Friday, 12 May 2017

St Michael's Mount 1

I continue to be astonished at the number of people I encounter who have never been to Cornwall! What? Well, this is for them. Go and see.

To tempt them, I'm selecting for this post - and the next - a lovely jewel of a place, one of the most magical sights you can see in a county full of magical sights: St Michael's Mount. I revisited it recently, at the end of March. It's a little island off the far south-west end of Cornwall, not quite as far west as Penzance (of pirate fame) or St Ives (of artist fame), but in that general area.

I say 'island' but this is only so at high tide. When the water is low, you can walk across from Marazion on a causeway. But when the water is high, some kind of boat is the only way. When I last previously visited St Michael's Mount in September 1979, much was made of the island children being sometimes unable to get to school on the mainland, if a gale were blowing in Mount's Bay and a boat passage to Marazion was impossible.

I intend to include a few choice shots from 1979 in this post and the next. On that occasion, Mum, Dad, my brother Wayne, his new wife Glenda, and my young girl friend Deborah were all with me. We had a merry time, as you will see from the pictures. It was a high water mark in 1970s happiness. Of this roll call, only Glenda is still around, like me riding the passing decades in triumph. Everyone else is dead, or in Deborah's case long lost. So in part this post, and the next, will celebrate my fond memory of those no longer with me.

The best land approach to Marazion is, in my opinion, from the east, along the A394 from Helston (of Floral Dance fame), and then along the old road into Marazion (which the A394 now bypasses). Because then you get to see St Michael's Mount set in the azure sea, glimpsed over the rooftops:

It was truly a lovely morning when I went there in March. And it promised to be sunny and quite warm all day. I couldn't help but feel totally happy and content with the world. It surely shows in this shot of myself at the caravan site at Carnon Downs, just before I set off on my forty minutes' journey to the Mount:

It wasn't feasible to park in Marazion town centre, at least not for hours on end. But 400 yards further on, there was a proper car park by the beach. The jolly car park attendant wanted only £3.50 to park Fiona all day. In Sussex terms, this was a bargain. 

Leaving Fiona to bask in the sunshine, I walked back into Marazion to have a look at the place on foot. It was quite pretty, with lots of interesting old buildings, and, on the seaward side of the main street, little passageways that all offered slightly different views of the Mount:

Would the blue sky and sunshine last? I had better get over there without delay! So it was back to the sea wall, and then down onto the beach. 

I hadn't looked up the state of the tide, leaving it up to the gods whether I went over to the Mount by boat, but walked back, or vice versa. The tide was well out, so I could walk over and boat back. And I realised that this was marginally my preference. This was how it was in 1979. It could be an exactly similar event. Well, not quite: this time there was only me, the survivor. Did I feel sad? Oddly, no, not at the time: only reflective. It was impossible to be downbeat in all that sunshine! And I wasn't in any way downbeat:

The beach-level views of the silhouetted Mount were good. And they became more and more alluring:

That's the causeway, rebuilt after a great storm a few years ago, which tore up the old one. The winter seas can be ferocious hereabouts. You can easily drive vehicles along this new causeway at low tide, but of course ordinary private cars are prohibited. I couldn't go there in Fiona, however stylish and cool that would have been. Only vehicles belonging to the St Aubyn Estate (who own the Mount and some of the mainland) and the National Trust (who care for the house and gardens on the Mount itself) are allowed to use it. 

That rocky feature, with its own little branch causeway, is Chapel Rock. It's a bit too close into the shore to have much point as a refuge from the rising tide, and indeed there's no shelter built on it, with distress flares to use (I had a look), but apparently there was once a chapel there to pray in. And I dare say that in the old days, when St Michael's Mount was an important coastal trading centre, the landowners at the time would install their toll- and duty-collection men on Chapel Rock, to oversee and superintend all the deals taking place on the beach. Nowadays, on the seaward side of the Rock, there's a proper little quay, with a deep-water channel leading to it, and I'd conjecture that when the tide is half-high the ferry boats might use that quay:

It was fun, and also a strangely déjà-vu experience, to proceed along the causeway towards the island. My excitement mounted, if you will excuse the pun.

And I didn't forget to look back at Marazion, growing ever more distant. The Mount is hardly half a mile offshore, but it looks much further.

As is often the case with destinations approached gradually on foot, they stay distant for most of the way, then suddenly loom large and very close. This was no exception. Soon the Mount was no longer a dark hump on the horizon, but a real place with individual buildings and trees. Here I was getting quite near:  

And then I'd arrived, and was absorbing my first impressions.

The tide was coming in. The island's harbour was still dry, but it wouldn't stay that way for long. Chatting to one of the guides, I learned that there was going to be a half-hour free guided tour of the harbour and its buildings at 2.00pm. 

I decided to go on it. There was ample time meanwhile to mooch around, and have a cup of tea in the Sail Loft, a modern café that wasn't there in 1979.

Nearby was the amphibious boat-with wheels that the resident islanders and out-of-season visitors use:

A lot better than the dilapidated DUKW amphibious vehicle, ex-World War II, that was around in 1979. 

There was a rather upmarket shop selling all kinds of ladies' stuff, including beautiful leather goods such as handbags. I looked in, naturally. The girls behind the counter were discussing weddings. I heard some extraordinary figure mentioned for the cost of an upcoming one, and couldn't help joining in. We chatted together for nearly twenty minutes, all the time my holding a lovely deep yellow handbag, that though very desirable was too small for my needs. I learned quite a bit about how the total cost for a modern wedding of any pretensions can balloon to £25,000 and beyond. And of course this was just for the basics, with no aspiration to 'celebrity' standards of hospitality. I think my own wedding in 1983 cost less than £1,000 all in...  

Now where had we had lunch in 1979? It was sitting around a round stone table, with a landward view. it was... 

The eatery - rather more of a bistro affair than the Sail Loft - was still there, and you could still sit outside; but not this year on the grass, which they were regrowing.  But I could picture the scene in 1979. Girl friend Deborah grinning at me, and looking extraordinarily young...

Mum and Dad being brother Wayne making witty jokes...

It's quite poignant, looking at these shots now, an unbelievable thirty-eight years later. Mum, Dad and Wayne were my entire immediate family, all I had. How alive they were then! But they've all gone, Wayne in a car accident in 1995, and my parents in quick succession in 2009. Let's move on, before my heart starts to ache.

I had looked to see the state of the tide. Wow, the sea was encroaching really fast. The causeway was starting to get covered. You'd be risking wet feet if you tried to walk back to Marazion now!

There was a notice near the harbour that told you about the tide and the ferry boats. 

Hmm. I'd definitely be catching a ferry boat! But then, it would be all part of the day's adventure.

The harbour was already half-full of sea water:

Surely those railings were the same ones as in this 1979 shot, showing Wayne and his new wife Glenda:

My girl friend Deborah had ventured down the stone steps, but was startled when a noisy motor boat suddenly appeared very near to her:

I still had some time to kill before the tour. A glance at the causeway revealed we were now very nearly a true island, at least for a few hours:

Then it was time for the tour. I'd worked out that the St Aubyn Estate were in charge of the harbour area, the National Trust the house and gardens on the hill. So it was an Estate man who walked around with our little group. His name was Mick:

In the shot he was talking about the various Royal Personages who have visited the Mount, and left their footprints. These particular ones were made by the Queen and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, when they came in 2013.

My toes at the bottom edge, of course!

There were also the footprints of Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, when they came in 2010: 

Don't my feet look huge? But they are only size 8. Camilla's feet must be very dainty, though.

Well, we slowly proceeded along the harbourside, with Mick pointing out this and that most interestingly. But I couldn't help hanging back to take photos while the sun shone.

Then we came to something unusual. Rails running through the buildings and straight for the harbour's edge:

I'd heard about these rails. They linked the harbour with the house on the hill. I asked Mick about them. They were for a small tram wagon pulled up the hill with a steel wire, and controlled both ways by a motor-driven winding mechanism. Household goods and personal luggage were all carried to the house in this wagon, which mostly ran underground and was often not noticed by visitors. But you could view the harbour end of it.

We then walked along the back of the harbour buildings, where it was very sunny and sheltered. Some exotic plants were already growing well, even though it was only March.

Mick explained how wild the storms in Mounts Bay could be, mentioning two awful ones in the last fifteen years that had flooded the buildings around the harbour, and severely damaged some of the stonework. It didn't seem possible. But after we dispersed, he showed me photos of these storms in his office. It was all true.

No wonder the island children sometimes had to miss school!

It was now time to enter the National Trust part, and climb the cobble path up the hill the to house at the top. That's all for the next post.

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