“In 1067, the monastery of Mont Saint-Michel gave its support to Duke William of Normandy in his claim to the throne of England. This he rewarded with properties and grounds on the English side of the Channel, including a small island off the south-western coast of Cornwall which was modelled after the Mount and became a Norman priory named St Michael’s Mount of Penzance.” – Wikipedia
Everyone knows that driving in Cornwall can be a tedious and frustrating affair. I knew it but didn’t expect it so early in the year as the month of April (even though it was school Easter holiday week).
Today we were driving thirty miles west to the village of Marazion and St. Michaels Mount. A simple enough matter anyone might think. Entrance to the castle is restricted by the tide because visitors have to walk across a causeway that becomes submerged twice a day so timing is somewhat critical. I studied the tide tables and set a departure time which would give us plenty of time to get there for the opening of the causeway and a couple of hours wandering about at the site.
First of all we drove to the town of St Austell which is not a very appealing place I have to say. It was once the centre of the entire World china clay production and most people will have an item of porcelain in their homes which came from this area but the quarries are all closed down now. It is estimated that there are fifty years of clay reserves left in the ground but the owners find it more economical to concentrate on operations in Brazil.
Away from the dramatic coast line Cornwall is not an attractive place. Pause for sharp intake of breath from readers. Concrete not stone, render not brick. The rural landscape is rather dull and the towns are depressing, grey and ugly. Places look better in the sunshine of course but in Cornwall the sun has to try a lot harder than some other places. I am reminded of the joke, “There was an earthquake in Cornwall last night, it did a million pounds worth of improvements to Cambourne”. St Austell is surrounded by white peaks of spoil from the quarries but even the optimistic description of the Cornish Alps cannot really hope to make them any more appealing.
North of St Austell we finally reached the A30 and I foolishly looked forward to straight forward effortless motoring for the final twenty miles. How wrong I was. The A30 must be one of the worst roads in England. You cruise along nicely for a couple of miles on a dual carriageway and then every five miles or so the traffic grinds to a standstill at a roundabout and then everyone creeps forwards at increments of about two feet every ten minutes.
The traffic was frequently at a standstill and according to my calculations the tide was coming in at St Michaels Mount and I could feel my normal calm demeanour rapidly evaporating. I cursed myself for not allowing more time for the journey.
We finally arrived at Marazion and being late for the tide and the foot crossing it was so busy that we had to use an overflow car park which involved an additional fifteen minute hike to the causeway and then inevitably everyone wanted to go to the toilets which added another ten minutes or so and my frustration entered the red zone as I could see our tidal window of opportunity quickly ebbing away.
Eventually we made the windswept crossing to the castle but we only had a couple of hours now before we would have to return or be cut off by the tide and have to stay there for eight hours or so.
I was keen to see St Michael’s Mount because a couple of years ago I had visited its counterpart in France. Mont St Michel is a lot bigger and although a magnificent spectacle is disappointingly commercialised so I didn’t know quite what to expect. It turned out to be quite different without the tacky tourist shops and cheap food outlets which have spoilt the French island castle but really I wouldn’t expect that sort of thing from the National Trust.
Interestingly, despite the tat Mont St Michel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site but St Michael’s Mount is not. How unfair.
It is one of the iconic landmarks of Cornwall and today it was rather too busy for my liking with thousands of people swarming across the causeway and then making their way to the very top of the rock and visiting the interior. Inside was hot and cramped so we turned back after the first room and skipped the visit preferring instead to sit outside on the rocks and wait while the family completed the tortuous route through the castle.
From the top we could see the tide beginning to advance so it was time to make our way down and cross back to the mainland before the causeway would be completely submerged.
Despite the crowds this is a place well worth a visit and I enjoyed our short time on the rock with its attractive harbour, medieval cobbles and stone built houses where real people still live. As it happened there was no real need to rush off because there was a ferry boat service that would have taken us back for only a small charge.
Just by way of comparison this is Mont St Michel in Brittany in France…