St Michael’s Mount
If Trebah Garden was the jewel of the gardens we visited recently, St Michaels’ Mount, a National Trust property, was without doubt the outstanding historic pile. It is situated just off the coast by Marazion which is on the southern coast of Cornwall near Penzance. It is positioned on top of a great granite outcrop in the bay which, when the tide is out, turns into a mudflat.
Depending upon the situation of the tides when you arrive, you either get there by boat (£2 a person per one-way trip – nice business if you can get it) or walk across the causeway. The bay drains like a sink when the tide retreats. When we visited we went by boat and returned on foot. The climb from the harbour to the castle is arduous but well worth the effort.
In Cornish the area was known as Carrack Looz en Cooz which translates to the grey rock in the wood and before the Bay was flooded by the sea the outcrop was likely to have been surrounded by marsh trees. It is thought that St Michael’s Mount is the island of Mictis mentioned in Pliny The Elder’s Naturalis Historia (4.16.104) and was a flourishing trading port used to export tin and copper between 400 BCE and 400 CE.
There has been a religious settlement atop of the rock since around the 8th century and a monastery was built there in the 12th century only to be destroyed by an earthquake in 1275. The priory church was rebuilt and is still standing and in use. The site has seen a lot of action – it was captured by Henry Pomeroy on behalf of Prince John in Richard 1’s reign, by John de Vere who then, in 1473, withstood a 23 week siege by Edward IV’s troops and then by the pretender Perkin Warbeck. In 1549 the governor of the Mount, Humphrey Arundell, led a rebellion from there whilst during the Civil War, Sir Arthur Basset held out against the Parliamentarians until July 1646.
When the tsunami caused by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 struck the Cornish coast, the sea around the Mount rose 6 feet in 10 minutes and then ebbed as quickly, a phenomenon which was repeated for around 5 hours.
The Mount was given to the National Trust by the 3rd Baron St Levan together with a large endowment in 1954 with the St Aubyn family retaining the right to live there, provided that the hoi polloi were allowed to tramp around.
The castle has a fine collection of armour, furniture and paintings and there are stunning views of the Bay and the sea to be had from each of the rooms. Visitors can also visit the gardens which boast a magnificent collection of alpine plants, clinging desperately on to the rock face. Irritatingly, you have to descend all the way down from the castle to get to the gardens which necessitates another climb – you certainly get fit here!
The island has its own underground railway, built in 1900, which is used to convey goods up and down to the castle but that is not open to the public.
Stunning and breathtaking are the only words to describe St Michael’s Mount and you leave the site amazed that a castle and priory could have been built up there.