Sometimes the castle is only an excuse …

Sometimes visiting a castle is only an excuse, this is mainly when the castle is built on top of a tidal island, connecting and disconnecting itself from the shore, based on the tide.

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According to the local Cornish legends, St.Michael’s Mount was the home of an 18 foot/6 metres high giant named Cormoran, who used to steal the cattle of the local farmers of the nearby village of Marazion. There was a young man who was the only one  brave enough to face him, and this is the source of the famous legend about Jack, the giant killer. In 2013, this legend was transformed into a fantasy movie. When you visit the mount and climb up to the castle, you will pass a strange-looking rock which was named ‘the giant’s heart’.

What many people may not know is that there was a “real” giant living on the mount during the medieval times, and his skeleton was found during the Victorian times.

If you translate the name of this place into French, it will be Mont Saint Michel, which is  the same name as an identical tidal island facing this one on the other side of the channel, near the beaches of Brittany. The similarity in the name is not accidental; on top of each island, there was a medieval monastery, and the Anglo Saxon King Edward the Confessor placed the English monastery under the supervision of the French one. The decision to pick St Michael was not random as he is the patron saint of fishermen, and both islands were basically fishing  communities. Some claim that the reason for the name derived from sightings of the Archangel Michael near the mount, but that poses another question, which of the mounts?

The connection with the French island ended with Henry V who confiscated the monastery during the 100 Years’ War, and a few “Henrys” later, the monastery was dissolved during the Reformation and became a private castle.

St Michael’s Mount was considered  a gateway to England, and as such, it was invaded several times. Two of the weirdest invasions happened during the end of the 15th century. One was related to the Wars of the Roses, and a second attack was led by a fake king. The castle on top of the mount changed hands until it was finally bought by the St Aubyn family in 1660. Some rumours claim that the castle was not really purchased, but was actually won in a game of cards. The St Aubyn family are still living in parts of the castle today.

During the restoration of the monarchy, they were elevated into the peerage, and they managed to keep it for several generations until the 5th Baronet lost it after not having any legitimate heir (he did have 15 illegitimate children with some of his many “girlfriends” though).

During this period, they also managed to gain a lot of wealth, primarily through profitable marriages, including one which was a union with the daughter of the Earl of Pembroke. She brought with her a dowry of £10,000 (about £1.4M today). For some reason, the Earl sent the entire sum in one carriage using half a crown coins…

It may be hard to believe, but at its peak, this mount was home to over 200 people living in a village with four streets and three schools. Towards the end of the 19th and 20th century, most of the population moved to Marazion and other places in Penzance. Today 30 people are living on the island, most of them connected with the castle or tourist industry.

The castle is open to the public and is operated by the National Trust. For more information: St Michael Castle official website

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Remember the visit to Versailles?

Chasing Castles Review

We visited St Michael’s Mount in the middle of the week during Easter break.  As you can imagine, the place was packed. We arrived early enough to view the appearanceof the causeway.  It was spellbinding to see the very long line of tourists getting ever closer to the Mount as the water diminished.  While we were taking pictures at the beach, our kids enjoyed the excellent climbing frame on Marazion beach.  It took great effort to get them to leave.

When we first arrived, we saw another long line of people waiting to cross the short gap between the island and the beach by boat. Only later did we realise that this is probably the best way to explore the castle which is on top of the mount because it was open to the public an hour before the causeway reappeared.

When we finally crossed the causeway and climbed the steep to the castle, it was clear we were about to have a similar experience to the one we had when we tried visiting the palace of Versailles during our summer holiday….  The castle was absolutely packed and in my opinion, it would not be particularly interesting if it was built anywhere else.  Visiting the overcrowded rooms did not have anything to offer beside the views that you could see from every window.

It was apparent that there was no way there could be any guided tours here, but as always the National Trust volunteers were more than happy to help share their knowledge of the history of the castle and explain in more details about the various artefacts. The downside to visiting this castle is that it does not offer any stories about its history or aboutt he history of the Mount.  While many of the visitors were tourists with kids who were only really looking for the best positions to take photos, I’m sure there were enough visitors who wanted to learn more about this castle and the events that took place in it. It is easy to visit a site like this and end up knowing nothing about it, and this is a shame.

Most of the castle  was renovated in the Victorian times, with only parts of the gatehouse, the chapel and the great hall retaining their medieval origins. Most of the rooms are small compared with similar houses, and since the rooms were packed it felt a little like a stroll through a busy Ikea branch.  There was some small respite in the Great Hall, for whatever reason named: The Chevy Chase Room. From my own research I knew that the Ballad of Chevy Chase was a 14th-century story about a battle between the English and Scots in Northumberland. The story, however, is told in the Hall’s plaster and gave this room its name.

If you are planning a visit to Mount and you are passionate about history and want to learn more, I suggest you do some reading before you go (you might even enjoy my stories about it). Another tip for those who love history would be to visit a house called Pencarrow in the north of Wales near the town of Bodmin. This is the home of the Molesworth – St Aubyn family, and you can get a guided tour that reveals the family’s stories; many of them are connected to the Mount.

While my wife andI were exploring the castle (in turns) the kids enjoyed themselves very much, exploring the rock pools near the causeway (important tip – when visiting the Mount don’t forget to pack a bucket, a spade and a mini fisherman’s net for the kids… you will thank me later).

To sum up, St Michael’s Mount is a must place to explore. The castle on top of it is only worth investigating if it’s not terribly busy… It is easy to spend an entire day in the area, and my advice is to either arrive early during the low tide or to come later to see how the path to the island disappears in the high tide, this is where the magic happens….If you like history and you really want to explore the castle, you could take the short boat ride before the causeway appears. The castle and the gardens charge admission fees. Members of the National Trust can visit for free.

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