A medieval castle that floats?


St Michael’s Mount, located half a mile south off the Cornish coast, can be accessed on foot – but only at low tide.

Fraternal forts
Many travellers have heard of Mont St-Michel, the fortified medieval monastery perched on an island in Normandy, France, that you can walk to when the tide is out. More surprising is that England has its own version: St Michael’s Mount, located half a mile south off the Cornish coast. At low tide, you can walk from the mainland village of Marazion to the island and its medieval castle.

Both sites got their names from St Michael, one of the most important saints in the Middle Ages. Just as he was said to appear in 708 to give his name to Mont St-Michel, legend holds that the angel appeared in 495 at St Michael’s Mount to save fishermen from crashing into the rocks. Cementing the relationship between the two further, by the time of the Norman Conquest in the 11th Century, the Benedictines of Mont St-Michel also controlled the Cornish island. In fact it was they who built its church and monastery in 1135, though by 1414 St Michael’s Mount was back under British control.

Island life
St Michael’s Mount isn’t just a visitors’ attraction, it’s a living community. There are 23 residents who live in the buildings at the base of the fortress, many whom work for the St Michael’s Mount estate, which is jointly run by the National Trust and St Aubyn Estates. The population includes eight children who cross the sea to the mainland for school each day.

Life on the island isn’t always easy. In fact, storms were so bad in 2014 that the causeway was damaged. It has since been repaired, however, and among other improvements, a visitor’s centre has been built; it is opening this week.

Cornish tropics
Some visitors skip the castle gardens because they require a separate ticket. That’s a mistake. Running up the terraces tucked under the castle walls, the gardens harbour a number of colourful, exotic plants that you’d normally see in warmer climates – like fuchsia Cape daisies from South Africa, the azure-blue lithodora of the Mediterranean, agaves more frequently seen in Mexico and the strange-looking, rosette-shaped succulent aeonium of the subtropics.

Serious steeps
The survival of these warm-weather species speaks to Cornwall’s climate – the Gulf Stream keeps this part of southwest England particularly mild – and to the sun-soaking terrace rocks that allow the garden to heat up to 40C. But that doesn’t mean the gardens are easy to tend: the gardeners have to abseil in order to reach some of the steeper corners.

Tides of change
From the top of the Mount, visitors can see across to Marazion as well as down onto the island’s own village. It’s easy to forget now, but at its peak in the early 19th Century the settlement had more than 300 residents as well as a school, dairy and pub. And, of course, you can see the half-mile-long causeway that links the island to Marazion – now, at high tide, buried by the sea.