Penzance’s most popular attraction is St Michael’s Mount. It can be seen from its harbor but is not close enough to walk to unless you’re a dedicated distance hiker. The walking for most begins when they arrive on a beach, hopefully at low tide, to cross to it on a rocky path. After entering the castle’s village and gate, to reach the top of the Mount requires climbing a rather difficult, rocky path that has not been improved. No one in reasonably good shape avoids this because there’s a tourable castle as a reward. The easiest way to get to St Michael’s Mount is by bus from Penzance’s bus station to the village of Marazion.
This sometimes island is named for Saint Michael the Archangel, the patron saint of fishermen. According to legend, Michael appeared on this island where the castle’s entrance is now to protect fish seekers from danger. Four miracles brought pilgrims. There are many island legends going back more than 1,500 years having to do with mermaids and giants. The most popular one involves 2 rocks shaped like hearts. About the time of the Norman Invasion in 1066, St Michael’s Mount was controlled by monks from a sister isle, the far more famous Mont St Michel in France. Its abbot, Bernard le Bec, built a church on the British Mount in 1135 when a Benedictine Priory dominated this island. The church was rebuilt in the 14th century and restored in 4 subsequent centuries. Its late medieval splendor is seen on the castle tour, which can be uncomfortably crowded, and masses are still celebrated in it even though the monks left in the 16th century.
The Mount has seen military action. Shortly after the Normans arrived in England, it was seized by Henry La Pomeray, who disguised his soldiers as pilgrims. During the Spanish Armada lights in the Mount’s church tower warned London of approaching enemy ships. Four hundred years ago the St Aubyn family took possession of the island and the castle was built. In 1780, 4 St Aubyn daughters had a walled garden built below the castle. It’s subtropical, contains many exotic plants from around the world, and can be toured with a separate admission. Since 2016, Aubyn descendants, the Lords St Levan, have been in control. The family lives in the castle part of the year and occasionally entertains royalty, including Queen Elizabeth.
Getting to the castle is fun. At low tide a pilgrims’ path uncovered in the 1950s is busy with tourists walking out to the castle. They are warned when high tide is approaching, giving them enough time to return to the mainland by foot. If they linger longer, a boat will take them over. At high tide these boats take visitors out to the island for a small fee. The most dramatic way to see the tidal phenomenon is to visit stmichaelsmount.co.uk.
JMW Turner painted Mount St. Michael, and it appeared in Never Say Never Again, the film in which Sean Connery played James Bond for the 7th and last time.
ps. This cork version of the castle is in The Map Room.