Mont St Michel of Normandy’s lesser known, younger sibling and smaller counterpart is England’s very own St Michael’s Mount (or Cornwall if you’re a Cornish nationalist who doesn’t want to be part of England…). Incidentally, the Cornish name for the Mount is ‘Carrek Los yn Cos’, meaning ‘The Grey Rock in the Wood’.
This is thought to originate back to a time when the Mount was not a tidal island but surrounded by low lying forest. Remains of trees carbon dated back around 1700 years have been found at a nearby beach; thus giving this theory plausibility. In truth, all that the islands in Normandy and Cornwall seem to share is the same conical shape, tidal characteristics and that they were both built by the same order of Benedictine monks.
The mount is said to lay on a ley line and as can only be expected with such a mysterious and ancient site, the place is teeming with myths and legends. It is also associated with the well-known fairy tale of ‘Jack and the Giant Killer’.
A little History of St Michael’s Mount
Archaeological evidence dates human activity at the mount as far back as 6000 years ago. The key piece to this dating was a flint arrowhead found in the grounds of the castle. From the 8th-11th centuries, the site was used as a monastery.
Edward the Confessor (one of the last Anglo-Saxon kings) gave the island to the same order of Benedictine monks who built the monastery upon Mont St Michel in Normandy. Unfortunately, the original priory church was destroyed following an earthquake in 1275 and so the building that can be seen today is the rebuild from the 14th century (still pretty old)!
When Henry V went to war with France in the 15th Century, the island was re-seized and handed over to an abbess from a Convent in Middlesex; all ties with Mont St Michel in Normandy ceased. In 1659, the Mount was sold off to Colonel John St Aubyn and it remains in the family today.
The current ‘tenant’ is Lord St Levan who regularly hosts celebrated and famous guests from the world over. In the past 15 years alone, the Queen and Prince Phillip have been among welcomed visitors. In 1900, an underground railway was created to transport goods to the property. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the steep gradient and age of the railway, it is unavailable for public viewing.
In 1954, most of St Michael’s Mount was given to the National Trust. Together with a large endowment fund, a stipulation was made that the family be allowed to reside at the castle for the next 999 years.
Giant’s Well & The beginnings of the fairytale ‘Jack and the Giant Killer’…
Myth has it that the entire mount was built by a giant named Cormoran (in some versions he is helped by his wife Cornelian). It’s important to note that the name ‘Cormoran’ is not original to Cornwall and actually first appeared in the storybook ‘Jack and the Giant Killer’, printed in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century version of the tale, the giant is named Gogmagog. CONFUSING.
Anyway, with this confusing etymology of the Giant’s name aside, I’ll now carry on with the legend. Apparently, the giant, being a giant, is said to have terrorised the local population. Walking across the bay when the tide was out (although being 18ft high, I’m not really sure why he had to wait until the tide was out), he would eat men, women and children alike before returning to the cave on the island of St Michael’s Mount with at least a dozen farmyard animals in tow for a late night snack (yummy).
Now around this time, there was a local lad who was chivalrous, strong and brave (yes, I am clearly now talking about Jack!). He saw what the giant was doing to his village and the surrounding pastures and just couldn’t take it anymore. Now, of course, he was also very cunning. So, late one night, when the giant was asleep, he swam across to the island and dug a 22 ft trapping pit.
I have two problems with this;
1) The giant was already 18ft so surely he could have jumped the extra four foot to climb up the pit
2) What’s with all these absolutely accurate measurements in a fairytale?
Anyway, so he dug this pit and when morning came, he blew on his horn. The giant obviously woke up and chased across the island. However, he stumbled in the pit that Jack had dug the night before and after some time teasing and taunting, Jack finally killed him with a pickax.
Upon the giant’s death, Jack retrieved the island’s treasure and he was awarded a belt saying ‘Giant Slayer’ by the town of Penwith (bet that attracted all the ladies). On my right in the picture below, you can see the now covered well.
Giant’s Heart in the centre of the cobbled lane leading up to the castle
Look closely otherwise you may miss this tennis ball heart-shaped rock. It is set into the cobbled walkway a little way up from the Giant’s Well.
Legend claims that when the giant fell in the well, his heart somehow detached and ended up as a stone on the surface of the Earth (is that scientifically possible)? Apparently, if you stand on the heart, you can still hear the giant’s heartbeat.
Chapel and St Michael Castle
The 14th-century chapel stands proudly in the center of an amalgamation of earlier monastic buildings and later family home-esque additions. Fortifications to the buildings mean that the buildings are a fully functioning castle complete with a working portcullis.
Inside, there are all kinds of artefacts and objets de vertu. From a mummified cat to the armour of a samurai warrior, the castle encapsulates a mix of cultures, languages, and interests; matching its tumultuous history. The architecture and history of the fortifications make St Michael’s one of the best castles in Cornwall.
St Michael’s Mount Tropical Gardens
Sub-tropical gardens lie at the base of the Mount facing the sea. This is pretty surprising considering the harsh salt winds consistently battering the island. In actual fact, there are very rarely frosts on the island and the amount of stone actually acts as a giant radiator, allowing palm trees and like to flourish.
When I visited, I was informed that I was incredibly lucky that is was such a lovely, sunny and warm day (apparently a rare occurrence). Highlights of the tropical gardens include plants like agave and aloe. On the salty terraces, lavender can be found in abundance.
Getting to and Directions to St Michael’s Mount
The island lies just off the coast from the nearby town of Marazion. There is a large car park and many B&Bs within the town itself. Okay, so you’ve finally arrived in Marazion and you’ve parked up your car. Now, what? I mean, it is an island after all. Being a tidal island, twice a day for short periods of time, it is possible to walk across the causeway. The cobbled road can be seen submerged by water in the picture above.
So what about when the tide is in? Boat. There is a regular ferry service to and from the island. Fares are single prices of £2 each way. The port isn’t so bad either 😉 If you want to know more about visiting St Michael’s Mount, as well as the best time to go and the places to photograph once there, here’s a guide on how to visit St Michael’s Mount.