The tide was still in when we reached Marazion, and yet a line of people snaked between the shore and the island half a mile into the sea, seemingly walking on water. We were going to join them, walking the old pilgrim route to St Michael’s Mount, one of the first points on the Michael Line, that runs from the westernmost tip of the land to its eastern shores.
The Mount rises from the sea topped with a fairytale castle and is now completely cut-off from the mainland. The castle, like the island, has belonged to the St Aubyn family since around 1650, although it has been gifted to the nation, the family still lives there and manages the mount and the tiny village at its feet. Aside from the thousands of visitors, it is a peaceful place, though it has not always been so, and for a thousand years it has seen warfare and siege, from the Normans, to the pillboxes of WWII that still remain, tucked into the rocks.
The Cornish name for the island, Karrek Loos yn Koos, suggests that it was once a rocky hill within a woodland. The remains of a hazel forest have been found at low tide on a nearby beach, and radiocarbon dating suggests that the trees were swallowed by the sea around four thousand years ago. Was this the cataclysm that drowned the fabled land of Lyonesse, just off the coast here?
Historically, John of Worcester writes that in 1099, the Mount rose from a forest and was still five miles or more from the sea. In November that year, according to his account and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, the sea rose in fury and left the mount stranded in the sea.
Today, St Michael’s Mount can be reached at low tide by walking the cobbled causeway. With the tide still ebbing, we were going to get more than our feet wet, but it seemed the right way to approach the island that has held a place in human history since the Mesolithic era that began ten thousand years ago.
Early flint tools have been found here, including a leaf-shaped arrow head. Many traces of later occupation are probably long-since buried by the later building on the mount, though there are the remains of a cliff castle… a type of prehistoric hillfort… and occupation from both the Bronze and Iron Ages.
Legend tells that the island was built by Cormoran, a fearsome giant who terrorised the area, feasting on sheep, cows and small boys. Cormoran was slain by a lad named Jack, who was given the title of Giant Killer. Another tale tells that Cormoran and the Giant of Trencrom amused themselves by throwing rocks at each other… until one of the missiles went astray, killing Cormoran’s wife Cormelian, who had carried rocks for the island in her skirts. She was buried beneath Chapel Rock, a boulder that had fallen from her apron when Cormoran kicked her, having found her bringing green stones for the building of the isle instead of white.
Chapel Rock also marks a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary, where pilgrims would pause to pray before crossing to the island. Christian legends tell how St Michael appeared to local fishermen on the island, while still another tells of Joseph of Arimathea, his associations with the tin trade in the area, and how he brought his young nephew, Jesus on one of his trading trips. The legend is echoed in Glastonbury, also on the Michael Line, where He is said to have landed at the port at Pilton, where the church of St John the Baptist marks the place of the landing.
The mount was involved with both the sea and the tin trade for at least four centuries before the birth of Jesus. It has also been a place of pilgrimage; a monastery may have already existed on the site as early as the eighth century and it was once a priory of Mont St Michel, a very similar island just off the coast of France. An indulgence was granted by Pope Gregory in the eleventh century encouraging pilgrims to visit the island, and there is still a medieval chapel on the summit of the island today.
We waded barefoot through the sea to reach the island. We would have liked to see the chapel, which, by special permission, serves the Order of St John, a chivalric order that follows in the tradition of the Templars and their successors. We had no desire, and would have had little time, to visit the castle and its gardens… and we were not prepared to pay the full ticket price for all of that, just to visit the church. It is always disappointing when there is an entrance fee for what is supposed to be a place of worship.
We would have liked to explore a little, but most of the island is walled and inaccessible without a ticket…and we could not have faced the crowds. Instead we sought a little peace. After the silence and beauty of the morning, the hordes of holidaymakers struck a strident note. We watched the gulls and the tiny mother bird beachcombing to feed its young. We found the representation of St Michael above the portal to the family cemetery, where the St Aubyn’s rest alongside drowned sailors. We had come here simply to acknowledge the island’s presence and its place on the Michael Line, and to walk the pilgrim crossing… just being there was enough. And anyway, the afternoon was drawing to a close… and we still had a couple of things we wanted to see. So, retracing our steps across the now dry causeway, we headed back towards St Just…