Truro is a great town for several reasons. It is a fairly nice sized town, so offered not only good accommodations, but also shopping and a cathedral where we could attend a service at some point during our trip. But, it is also within an hour of some of the most famous tourist spots in Cornwall.
Just 50 miles from Truro is the end of the world. OK, when the world was a much larger place, and people were unable to pop on an airplane and fly to America, it seemed like the end of the world.
Land’s End, now a small resort community, is the western most point in England. When I say resort community, let’s be honest here, I mean tourist trap. It only costs £3 to park your car and gain entry into the area, but once inside, they offer plenty of opportunities to leave your money with them. It is worth it though, because the attractions are exciting and informative. I especially enjoyed the one called “The Last Labyrinth.” This was a multimedia presentation, including slides, holograms, moving sets and flashing lights, they even included the spray of mist from the storm. You heard the legends of smugglers, pirates and shipwrecks. It even told the story of Lyoness, the mythical land from the King Arthur legends. It is believed that the Isles of Scilly (pronounced silly, don’t you dare call them the Scilly Isles), now 21 miles off shore, were once connected to the Mendip Peninsula. In the legend, Lyoness just disappeared under the sea. Fisherman tell of being able to hear church bells as they bring in the catch of the day, and on a clear day, you can see evidence of a lost city below the water.
The coast of Cornwall is very jagged, steep rock cliffs and treacherous waters. This is a very dangerous place to navigate with a ship, and yet Cornwall is rich in natural resources that have been traded for millennia. There are lighthouses to guide the ships, but shipwrecks are unavoidable, especially in a place where the weather is so unpredictable (yes, it was cloudy, again). The Last Labyrinth told of how the villagers along the coast would watch for the ships, because if one crashed (one quote I read was, “We don’t pray for a wreck, but we thank the Lord when it happens.”), they had the right to scavenge whatever they could. The ship’s crew would try to protect as much as they could, and the taxman would be sent to collect duty on the booty. But these people were sharp and knew how to hide everything until it was safe. These towns had little means of support, but the people wore clothes of fine linen. These are the truths behind the legends; desperate people, desperate measures.
There is a legend that there lived on the cliffs of Cornwall a witch, who would shine a light as if she were directing the ships to a safe harbour, but she was directing them to their deaths. In all reality, it was someone from the town, who would try to cause a shipwreck. Pirates really existed, but I learned that many times they were paid by the king to get his share of the products. Modern day legends include amazing sea rescues.
Other attractions included an exhibit about the Air Sea Rescue Services. Also there is an exhibit called the Relentless Sea, about the awesome power of the sea. There is a farm with a petting zoo, and craftsmen at work, furnished, as it would have been 200 years ago.
The fifth attraction is called “Miles of Memories”, and is an exhibit chronicling the people who have walked, biked or driven from Land’s End to John O’Groats. Who is John O’Groats? It isn’t a he, it’s a where. John O’Groats is the farthest town from Land’s End on the British Isle. British people like to walk. One day, someone thought it would be fun to walk from one end of Britain to the other. So, he did. And every since then, people have used some fascinating forms of transport to get them the 874 miles from ‘end to end’ (or slightly more, depending on the path they took).
We went to the edge of the land and gazed at the incredible beauty of the coastline. Seagulls soared over heard, and the crashing waves beat endlessly below. Our in the distance you can see the Longships Lighthouse, and some protruding rocks. I climbed down the cliffside, because a photographer will do just about anything to get the perfect shot. With each step came a more beautiful view. The only thing that stopped me from going further down the slope was my children, who got more and more nervous with each passing moment. We took a moment to cross a suspension bridge that hung perilously over a ravine. We went to the “First and Last House”, a building at the end of the world. Back at the complex, we bought a few postcards, and then headed on our way to our next adventure.
In 1928, a group of friends decided to put on the play, “A Midsummer Nights Dream”. Among those friends was a 35-year-old woman, named Rowena Cade. She lived a comfortable childhood, acted in theatre, married and was widowed during WWI, before purchasing the Minack headland for £100. She built a house for herself and several members of her family.
They staged the play in a secluded field. Rowena worked behind the scenes, making costumes and props. The play was such a hit, the group decided to do it again in 1929. By the next year, the costumes no longer fit, so they decided to do a new play, “The Tempest”. Rowena offered the use of her land, near the bay, because the coastline would offer more appropriate scenery. With the help of two Cornish craftsmen, Rowena carved a theatre into the cliffs above Minack Rock. The group staged “The Tempest” in 1932. Over the years, improvements and extensions were made to the theatre, and plays were staged each year. The theatre closed during the war years. In 1944, the Minack was chosen as a location for “Love Story”, but storms made filming impossible, so they created a mock up of the set inside a studio. After the war, the theatre was repaired. It continues to present plays throughout the summer months, for a reasonable admission price, and great plays like “The Merry Wives of Windsor”, “Kiss Me Kate”, “Fiddler on the Roof”. Since they are in the midst of their season, stagehands were running around fixing props, painting sets.
The seats of the theatre are built right into the side of the cliff. Some are intricately carved, with the names and dates of plays performed at the theatre. As you sit in the seats and look toward the stage, you can see the constant movement of the waves in the water below. The plays run, rain or shine, so I imagine it can be quite an interesting experience. Unfortunately, the day we were there, they did not have a matinee, so we were unable to attend a performance. But it is something I would like to do someday. Maybe when you come to visit. We bought some ice cream and postcards and left Minack, anxious for our final destination of the day, St. Michael’s Mount.
St. Michael's Mount
This castle/monastery/stately home is built on an island and casts an imposing presence on Mount bay, which can be seen from hilltops all over Cornwall. The Mount is rife with legend, including the name. According to legend, in the year 495, the Archangel St. Michael appeared to some fisherman, who saw him standing on a ledge of rock on the mount. Since St. Michael is often pictured in religious and poetic imagery as fighting the Devil, many high places were dedicated to him.
St. Michael’s mount was known as a port and trading market. It provided a central location for merchants from the continent, interested in tin from Cornwall, as well as gold and copper from Ireland. There is some question if St. Michael’s Mount is the port of Ictis, written in the histories, but the alternatives are not probable. Archeological evidences of Iron Age pottery, a sewer trench and six possible round houses, showed that a community from the Ictis period existed on the Mount. They also found a Neolithic flint arrowhead (circa 3500 BC).
A place as dramatic as this would tend to be the subject of many legends. It is amazing to read the accounts of these ancient legends and realize that these are the roots of the tales we know and love today. You know the story of Jack and the Beanstalk? Well, It is based on the story of Jack the Giant Killer. There is an ancient map of Cornwall that shows giants, wearing a loose tunic and soft hat, perched atop the biggest mountains of Cornwall. Cormoran lived atop St. Michael’s Mount. He would wade ashore and steal the sheep and cattle of the townspeople to eat. One night, Jack, a local Cornish boy, went to the mount, dug a hole and at sunrise blew a horn to awaken the giant. Cormoran could not see Jack or the pit, so rushed down the hill and fell in to his death.
Another legend connected with St. Michael’s Mount is the story of Tristan and Isolde, a romantic love story that has become linked to the story of King Arthur. But we’ll hear of King Arthur in later logues.
The earliest records of St. Michael’s Mount have been lost, and some documents appear to be false. It was for many years a priory connected to Mont St. Michael, a religious community off the coast of France. Since the early years of the priory were spent with Britons and the Normans at war, the poor community at St. Michael’s Mount was often under suspicion due to their allegiance. The king would seize their wealth, but then during times of peace, would return that wealth to the mother-house. The mount suffered an earthquake and the plague, and never became a wealthy community. In the 14th century, King Henry V confiscated the mount from the Normans for the last time and gave it to an English Abbey.
During the Middle Ages, the priory was a place of pilgrimage. The lantern at the top of the priory, which was used as a guiding light for fisherman on dark nights, has become known as St. Michael’s Seat. Pilgrims would perform the very dangerous task of climbing to the top of the tower to sit on the lantern as an act of faith. There are also accounts of miraculous healings.
The Mount was also a place of war, being involved in several major conflicts including territorial fights and the Civil War. Colonel St. Aubyn was nominated in 1647 to be Captain of the Mount. He bought the Mount in 1659, although the family did not live there until the middle of the nineteenth century. King Charles the II gave the Colonel’s son the title of baronet. The Mount was gifted to the National Trust with a large endowment in 1954, although the St. Aubyn family still lives there today.
We approached the Mount from the town of Marazion. Since it is an island, boat or a causeway, which was built, in the early 15th century, can only approach it. The causeway is underwater while the tide was above the causeway so we needed to take a boat to the island. It was a rather humourous, but somewhat shady deal, these boatmen. They pushed off from the loading point, into the bay, then asked for payment for the ride to the Mount. The cost was minimal, so we didn’t mind, but I couldn’t help wondering what they would have done if we had no cash. When we arrived at the harbour, we stepped off the boat onto the breakwater, a retaining wall that was built to protect the port from rough sees. The house sits atop a hill, and the closer we got to that hill, the more the house appears to reach toward heaven itself. As we stepped through the gate into the grounds of this wonder, we realized that this was going to be a test of our endurance. The hill was steep and long, a cobbled pathway along rocky cliffs. Along the way, our attention was drawn to the well, reputed to be the pit where Cormoran fell to his death. All along the pathway were wild flowers and hydrangeas. We finally reached a battlement, and took a moment to rest. I was a bit out of breath, but the view at this point was awesome. We could see the town of Marazion, as well as Penzance to the west. We still had a large hill to climb to enter into the building.
It is difficult to date the building of the castle, as it was built over centuries, but the intrinsic value of the setting was always taken into account, so the building style remained constant. We wandered through several rooms furnished in several different periods. This house was similar to others we’ve visited, and this travelogue gets longer by the minute, so I will just point out a few of the more interesting bits. The Chevy Chase room (no not the actor) was once the old Refectory (dining room) of the monks. It is named the Chevy Chase room because there is a plaster frieze of hunting scenes based on the medieval Ballot of Chevy Chase. In one alcove were some stained glass windows, which had been purchased from all over the world for the reconstruction of the church, but were not used. Rather than allow them to be hidden from view, the St. Aubyns had the windows displayed. The windows range in date from the 14th century to the 17th century.
Another place of interest was the south terrace. From here, we could see down to the gardens five stories below. From the tower, I photographed the harbour and the causeway, which was just coming into view with the retreat of the tide. The people almost appear to be walking on water. We walked around the castle to the north terrace, peering into more rooms with antiques that would look really great in my house. Near the door to the church, there is a small black rock in the wall. This is the Wishing Stone, said to be the highest point of the natural rock of the island. The legend is that if you touch the rock and make a wish, it will come true.
Next we went into the church, which is still regularly used for public worship. The present church was built in the 14th century and restored in the 19th century. We took a moment to look at the treasures in the church, and to say a prayer of thanks. Near the organ is a secret door that leads to a basement where a human skeleton, 8 feet tall, was found. The real Cormoran, perhaps?
The next rooms, the Blue Drawing rooms, were a lovely shade of blue with Rococo furniture and a huge fireplace. It is said that the 5th Baronet had a bit of a gambling problem and hid in the chimney of this fireplace when his bookie came to call. A chambermaid came into the room and said, “Sir, you leg showeth.” And he promptly raised it out of sight. Throughout the tour, we viewed collections of arms, paintings, and other memorabilia from the history of the castle and Cornwall. We left the building and made our way down the hill. We spent some time in the shop and bought several books and more postcards. Since the tide was low, we walked back to the car using the causeway. It is made of cut stone, which is a bit worse for the wear, after all, it faces the constant pounding of waves. We could see several places where the stone has definitely been repaired, although I imagine it is a constant battle to keep the causeway maintained.