Rising up from the ocean, on a turbulent day St. Michael’s Mount can take on an eerie, almost other-worldly character. It can easily be imagined as the setting of a Medieval adventure or part of the middle world. And it wouldn’t be too surprising if you thought it was in Scotland, but this little gem of an island is in Cornwall. And on a sunny day, it takes on a storybook atmosphere.
St. Michael’s consists of many fine examples of twelfth century architecture, with the expansion of a fairytale castle in the Victorian era. There is a village below the high castle cliff that is still home to about 35 residents. Visitors come from all over the world, as the island is close to Penzance and fairly easy to get to.
The island is operated by the National Trust and can be viewed whenever the weather permits. It can be reached by walking or by taking a boat, depending on the tide. The tide schedule can be viewed on the National Trust page.
Neolithic activity has been discovered on St. Michael’s Mount. It is believed the mount was once surrounded by marshland, and that it was perhaps used as a camp and a secret storage area for weapons. Little more is known because most of the land has been disturbed with subsequent building projects and farming. During the Medieval period, monastic buildings were constructed. Monastic life on the mount could have started as early as the eighth century. However, an earthquake in the fourteenth century destroyed much of the buildings.
Though managed by the National Trust, St. Michael’s Mount has been owned by the St. Aubyn family since John St. Aubyn purchased it in 1659. The St. Aubyn family estate currently spans over 5,000 acres, and maintains several businesses as well as properties. The St. Aubyn family has been around Cornwall since the fourteenth century, having married into established Cornish families and inheriting properties that have remained in the family, including Clowance Estate.
The Bassett family owned St. Michael’s until the English Civil War, when the family lost money trying to build defenses in support of the Royalists. John St. Aubyn, a Parliamentarian, was put in charge of St. Michael’s and later purchased it. It has remained in the family as a secondary residence. Early on, the harbor was rebuilt which brought trade and prosperity to the island. The population swelled to over two hundred. Later the railroad came to Penzance and with the harbor improved, much of St. Michael’s commerce died. However, the Victorian St. Aubyns built the pretty castle wing. It has always been a focal point off the coast and the island itself was eventually placed in the hands of the National Trust, with an agreement for the family to lease the castle and run the visitor business for 999 years.