By Alexandra Saunders
St Michael’s Mount is without a doubt one of Cornwall’s most famous and enamouring landmarks. A small tidal island in Mounts Bay, Karrek Loos yn Koos, (that’s its Cornish name for those who didn’t know), is a place full of history and legend, both mythical and very real. Today, it’s one of Cornwall’s most symbolic sites, drawing in thousands of visitors every year and becoming a beacon for the tourist industry. Here, myCornwall’s Alex Saunders speaks to Assistant Head Gardener on the Mount, Darren Little, about this amazing place.
In all the years I’ve lived in Cornwall, I’ve never found myself becoming complacent to the sight of St Michael’s Mount. Sometimes misty days turn it into a strange, ethereal structure concealed by a milky haze and in the summer the gardens on the island seem to practically glow.
Run by local residents, the family who have held ownership on it for nearly four hundred years, and the National Trust, St Michael’s Mount is perhaps one of the most unusual places to work in the country, let alone in Cornwall. It’s hard to imagine that for some, like Assistant Head Gardener Darren Little, it’s just another day at the office.
“I’ve lived on St Michael’s Mount on and off for some 35 years,” Darren explains, “I was brought up on the island and moved off when I was 17. This was due to working as a gardener on the mainland. I had the great opportunity to come back in 2000 with my wife Emma, who also lived on the island as a child.”
Darren faces a number of challenges working in such unruly conditions with so many varying levels of terrain, “Some areas within the gardens we have to abseil from the castle to reach them to do the work…Mostly everything you need for a job is to be carried by hand to your destination. This becomes labour intensive when you need to carry 10 tons of granite into the gardens to build a new wall, or 100+ square meters of turf to lay a new path. Every day is different, so I always look forward to new challenges that are thrown at me, from abseiling over the castle walls to taking a boat out around the mount to assess the gardens visually from the sea.”
Of course, one of the oldest legends is that the Mount was once very much connected to the mainland. Its Cornish name, meaning ‘Grey Rock in a Wood’, even alludes to the Mount once being surrounded by ancient forest land before becoming flooded by the ocean. Whether there was an entire forest is speculative, but evidence of a woodland area can be found in the remains of trees having been seen at exceptionally low tides. Data from these trees was taken to be analysed and it was estimated that the submerging of this hazel wood occurred around 1700BC. Like many hotspots in Cornwall (including the Isles of Scilly) evidence of Neolithic and even Mesolithic settlers have been discovered on the island, which dates its occupational origins back several thousands of years.
Darren himself has discovered many ancient artefacts that showcase just how vast St Michael’s Mount history is, “As a gardener we find many items under the soil, from old walls to musket shots, cannon balls and coins. In 2009 while working on removing ivy and bracken I stumbled across a bronze age hoard hidden under a rock. In total I unearthed 48 different items, from ingots to axe heads, all around 3000 years old. For me one of the most interesting things is that the island has been inhabited for thousands of years and that there may be more history yet to be discovered.”
Some of the earliest buildings on the island date back to the 12th century period. Early medieval periods suggest the Mount was home to various monastic buildings and churches, but became home to the likes of nobles, earls and civil war rebels in the forthcoming centuries. The Mount even has an old French cousin, Mont Saint Michel, which resembles very similar geographical traits to its larger Cornish relative. In 1659, the Mount was sold to Colonel John St Aubyn and today his descendants, the Lord St Levan and family, still hold ownership over the island.
Living in such a beautiful place definitely poses its own hazards, particularly when Cornwall is hit by infamous strong Atlantic storms. During 1755, on November 1st, St Michael’s Mount became a victim of the Lisbon Earthquake, an enormous seismic disaster to hit Portugal that sent catastrophic tsunami waves towards Cornwall. It is said the ocean rose and fell up to six feet at times on the mount and many lives across the Cornish coast were lost. Today, the Mount still has to prepare for turbulent seas, as Darren describes,
“The tides do play a big part for living and working on the island. You have to be prepared for what the tide times are, especially with a delivery or your own shopping. We do have a mini bus that we can book onto, so they can collect us from the mainland if needed. Another unusual aspect is storms, we need to be prepared with sand bags and storm boards in the event of a storm hitting the island. With the tidal surges we experienced in 2014 we had 1.5-meter waves hitting the houses on the harbour front. I would say that is something unusual to cope with!”
By the 18th century, improvements to the Mount’s harbour allowed the island to become a well-used and prosperous seaport. By 1811 over two hundred people lived on the island (the most there had ever been and has been since). It was mostly used by sailors, but several schools, a church and public house allowed civilian life to exist comfortably.
Today around thirty people live on St Michael’s Mount, most of whom are employed to keep the islands busy tourist season up and running. In 1954, the 3rd Baron St Levan gave most of St Michael’s Mount over to the National Trust, who manage it and its gardens today. As the St Aubyn family struck up a 999-year lease deal on the Mount to inhabit the castle and manage the public viewing of its rooms, they work closely together with the National Trust in conjunction with this agreement. This includes Darren, who works hard every year in the gardens to keep up with the growing number of visitors.
“Working in the gardens, we have noticed with growing visitor numbers that the wear on the grass paths has changed significantly. With this approach we introduced two different options to minimise this. Firstly, we added a grass protection matting that reduces foot fall on the grass and protects the root structure. The other was to cobble the entire pathway system in one of the terrace gardens. As the gardens are tucked against a granite cliff face the cobble paths blend in nicely. As the paths are narrow and accessibility is limited we reduced opening days, this gives us time to bring the gardens back to life as how they should look. The gardens were designed in the 1870s for domestic use, but now welcome over 65,000 visitors a year. Opening days and times are limited to conserve and protect the dry-stone terraces and narrow grass paths from too much wear and tear and erosion. The gardens are planted to be enjoyed from the castle battlements as well as from within.”
Darren is faced with his fair share of work, but it’s something he happily wouldn’t change. Finally, I ask him what his favourite thing about St Michael’s Mount is,
“It’s probably the community spirit and all that live on the island,” he says. “This can be from having parties or BBQ’S, to helping each other out. We can’t just pop to the pub for a pint, but we do have a community room with all mod cons, so we do sometimes catch up for a drink or two. As I lived on the island as a child and now I have two children of my own, I enjoy doing the things that I did as a child. Swimming, fishing, kayaking etc. There is nothing better than after work in the summer, when everyone has gone home, and you can open your front door and run out and jump in the harbour for a swim with the kids.”
And, like all great Cornish landmarks, the Mount comes with its very own folklore tale. Classically the legend tells that the Giant Cormoran once ruled the island and he would wade ashore to the mainland to steal the livestock of local farmers for his meals. Hungry and tired of the giant’s thievery, a reward was offered to whoever could kill the giant. A young boy came forward to slay the giant, his name was (you guessed it) – Jack.
One night when Cormoran was sleeping, Jack snuck onto the mount and dug a deep pit half way down one side. In the morning as the sun rose, he blew his horn to startle the giant awake. Enraged, Cormoran charged after Jack but was blinded by the rising sun and fell into the pit. Lying there, Jack filled up the pit, effectively burying poor Cormoran alive. From hence forth Jack was hailed as Jack the Giant Killer.
Today, if you walk up the ancient cobbled path to the castle, you’ll come across a stone that stands out from all the others, distinctly due to its heart-shaped form. Rumour has it that it’s the giants heart. Stand on the stone and you can still hear the heart beating.