Things to do in Cornwall: Follow in the footsteps of giants, pilgrims and mermaids at St Michael’s Mount
July 24, 2018
*In partnership with the St Aubyn Estate
Emerging out of the water in Mount’s Bay off the coast of Marazion (near Penzance in SW Cornwall), lies St Michael’s Mount. A tidal island with a castle perched on the top, the causeway literally appears before your eyes as the tide drops away; a magical fairytale in action, beguiling both adults and children to begin the intrepid journey across the bricks to the rugged outcrop across the bay… (or, hop on a motor boat if the tide hasn’t quite matched up to your visit!).
We headed to St Michael’s Mount, Marazion, on Monday morning and knew that we’d have to be early if we wanted to catch the low tide for the walk across the causeway. We camped nearby but having never been to Marazion or St Michael’s Mount before, weren’t sure what the breakfast situation might be. In hindsight, there are plenty of options for food, both Marazion side and on the island itself, but we didn’t want to be stranded, so we ate breakfast at Tremenheere Kitchen first (beautiful location, lovely food, you have to go) whilst we looked at the island over the bay. We then drove down to Marazion to begin our island adventure.
First, some logistical points to bear in mind, as I didn’t think it super obvious from the website before we went:
Check the tide times that the causeway is open here but don’t worry if you are outside those times as there are boats.
It seems like every person in Cornwall is all trying to park at Marazion – but there are spaces. The earlier you get there the less walking you’ll have to do, but even the additional parking field is only 10/15 mins walk (depending on whether you’re heading for the causeway or harbour). You can always drop off little ones and one person by the nearest carpark by the Godolphin Arms / St Aubyn Estate buildings where there is some high turnover short stay 30 min parking (this is in the centre of Marazion).
Not all of those people are headed for the island – there is a nice beach at Marazion and the usual village seaside shops and pubs/cafes.
Take cash for the carpark and boats. (£4 for carpark, £1 per child, £2 per adult EACH way on the boats).
Entry is free if you’re a National Trust member
The path up to the castle is steep and cobbled – wear flat shoes!
The garden isn’t open every day, so if subtropical gardens are your thing, choose your day wisely – Thursday or Friday (and remember the island itself is closed on Saturday).
The boats have two different landing places and these are both *beyond* the start of the causeway (which is underneath the Godolphin Arms). It isn’t obvious to start with as clearly all the signposting has been done by someone who knows where everything is but keep following the road round and your eyes peeled for an orange or green sign and you’ll find the two places that the boats leave. (The boards in the carpark tell you which landing place is the current one in use).
We opted to bring a sling as Buster isn’t always open to walking – I’d definitely recommend a sling over a buggy.
Arriving anywhere by boat is pretty special, I always think, and so we loved sweeping across the bay on a motor boat – the journey was super short but just enough to feel the wind in your hair and feel like you were setting forth on an exciting adventure… or, if you catch the right tides and manage to walk the 500m across from Marazion, you are “following in the footsteps of giants and pilgrims”, your own part of Cornish folklore with which the entire island is imbued. From ancient ley lines it is said unique energy flows forth, and despite being hot and bothered about parking and boat queues, the moment we set off in the boat to land on the island, worries ebbed away and there seemed space enough for all the visitors.
From as far back as 495AD, tales tell of seafarers lured by mermaids onto the rocks, or guided to safety by an apparition of St Michael. The patron saint of fishermen, it’s said the archangel St Michael appeared on the western side of the island – below where the entrance to the castle is today – to ward fishermen from certain peril. It’s a legend which has brought pilgrims, monks and people of faith to the island ever since, to pray, to praise and to celebrate.
Once you arrive at the island harbour there are some shops and visitor centre, so I think you could head over on foot, picnic at the harbour or beach and not have to pay to get into the castle at all, so time it right and you could have a free adventure…
If you do pay to get in further, you can follow the steep cobbled path up to the castle, which was built in the 12th century with the church started in 1135. In c.1080, St Michael’s Mount was granted to Mont-St-Michel. The next few centuries saw seiges, battles, captures and in 1588 the beacon was lit at the top of the Church tower, the first of the chain of beacons lit across England’s south coast alerting London that the Spanish Armada had been sighted.
In 1659 the Mount was sold to Colonel John St Aubyn and the island has remained in the family since, with most of the Mount being bequeathed to the National Trust in 1954 allowing the St Aubyn family a lease to live in the castle and run the visitor business on the island.
Step inside the castle (and ignore the fact that for the first bit at least you are basically in a shuffling queue, it opens up properly inside) and you can trace the St Aubyn family history through to the present day. I always wonder about the stories of all the other people that lived on the island too, and would have liked to see more of those tales too, but it was quite interesting, and the kids liked the treasure quest and resulting medals. The building itself is clearly seriously old and therefore full of charm. We could definitely have spent longer looking at some of the details if we’d not been with kids and aside from the treasure quest (which needed quite a lot of help from us) I wouldn’t say it was especially geared towards children. The views were gorgeous though, and the kids loved looking at the weapons in the Garrison Room, as well as the cannons guarding the castle, which they spent quite some time playing imaginery games around, which was fine with me as I enjoyed photographing the views across to Newlyn Harbour and along towards Praa Sands.
Treasure quest complete, we wondered back down to the harbour, found the Giant’s heart in the cobbles, listened to some story telling and bought some souvenirs in the shop (it was the typical National Trust type stuff, although I understand the shop near the harbour sells more of a range of things; I liked the art work they had commissioned with emerging artists). We then queued up, caught a boat back to Marazion and headed to the Godolphin Arms where lunch was waiting for us.
We were thoroughtly spoilt at the Godolphin Arms where we had a beautiful window table with a gorgeous view of the island and ate local seafood whilst the sun came out and the tide slipped away to reveal the causeway. The pub couldn’t be better situated for pre or post island drinks or food and we all enjoyed our meal and the view. Food is served all day and it was tasty and local, and only enhanced by the beach literally underneath the window. I think I’d probably recommend reserving a table if you think you’d definitely like to eat there (the cafes on the Mount by lunchtime were predictably busy, but with a little patience you’d definitely have found something without any pre-planning).
We ended up having a lovely day out and concluded we will come back again later int he year on one of the days that the garden is open, perhaps later in the season when things will be quieter. There is no denying this is a popular tourist destination, with good reason, so initially the crowds did seem a little off-putting, but there was plenty of room for everyone and always space to sit or take photos of the view, just as long as you had a little patience to wait. But a little enforced waiting can be good for the soul…
I’m conscious of the cost of the summer holiday so I like to spell out how much these activities cost and whether it is possible to still get out and visit free or low-cost places. We have a budget for the summer holidays so that I can plan days out and like to know what I’m letting myself in for. So, what did it cost:
Under £5 if you pay to park and spend the day on the beach at Marazion where the best views of the island are, and where the causeway starts. The bus also delivers you straight from Penzance, so easily accessible if you do not have a car.
Under £10 if you manage to time it right with the tide and bring a picnic lunch and don’t go up to visit the castle (or if you are a National Trust member and don’t count that cost in this!) but still visit the island. You’ll need to allow £4 for parking and probably £5-6 for the boat back unless you strike lucky on a day where low tide is mid-afternoon and you can get there and back on foot.
Under £40 if you are a family of two adults, pay for parking, the boat and visit castle but not the garden and bring your own lunch (£25 for entrance, £4 carpark, £6-8 boat fares).
Under £100 if you visit the entire island, boat both ways, parking and lunch in a pub or cafe. (£37.50 for entrance, £4 carpark, £6-8 boat fares, £30-40ish for lunch)
Thank you to The St Aubyn Estate for inviting us for a visit and lunch. We enjoyed free entry and lunch in the pub in return for a blog post. We paid for our own parking and boat trips and as National Trust members would also have been able to visit the castle without paying any extra if it had not been kindly looked after for us.