St. Michael's Mount

14/11/19

We arrived in Marazion early that morning in a high wind and at high tide. The sea was rough but we had arrived to here to skim across it.

On our last visit to Cornwall, earlier in the year, we had walked over the causeway to St. Michael’s Mount with a caravan of other tourists on a still windy but warm day, had a look around the island, but deemed the price of entry to be too much for us at that time and later walked back.

This time, the causeway was not an option, and with the weather dire we were determined to take a look inside so we opted to take the amphibious vehicle over to the island.


St. Michael’s Mount is a strange place with a complex history. Taking its name from a sighting made there of the archangel Michael, the patron saint of fishermen, back when the bay was a lush forest before rising sea levels carved out the island as we know it today. (It’s name in Cornish translates to “grey rock in the wood”.)

Later, it was a monastery and then a fortification that was a line of defence against European invaders.

During the English civil war, the castle on the mount was the scene of a battle between Parliamentarians and Royalists, with the Parliamentarians winning the position for Cromwell. However, those that took over the mount, turning it into a garrison, can’t have been too loyal to the cause. Once the monarchy was reinstated, the lord of the manor stayed put and switched sides and many royals have visited the site over the years, with the garrison turned back into a grand home and the family still living there today — albeit in an annexed wing not accessible to the public — all these centuries later.

The most interesting thing for us, I think, was how this complex history was mirrored in the layout of the castle — a labyrinthine settlement of twists and turns, updates and reconstructions, antiques and security systems. It’s like any National Trust property in that respect but the history is literally carved into the walls. It is a lasting bastion of English domestic unrest, in some respects, but the scars of that unrest are more visible here than elsewhere.

Another detail that struck me was a painting — pictured above — that seemed out of place in a hall towards the end of our guided tour, showing an old woman hunched over a book. In amongst what is essentially a grand family album of painted residents and ancestors, here is a portrait of Dolly Pentreath, thought to be the last fluent speaker of Cornish before the language effectively went extinct.

I have fond memories of talking to Robin about the Cornish language on one of my trips to Urbanomic HQ. It has seen a revival in recent years — somewhat like Wales and similarly driven by middle-class linguistic hobbyists (at least in older non-native generations: Welsh is of course taught in schools there) — but, unlike other lost British dialects, no one really knows what Cornish sounds like. We may have records of it as a written language but Dolly Pentreath, who died on Boxing Day in 1777, was arguably the last known person to know how to speak Cornish aloud.

Considering all that this castle represents, as a strategic site of English political unrest, it is interesting to see this uniquely Cornish figure tucked into one of the wings…

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