Julia Buckley explores the atmospheric outcrop of St Michael’s Mount
It’s always good to be the last to leave a stately home, I tell myself, picking my way down the stone slipway at the foot of St Michael’s Mount. With nobody else around, you can almost imagine it’s yours.
Although that’s slightly cold comfort when the place in question is a stern-looking island castle, and the exit route — which I’ll be tackling alone — is a causeway to the mainland that looks eerily similar to the one in the last horror film I saw, The Woman in Black.
I’d arrived at Mount’s Bay — the sandy crescent connecting the two lobster claws of Cornwall’s southern tip — in the morning. It was after high tide and the sea was creeping backwards, the beach on the mainland, at Marazion, getting wider by the minute.
The causeway would be submerged for the next couple of hours, so I took a boat to the island, skimming silently across the water. It may have been October, but Penzance’s microclimate pays notoriously little attention to the seasons. The sun was blazing and the sea a Caribbean turquoise, so clear that the boats in the pint-sized harbour seemed to hover in mid-air, and the submerged causeway looked like a coral ribbon winding back towards the mainland.
A staple of Cornish legend, St Michael’s is little more than a rocky outcrop in Mount’s Bay, the castle perched high on top and tropical gardens at the sea’s edge below. Founded in the 12th century as a monastery — the monks’ refectory is now the dining room — it’s been home to local gentry for more than 400 years and, despite the portcullis over the front door, it’s cosy inside. At the summit is a chapel where the famous light that draws artists to Newlyn, across the bay, forms rainbows on the walls as it spins through the stained glass windows.
The views up here are spectacular, of course, spanning 360 degrees from the Lizard peninsula — mainland Britain’s southernmost point — to the headland that, beyond Newlyn, curls into Land’s End. From the battlements, I watch the tide recede until the causeway emerges and people begin inching along.
But the next time I look — a couple of hours later, having climbed down to the gardens — everyone’s streaming back along the causeway to the mainland. St Michael’s Mount appears to have closed, I realise, edging past the island graveyard. Possibly with me in it.
It may only be 1,200ft long, but the causeway feels like a Roman road as it snakes around to Marazion, the mortar picked clean from its granite paving stones by the hungry tides. Heaps of dark seaweed are piled around rockpools on either side, while molluscs cling to slimy boulders and a crab scuttles along beside me, waiting for the sea to sweep back in. By the time I reach Marazion’s dimpled sand, the sun’s beginning to fall, making a silhouette of the castle. No wonder I was spooked — there’s definitely something otherworldly about this place.
And then I see them. Black figures, pouring onto the causeway like ants — or orcs. I watch them, heart in mouth.
And realise that they’re more visitors leaving the castle. I wasn’t even the last to go.