Michael’ was said to have appeared to the fishermen.
Our Journey to St Michael’s Mount begins!
St Michael’s Mount a long overdue visit
We set aside our day with care, as last year we missed our chance to visit the Mount before it closed for vital restoration work so this year we planned well ahead and set off on a balmy autumn day, with the sun breaking through the clouds.
My last visit to The Castle was in the 70’s as a teenager and Charles hasn’t been at all even though we live and work within sight of it so our visit was long overdue.
Priscilla Peugeot was soon tucked into an orderly line in the capacious car park, guided with military precision by the numerous parking attendants and we strolled back across Folly fields to find the boat landing stage in use that day. (This depends on the state of the tide and we could see boats heading beyond Chapel rock to the Gwelvas landing beside Marazion harbour)
Gwelvas it was then and we looped in front of the Godolphin Arms in Marazion, to take an alley down to the sea where there was already an empty boat waiting and we were soon bobbing across the water: – a motley group of Mount workers, grandparents with a pushchair child, a lady with her shopping – all bound for St Michael’s Mount a short boat ride away across the sea.
Marazion and St Michael’s Mount are one of the first stops on The Penwith Tour around the Peninsular and it is a rewarding part of the adventure to explore the fortification a hilltop castle and today’s historic home.
It is always a thrill to me to arrive by sea in the substantial harbour and scale the steps to the quays – it feels rather like arriving in a foreign land on holiday with the French connections giving it a “Not quite British feel”
One legend claims the Mount as the island of Ictus where tin was said to be traded with the Phoenicians and by 1727 the harbour on St Michael’s Mount was improved to become a thriving sea port until rivalled by improvements to the bigger harbour in Penzance.
The houses that skirt the harbour today are just the remains of what was once a thriving village with a population of 200 people within the fifty three houses, four streets, three public houses, three schools and a Wesleyan Chapel. When the railway was extended into Penzance in 1852 the population dispersed which finally led to most of the houses were demolished
St Michael’s Mount – an evolving name
The Cornish name Cara Clowse in Cowse (The Hoare Rock in the Wood) was recorded in 1602; Carrack Looes en Coos (A Hoary or venerable Rock in the wood or forest) by the late 17th Century Carrel loes yn coes (Grey rock in the wood)
St Michael (the Archangel) was believed to have appeared here in A.D 710 one of three ancient apparitions and the name “Sanctus Michael beside the sea” and “The Mount of Sanctus Michael of Cornwall” followed with a more French form after the donation of the Mount and the Priory probably by Edward the Confessor in 1030 of Mount Mychell, le Mont Myghellmont 1478 Synt Mychell Mount 1479
The Mount was said to the home one of Cornwall’s giants Cormoran – a mythical race of near humans also found in Wales and Brittany. Cormoran met his end at the hands of Jack the Giant killer who dug a pit to trap him – his remains are said to be at the bottom of the well still
Climbing the Mount
The path climbs fairly steeply in broad steps to reach a beautifully constructed cobbled paths culminating in a rocky outcrop to clamber across near to the summit and to find the first battery of guns. Look out for the Giants heart set amongst the stones on the route.
As we climbed, the spectacular views back to the mainland began to be revealed and the harbour was left fairytale like, far below us now. The Mainland! (We were already thinking as island folk as we stood now 230 feet above sea level) Marazion left far behind now and then Cudden point to our right with to our left the ageless marshes gently encircling the long sandy beach that stretches to Penzance, Finally the fishing ports of Newlyn and Mousehole.
We were mesmerised to see the world of our everyday lives from this new privileged perspective. And yes, we could feel an almost palpable sense of peace about this ancient place where the ley lines cross.
Visiting the castle on St Michael’s Mount
The Tudor doorway
The West door finally tempted us into the castle proper and we started our adventure exploring the rooms that stretched before us and taking an occasional peek back out of one of the windows just as so many people had done over the centuries. The rooms had been carved from the earlier interior – won from the very rock of Cornwall before being dressed for their elegant role as a home – a very grand home but a home nonetheless. The extraordinary number of fireplaces we met at every turn set in every conceivable spot must have needed a vast army of servants to tend them
Sir John’s room
Quintessentially Victorian although set in a room dating from the mid-sixteenth century it was still in use as a study until the 1980’s and I could picture the “old” Lord spending many happy hours in this comfortable, humanly scaled room, pouring over his books and papers
The former kitchens are now a cosy booked lined room dressed in perfect country house style
The Chevy Chase room
The former refectory for the priory it was to become the “Great hall” for the castle with wonderful proportions and accomplished plaster frieze added in 16th Century. These days the great distance of the Dining room from the kitchens has meant it is rarely used except for cold collations!
The Butlers Pantry or Smoking room
Now filled with intriguing cases of miniatures and glittering in a case a seal awarded to the Abbess with a lovely slate floored window that would have held the Garderobe (a sort of early Loo discharging from the castle walls)
The South terrace
Somehow we were effortless guided by The National Trust out on to the South Terrace and I spent some time hanging as far over the wall as I dared (in case I dropped the camera) to take some snaps of the fabulous gardens far below where just one Gardener toiled peacefully that day. We enjoyed our visit to the gardens last spring, so I was intrigued to see them now as they were planned to be seen – from above. The gardens are closed now but will reopen in the spring.
A short flight of stone steps took us to the North terrace and into the beautiful Medieval church, originally built by Bernard le Bec the Abbot of Mont-St-Michel in Normandy in 1335 The church was mostly rebuilt in the 14th century with further renovations in the 17th 18th and 19th centuries
We sat and listened to the Plainsong chants in this chapel of simple stone walls set with glowing stained glass windows reluctant to leave the aura of peace it instilled. I remembered my last visit to St Michael’s Mount as a young teenager in the 70’s and then the guide had told a tall story of a giant found entombed within the walls and also I also remembered something about very fine blue glass in the windows. In each room there was a helpful guide or steward, she said “Yes a skeleton of a man over six feet tall was found behind the cupboard where the monks stored the altar plate!” Later I looked it up on Wikipedia and found he was probably an Anchorite – one who elected be entombed. The offices of the dead were usually said by the Bishop as he entered his cell before being walled in. The guide also pointed us towards a huge mug found with him that was now hanging in the Chevy Chase room and I managed to take a snap looking back through one of those strange plunging spiral staircases that dissect the walls of the castle.
The Blue Drawing room
Such an elegant room as befits a room where Queen Victoria was entertained by the housekeeper when she visited to find the family “Not at home” Access is limited to the doorway now because of the weakness in the joist of this set of rooms designed and furnished in the 1750’s by the 4th Sir John St Aubyn although the present Queen did sign the visitors book there when she visited in 2013.
The Blue Drawing room(s) was created in the former 15th century Lady Chapel that was used by pilgrims and interestingly the ley line runs straight through here not through the main chapel.
Our route then followed the opulence of the Victorian interior with grand Oils of former Lords and Ladies and also a portrait of Dolly Pentreath the last Cornish Speaker. (You can read more about the life of Dolly Pentreath and her last resting place in the second part of the Penwith Tour II
Then via long passage or gallery leads to what I would like to call the Armoury another former kitchen and part of the servant’s quarters, with another mysterious spiral staircase plunging into the very fabric of the castles heart.
The Map room
Our guest have often said they found Ednovean Farm on the map so we spent some time studying the maps until we came to the last vast 1756 map in the final anteroom bearing the name Ednovean!
A late lunch!
We had promised ourselves lunch as a treat in the Sail loft restaurant on the way home so we settled amongst the well preserved buildings at the foot of the mount to watch the world go by, setting off to put the first foot at the bottom of the slope that led to the castle on the Mount and realised why we were so hungry – it was three o’ clock! The time had flown by and we had been so intrigued that all thoughts of food had been forgotten.
The St Michael’s Mount visit – a wonderful memory
We sometimes sit on one of little coves around Mounts Bay watching the Mount and the visitors walking the causeway at low tide or the boats ferrying people backwards and forward but this was the day it was our turn to visit St Michael’s Mount.