Just off the south coast of the westernmost tip of Cornwall lies the tiny island of St Michael’s Mount. You’ve probably heard of its doppelgänger, Mont St. Michel in France, and it does have connections to the French island as both were owned by the same set of monks back in the 11th century. It was these monks who built the chapel on the top of the Mount which is still used today. The area has a long history; the nearby town of Marazion is the earliest recorded in Cornwall and the island itself has been squabbled over for centuries.
More recently it has been in the stable hands of the St Aubyn family, who manage the property along with the National Trust. We visited the island this spring while we were staying in Fowey.
A tidal island, St Michael’s Mount is cut off from the mainland while the tide is in, but when it goes out a cobbled path to the island is revealed. The beach is wide, clean and sandy and looks like it would be a great place to spend a day in the summer, but that day there were only a few brave souls who could withstand the bracing sea wind walking along the beach.
Many legends and myths have been passed down the ages about St Michael’s Mount. One of the most famous stories is that of Cormoran the Giant who built the island and lived there in a cave. Eventually, tired of the giant’s pillaging of the local livestock, a local boy dug a pit and tricked the giant into falling into it. The boy was then able to slay Cormoran and became known as Jack the Giant Killer. There’s plenty for kids to discover about Cormoran on the island, including finding his heart on the way up to the castle.
As the tide was in when we arrived, we scrambled over steps hewn into the rocks to reach the small jetty for departures to the island. The journey took only a few minutes but the kids thought it was brilliant. We were deposited on the top of the walls surrounding the island’s harbour, and walking round the walls, we entered the tiny hamlet in which 30 or so islanders make their home.
We chose to have a quick lunch in the cafe as we were feeling a little chilly from the sea breeze and, warmed, we then walked up the hill to the castle. It’s a steep walk but you are rewarded by gorgeous views out over the beach and the town of Marazion. Spring flowers were peeking out at us and the trees sheltered us from the breeze. If you’re lucky, in the summer you may see dolphins or seals in the seas around the island.
The castle is full of interesting artefacts and many rooms are laid out as they would have been used in times past. Pick up a quiz for the kids when you buy your ticket and see if they can find the mummified cat among other curious items. The tour takes you through several rooms, a study, library, dining hall, and then up and outside to the chapel entrance and the beautiful blue drawing room that has entertained royalty in ages gone by. The husband was especially fascinated by the samurai armour in the garrison room and I was keen to explore the gardens that I had seen from the terrace on top of the castle.
To reach the gardens we had to walk back down the hill to the cafe and go through a separate entrance. The gardens are terraced and were begun in the 1780s by the St. Aubyns, and they are full of plants from all over the world. In much the same way as the sheltered valley at the Lost Gardens of Heligan allows banana trees and other tropical plants to flourish in the UK, these plants are sheltered by the castle and warmed by the residual heat from the rocks upon which they grow. We spent quite a while wandering around the warm terraces enjoying the stupendous views. I think that you get the best views of the castle from here, too.
By the time we decided to head back to the car and to Fowey, the tide had gone out so we were able to walk back over the causeway. We had fun peeking in the rock pools left by the tide and saw all sorts of seaweed and some little shrimps. We didn’t linger for too long as the exposed causeway was at the mercy of the sea breeze and it was getting pretty cold. Tired but happy we climbed back into our car, glad we had made the trip.
Know before you go
Don’t forget to check the times of the tides before you go so that you are prepared for either a boat trip or a walk. St Michael’s Mount website has up to date timings.
We drove to Marazion from Fowey which took well over an hour. We used the National Trust car park and the boats and causeway are a short walk along the beach to the left.
You won’t be able to get a buggy up the steep cobbled path to the castle. Take a sling or other baby carrier instead, or borrow a carrier from the office at the foot of the hill (you can leave pushchairs here too).
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