Postcard from Cornwall 3: St Michael’s Mount
I can’t remember when I first became aware of the existence of St Michael’s Mount but it was a long time ago. It spoke to my child’s imagination and curiosity. Despite many visits to Cornwall over the years I have never really been in the right area or with the right people. This year I realised that St Michael’s Mount, and St Ives another on the list, were very do-able and yesterday we went.
Even thought I knew what it would look like my heart still missed a beat as we drove around a corner and there the castle was. We were lucky in that it was another gloriously sunny day, the sun glinted off the sea which was relatively calm. To get to the Mount you potentially have two options: walk across the causeway if the tide is low enough or go by boat. The tide times yesterday meant that there was going to be no opportunity at all to walk across the causeway during the opening hours though to be honest that didn’t disappoint me as I love boat trips. There is something quite exciting and magically about getting on a boat to go to a castle on an island.
You have to wonder at the characters that decided to build a castle on such a difficult spot. Apparently the site was first used as a trading harbour for Cornish tin as far back as 2000 years. A religious centre followed by the 6th century with the abbey being granted to the Benedictine monks of Mont St Michel in France after the Norman contest. It was around this time that the church on top of the Mount was built and the site became a pilgrim destination. Since then there have been various occasions when the Mount became embroiled with England’s history. The first beacon signalling the sighting of the Spanish Armada was lit here, it was held by the royalists against the round-heads during the Civil War. The St Aubyn family came to the Mount in 1647 when its one of its members was appointed Governor following the royalist surrender. The St Aubyn family have lived at the Mount ever since until 1954 when it was given to the National Trust, although the family retained a 999 year lease to live there.
I really don’t think I could live there although I suppose you get used to the daily challenges. The walk to the top was hard work and the paths were incredibly worn and precarious. I noticed a sign which said there was a small tram somewhere which was used to take supplies up and we think the residents of the castle had some form of transport although the steepness in some places made you question this. The castle was restored in the Victorian period to make it more habitable and at this time the house around its base were built to house the servants and a village created with its own pub and bowling green. There is even a special building for the residents to change into their swimming costumes.
We did make it to the top and looked around the castle. The views were stunning and looking down on the garden was quite strange, like having a bird’s eye view. The interior of the castle is quite comfortable, of course we only saw the very public rooms but I can imagine that the private rooms will be very well-appointed.
After struggling to the top and down again we went to look at the gardens. I had particularly wanted to see these and luckily our holiday timed well with the couple of months that the gardens are open five days a week. You have to admire the tenacity of anyone who first thought creating a garden on the steep sides of the Mount with the sea air and wind coming in was a good idea. Given its location the planting, as in much of this area, is predominantly what I would term tender. Plants that turn their toes up in my garden at the first frost were positively taking over such as Osteospermum, Echiums, Puya, Geranium madrense and many succulents including Aeonium and Aloe. The garden is maintained by 3 gardeners and volunteers and is immaculate. I tried not to think about the effort it must take to weed some of the locations and I suppose, like living in the castle, you have to have a different approach to tackling things than if you were in your average garden on the mainland.
We decided not to join the throng in the cafe for afternoon tea, instead we went back to the mainland by boat and found a delightful tea room just 5 minutes walk from the landing point which was much quieter.
Another good day was had by all.