by Emma Easy
I’ve taken my time, coming back.
I had made it across once before, when I was a child. The memories of that summer holiday trip I’ve since boiled down to three single stills that I look at irregularly: the dangling of my right arm over the side of a boat in the harbour; the thick, lumpy cobbles of the miniature square that await you after climbing the final incline of the causeway; my mother holding her watch face between index and thumb, looking back towards the mainland, presumably worrying over the incoming tide. I revisit each of these stills in turn, and in the same order, before putting them away.
We holidayed in Cornwall for several years, and each summer drove from St Agnes on the north coast to Marazion beach on the south, but only once did we walk along its causeway to St Michael’s Mount. Perhaps, as a family of domestic tourists, we were happy just to have it to look at, and to take hazy photographs of each other with it as a backdrop. Its presence, watching over us, made secure the success of the holiday as we set up windbreakers and thrust cricket stumps into the sand. The Mount was every bit the image of Cornwall as the gorse, the clotted cream, and the queues on the A30. It was, after all, the image that we sent back home to our friends and relations on a postcard, a perfectly proportioned leafy island with a castle at its peak, flying a Union Jack. I’ve read recently that it is known as ‘the jewel in Cornwall’s crown’.
As summer holidays accumulate, the jewel becomes more and more symbolic. Tidal islands that allow temporary passage from the mainland are a little like time-sensitive spells from fairy godmothers: cross over the threshold into another world, they seem to say, but be quick about it. First Great Western uses an exquisite image of the Mount and its causeway at sunset to encourage people to travel and become ‘full-time adventurers’. Go, before it is too late.
The fairy tale projections upon this small island are made more distinct thanks to an under layer of Cornish legend: that of Cormoran, the giant who built the Mount as his kingdom, terrorizing the people and livestock around St Mount’s Bay before plucky Jack sets a trap on Marazion beach and kills him. There is also a religious history: the island is consecrated ground, and for centuries pilgrims travelled to the Mount, by boat and on foot. It articulates itself as both remote and within arm’s reach. It is a destination, a word that shares the same Latin root, destinare, as another charged and potent word: destiny. It is a place upon which to project stories and dreams. Cornwall’s jewel sparkles with this currency of fantasy.
I tried to return a year ago, six months after I had moved to Cornwall, but I was not ready. I drove from Falmouth to Marazion only to sit in my car watching others walk the causeway. Feeling anti-social, I strode across Marazion beach to a cluster of rocks, released by the low tide to breathe and dry out. I stepped onto them, inspecting their limpets and their murky green seaweed. I did not know as I picked among them that these rocks were named: the Hogus rocks are all that remain of a prehistoric underwater volcano. Rocks to worry over if you are on a boat, trying to enter the Mount’s harbour.
I was not ready to return to the Mount because I was still fragile in my residency. I wanted to explore the Mount as a local, not as a tourist, but it was too strong a site for me to take on. I drove home confused over my behaviour, and cross with myself.
Sometimes, when I see too many layers to a place, they become entangled in my mind and a sense of apprehension begins to build. It was an old 1960s travel guide that helped to break me in. ‘St Michael’s Mount is a lofty, isolated mass of rock some 21 acres in extent, excluding the foreshore, separated from Marazion at high water by about five hundred yards of sea, but at low tide connected with the mainland by a stone causeway … At its case the Mount is slightly more than a mile in circumference. It rises to a height of over 230 feet above sea-level, where it is crowned by the picturesque castellated mansion of the St Aubyns.’ Ward Lock’s Red Guide to West Cornwall (1966) takes a firm, empirical grip on this island and reduces it to its dimensions and distances. Reassuring for visitors who are not sure what to make of what they see; reassuring for me. I read its yellowed pages about the Mount one evening, and resolve to travel there the next day.
So a year after stopping short at Hogus rocks, I walk the causeway on a March morning, the wind a blade on my hands and ears. It is busy; a jogger dressed in pink completes drills, running up and down the causeway cobbles, darting between walkers. An electric van slowly makes its way from the Mount to the mainland and people step aside to let it through. A father, cutting through from the beach, struggles with his pushchair over the seaweed and rock pools that line the thoroughfare. I reach the causeway’s end and climb the little incline to the lumpy cobbled square that I remember.
Everything is peaceful, pint-sized, picturesque. To the right of the square is the harbour, its two arms beckoning out towards Mounts Bay. A row of white cottages lines the harbour’s width, while behind them rises the rock upon which the castle sits, overlooking the comings and goings of visitors, the comings and goings of the tides. More arrivals drift in from the causeway, busying the square. Many, like me, mill around to get their bearings. This would not always have been a place to pause, I think, as the space would have been needed to haul the island’s trades into and out of boats: the precious metals tin and copper, wicker baskets full with fish. What would the pilgrims have done if they had arrived at an inopportune moment?
The island bustles with visitors; some are not sure where to go now they have made it this far. A French school group arrives, its students huddling in small groups, shouting and whooping to each other brazenly in their own language. Their teacher rounds up and leads his high-spirited class confidently along the face of the harbour, and they disappear into a building at the far end – presumably the ticket office for the castle. I’d like to walk along one of the harbour arms, but a man sits on a bench at its far end, peacefully eating a sandwich. The island shop it is then, which sits on the square. I open its heavy door, walk around its shelved and tabled offerings: homemade jams and chutneys, jewellery, toys, tea towels. A friendly face at the till, but I do not want a souvenir. I open the heavy door again, and am back where I started. Then I see a board propped up on a low wall. A short, guided tour of the island is beginning in five minutes.
“At one time in the Mount’s history, there were up to 300 people living here. There are 37 of us living on it now.” A group of us surround Bob, the genial and knowledgeable tour guide, as he lays out the island’s history for us. We learn that the causeway was first laid in the 15th century to enable pilgrims to walk over to and from the Mount, first as a disembarking point and then as a place of pilgrimage itself. The Mount Bay community were incentivised into this hard work by the promise that for every stone a man laid, a sin would be pardoned. Every building around us had a prior purpose: a boathouse, a pub, a laundry, a smithy, a carpenter’s workshop. He points to each building and speaks as if he had lived through the changes himself.
It is difficult to peel apart layers of history in so small a place, so Bob focuses on living memory. The island was the setting for Trevor Nunn’s film adaptation of Twelfth Night in 1995; one side of a cottage still features a huge painted map of Illyria that welcomes arrivals from the causeway, which we stare at again as we walk past. If he had not explained, perhaps some of us would have left this place assuming the mural had been there for hundreds of years. Something about the surface of the wall makes me think of tattoos.
We learn of the great storm of 1987, when the sea leapt over the harbour wall and pummelled on the front line of cottages. Those lucky enough to have raised their storm guards in time sat behind them, waiting it out; those who didn’t had the sea open their front doors. Bob draws our attention to the brass casts of royal footsteps embedded into the granite cobbles: those of Prince Charles and Camilla, who visited in 2010, the tiny size 3 cast of Queen Victoria, who visited in 1846, and the cast of Edward VII. Recent history has been imprinted across the island’s skin. I glance up at the Union Jack flying from the castle flag post.
Bob tells us towards the end of the tour how every islander, including the St Aubyn family who own the island and live in the “castellated mansion”, recently worked on a mural to dress up an ugly-looking wall. Each person had a square of the mural to decorate in his own hand. The result is a picture of the Mount among its flowers and greenery, a painting that bears the crease of its squares and the artistic efforts of every islander. What was it that John Locke had said, about mixing a man’s labour with something in its natural state to appropriate it as his own property? It is beginning to dawn on me, throughout this tour, that have come to the wrong place to search for a sense of belonging. This island belongs to its islanders, and to the abstract notion of the Crown. Between the Mount itself and the Union Jack billowing overhead, I struggle to find the middle ground. I can feel the entangling of layers once more as we continue to walk.
Am I a tourist, as I once was when I was a child? Has nothing changed? I stand amongst tourists, partaking in an actual guided tour. I’ve visited a destination with no purpose other than to learn about it. There is no possibility of me feeling local here. A third option slides into my reasoning: the reason why the causeway was first built, 600 years ago, and I wonder about the dividing line between pilgrimage and tourism. Cornwall is an attraction for both types of traveller. And there are parts of Cornwall, this land that so many people visit, that encourage visitation commercially or spiritually to the point where a sense of belonging to that place becomes highly, locally exclusive; the more visited a place, the less accessible it becomes on a different level. It is as if something detaches, turning its back if more is asked of it than temporary interest. Often I have had the heavy sense, as I walk along Sennen beach, or through Penzance, St Agnes and St Ives, that I will always be a tourist first in this land, and only – and conditionally – a local in the town where I live.
Bob rounds up the tour and the group drifts apart as gradually as it had first formed. I decide not to journey up to the castle, that there’s no time; I’d rather leave the Mount on the causeway rather than be cut off by the tide and have to climb into a boat. I think of the memory of my mother, fingering her watch, looking at the mainland. Already I am thinking of leaving to return home.
But this island is reminding me of other places, other scenes, now that I am alone, walking back to the causeway. The stones used to build the harbour wall remind me of the stones on Penzance’s promenade, not four miles from here, and the low-walled, private graveyard that I now approach reminds me of a graveyard I once walked through on St Mary, one of the Isles of Scilly. Something to do with the particular bushes and trees growing behind the low wall, and the presence of birds darting between bush and building connects these islands in my mind. The pull is instantaneous, serious; I am wishing I were elsewhere within this particular part of the archipelago, and a familiar ache creeps into my chest, something I used to feel often before I moved from the South East. How can this land promise me a sense of belonging in one way – geographically, maybe even geologically – but question that same belonging in another?
The Mount pulls people towards it, but it also lets them go. I step onto the causeway, moving quickly out of the way of another electric van, and follow a new pull. It is as if I am being dragged. All I can think of is how I would like to take a stroll on Penzance’s promenade, and gaze at this island from there.