Visitors to St Michael’s Mount will discover a spectacular tidal island rising high out of the surrounding water, topped by a towering stone castle complete with battlements, a church, and a museum. St Michael’s Mount is also the home of the St Aubyn family, who have owned the island for nearly 400 years.
Tucked at the base of St Michael’s Mount is an attractive, small village with a harbour with charming eateries and picnic areas. The lower levels of the exotic gardens which fringe the island climb up the steep slopes.
This rocky islet is a delicious slice of history. Encapsulated in grandeur, in medieval and Victorian architecture, it is surrounded by the swirling sea. It is a place governed by the tides making getting there and back an adventure in itself, and definitely worth a few photos.
From the cosiness of the village at sea level, the Pilgrims’ Way winds through the lower slopes and gardens as it ascends to the castle. Then the route steepens as it snakes up stone paths and steps before emerging onto the rugged outcrop near the summit. From here, visitors can appreciate the island’s strategic importance, with its commanding view over land and sea.
The castle’s fortifications and cannons are a reminder that this enchanting island has played its part in war throughout the centuries. Contrasting with that, this fortress island has seen hundreds of years of prayer and devotion, and the impressive church is still a place of worship, peace and pilgrimage. Pilgrims have been visiting since the first days of the monks to whom the mount was granted in 1070.
Many areas in the castle are open to the public. Since its medieval beginnings, the castle has been enlarged and enhanced with rooms now laid out as they were in Victorian times. The museum showcases an extraordinary exhibition, from suits of armour to personal family treasures.
The island lies offshore from the old town of Marazion, about three miles from Penzance in the southwest region of Cornwall.
There are two ways to reach the island. If the tide is high, small boats carry passengers from Marazion’s vast golden beach. There are a few boarding points, depending on the tide.
If the tide is low and the causeway is exposed, the journey is accessible on foot. Admire the carefully-laid stonework (granite setts) beneath your feet as St Michael’s Mount looms ever closer as you approach.
The best times to visit are spring, early summer or autumn weekdays. The beginning of the day sees the fewest visitors, and the morning light creates a magical atmosphere.
The mount’s website provides details on how to travel to the island, depending on the tide and the weather, including bad weather restrictions or closures. But no matter the weather, good walking shoes are strongly advised.
It all begins with St Michael. Tradition has it that he appeared in a vision to some fishermen in 495, saving them from death in a cruel storm. This vision gave rise to a small religious community soon after.
Around the time of the Norman conquest a thousand years ago, St Michael’s Mount was granted to the Benedictine order of monks at Mont St Michel in Normandy, France. The two islands are geographically and culturally similar and are often thought of as sister islands. In 1135, the French abbot, Bernard le Bec, built the first stone church on the Mount.
The story of the vision of St Michael attracted monks and pilgrims, and a priory was established. In 1162-3, four miracles were recorded, leading to an increasing number of pilgrim visitors and a thriving local population of monks and villagers.
As early as 1193, St Michael’s Mount was seized by Henry La Pomeray in a rebellion against King Richard the Lionheart. Henry cleverly deceived the island’s monks by dressing his invading force as pilgrims. The deception worked, but unfortunately for him, he had chosen the wrong side, and the rebellion was put down.
Clearly, the Mount and its community needed some fortifications, and work began on the castle. When peace returned, the monks strengthened their buildings, adding a church tower and a courtyard wall.
St Michael’s Mount withstood seizure and siege several times in these turbulent centuries.
Henry VIII’s decision to break with the Roman Catholic Pope to increase his purse and divorce his wife meant that English monasteries and religious institutions were closed down and their assets seized. Ownership of the island reverted to the Crown in 1548, and the last monks were removed.
When the Spanish Armada threatened the British Empire during the reign of Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I, St Michael’s Mount played a significant role. In 1588, watchmen high up on the Mount made the very first sighting of Spanish ships and lit a beacon on the top of the church tower. It was the first in a series of beacons on high points across the country. In this way, the news flew to London and to the queen.
The English Civil War in the 1660s brought further strife to Cornwall, and royalist ‘Cavaliers’ occupied the castle to resist the ‘Roundhead’ forces sent by Oliver Cromwell. The cannons on the castle ramparts were first used at this time. Colonel John St Aubyn was one of the pro-Cromwell leaders involved in ending the occupation. After the surrender, he was made Governor of the Mount. Then, in 1659, and now a royalist, he bought it. St Michael’s Mount has been the seat of the St Aubyn family ever since.
During the 18th century, the harbour was developed to accommodate larger vessels: fishing boats, naval vessels and, later, luxurious pleasure crafts. The cannons last saw action in the Napoleonic Wars, such as when a French warship was blown onto Marazion Beach after being disabled by artillery fire. (View a piece of Napoleon’s coat, worn at the Battle of Waterloo, in the museum).
The village flourished. In the early 19th century, it housed more than two hundred people and had three public houses (popular with visiting sailors), three small schools, a Methodist chapel, and the church. Today, the old sail loft is a restaurant, and other original buildings have been re-purposed.
Over the last 300 years, the castle has been extended and developed, making it fit for a queen. In fact, in 1846, Queen Victoria visited, arriving on the royal yacht. It seems that no one knew she was coming and so she was entertained with tea and cake by the housekeeper until members of the family arrived.
In 1954, the 3rd Baron St Levan, Francis Cecil St Aubyn, gifted St Michael’s Mount, with a substantial endowment fund, to the National Trust. The Trust now manages the site in conjunction with the St Aubyn family, who have a 999-year lease to live in the property. (The 5th Baron St Levan, James St Aubyn and his wife Mary live in the castle.)
With so much history, it is natural that there would also be legends. The brutal giant Cormoran occupied the island back in the mists of time past and was in the habit of stealing livestock (or even children) from the people of Marazion. Jack, a local boy, was emboldened by the idea of winning the giant’s treasure.
One night he dug a deep pit and, in the early morning, tricked Cormoran into running downhill. Blinded by the rising sun, the giant fell into the pit and was easy prey for the brave lad. The heart-shaped stone built into the pathway to the castle may indeed be Cormoran’s petrified heart. Visitors must look out for it and decide for themselves.
The Lizard Peninsula: The best walking in this area is definitely to be found along the Southwest Coast Path as it hugs the Lizard Peninsula. Both sides of the peninsula offer spectacular views. The western side is more windswept and rugged, while the east coast is more sheltered and nurtures an even wider range of natural habitats. Ideally, visit both coasts if possible. When walking at beach level, always take care not to be cut off by the incoming tide.
Where: From Lizard Point, the most southerly point on the UK mainland, walk towards Mullion on the west coast or Coverack on the east.
Any walk in Kennack Sands to the east or visiting the spectacular Kynance Cove on the western side will be particularly rewarding. Cadgwith and Coverack (east) and Mullion and Poldhu (west) are picturesque and rich in history, geology and wildlife. Seals can often be seen from these walks on both coasts, sometimes even swimming in the harbours or sunning themselves in coves which are visible from the path above but only accessible from the sea.
There are circular walks for those who want to leave the coast for a while. One starts and ends at the glorious twin beaches of Kennack Sands and visits the serpentine boulders of Carleon Cove. Walkers can then swing inland at picturesque Cadgwith village with attractive fishing boats in the cove. The inland villages of Ruan Minor, Poltesco and Kuggar offer travellers a green, gentle amble through the lanes and footpaths of the Cornish countryside before they return to the coast at Kennack.
Another great hike in this area takes in Loe Bar – a half-mile bank only a few yards wide that separates the freshwater Loe Pool from the sea. The pool is the largest natural freshwater lake in Cornwall.
Start from Porthleven on the South West Coast Path. Walk south to the bar – about a mile. You can’t miss it: ahead, there is water not just on the right but on the left as well. The bar between the two becomes more difficult to walk on. It is no longer a hard path or soft sand. This is shingle: small fragments of a type of stone that is not in keeping with the other rocks in this area. Take care – it shifts underfoot.
Then walk all around the pool – about 5 miles. Doing the circuit anti-clockwise enables you to stop at the café towards the end of the walk. Enjoy the difference in plants and wildlife between the seawater and freshwater walks. Visit in the spring, and the large-leaved gunnera will be a modest size.
Visit in September, and they may be taller than you are. Watch for herons, little egrets, swans and other water birds. In calm weather, the pool and bar appear idyllic, but be warned, the narrow, unstable shingle bank can be extremely dangerous if the waves break over it. Also, many people have drowned in the pool. Do not attempt a swim. Return along the SW Coast Path to Porthleven.
Sheltered woodland, exotic planting, contemporary artwork by internationally renowned artists – café/restaurant – bird’s-eye views of St Michael’s Mount. Five hundred years ago, this was the vineyard for the monks on the Mount. It continues to be a place of peace and surprising views.
Substantial walls remain – stone-walled homesteads along a ‘village street’ – underground passage (fougou) – wild high vantage point. To explore in greater depth, visit the accessible fougou at Carn Euny, just five miles away. These iron-age/Roman remains are unique to Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.
Quaint, working harbour village with many old buildings and winding, narrow streets – offering insight into Cornwall’s history – cafes and pasty shops. Once a thriving medieval port, it was nearly wiped off the map by a Spanish raid in 1595. Only one building survived and survives to this day.
World famous, open-air amphitheatre, built into the cliff-side – overlooking the sea – evening performances and matinees – open for visitors at other times. This vast, breathtaking performance area was built, almost single-handedly, by one woman, the remarkable Rowenna Cade, who worked for nearly 50 years.
At low tide, you can walk across the causeway and visit the small village and harbour throughout the year. At high tide there are boats that go across.
Yes, St Michael’s Mount is a tidal island.
The original medieval castle was extended into a much larger castle in the 19th century. It still has battlements with cannons, and it also houses a museum.
The 5th Baron St Levan, Sir John St Aubyn and his wife, Mary, live in the Castle. A small number of people also live in the village by the harbour.
King Edward the Confessor gave St Michael’s Mount to the Benedictine Order of monks at Mont St Michel in the 11th century. This relationship ended in 1424. The two islands look somewhat alike, but the summit of Mont St Michel is higher.
The National Trust owns the Mount, and the St Aubyn family have a 999-year lease to live there. The Mount is managed jointly by both parties.
Access to the village is free to all when a low tide allows access over the causeway. When the castle is open, access is free to National Trust members. Others have to pay. All visitors will pay for trips by boat.
The National Trust is a charity for heritage conservation founded in 1895. It protects wild landscapes as well as historic buildings, such as St Michael’s Mount, and is one of the largest landowners in the UK.