ST MICHAEL'S MOUNT, a rocky tidal island in Mounts Bay, is one of Cornwall's most famous landmarks.
It lies just under three miles down the coast from Penzance, opposite the former fishing village of Marazion. Walking along the sea wall, sandwiched between the railway and the beach, makes for an easy and increasingly scenic stroll. But to walk the last few minutes out to the island relies on the tide being right, and the causeway being exposed, otherwise the local boatmen's services need to be sought.
The causeway is made from chunks of flattened granite, laid together like a mosaic, and snakes its way across the bay. Turn up at random and it'll probably be submerged beneath the waves, because it's only uncovered for about two hours either side of low tide, and even that interval varies, occasionally (at neap tides) being barely exposed at all. I picked my dates for visiting Cornwall very much with St Michael's Mount in mind, partly to hit the spring tides when the range is greatest, but also because the National Trust don't open up the castle until mid-March.
I crossed with a light herd of daytrippers, a pair of joggers, and some particularly excitable children. At one point we had to step aside to allow one of the island's white vans to pass, taking advantage of the ebbing tide to bring in provisions, or perhaps more ice creams for the shop. A narrow band of rockpools lay to either side, all of which would have dried out before my return a couple of hours later.
The island has long belonged to the St Aubyn family, whose castle and grounds take up the majority of the acreage. But the foreshore by the harbour has a couple of streets of houses, where the families of staff and gardeners live, and a boatyard, and a couple of former pubs. One of the old cottages is now a visitors centre, with informative displays and a video to watch - which is especially useful if you're not going to be able to walk up the hill. Alongside look out for twin rails poking beneath a gate and terminating on the quayside, this the lower end of a tramway which still hauls supplies (and definitely not people) through the rockface and up to the castle.
There is always theharbour to walk round, or almost round, following two curving stone arms. While most visitors busied themselves taking selfies at the far end, I spent my time watching a JCB dredging the drainedmud and tried to picture how different it must all look at high tide when the sea's six metres higher. At such times the islanders have a unique amphibious vehicle they use to reach the mainland, which you might see parked up beside the ticket office. Elsewhere are two gift shops, a cafe and a proper sit-down restaurant, perhaps as an acknowledgement that there isn't all that much to see unless you pay extra for admission to the private bits.
The private bits are amazing, not least how you get to them. The Pilgrim's Steps are rough and uneven, increasingly so as they ascend the island's rocky core, until it feels like you're scrambling over natural granite rather than any manmade attempt at stairs. The castle perches right at the top, and must have a golf-buggy-friendly back entrance somewhere, otherwise there's no way the 87 year-old Queen could have made it up here on her last visit. What a view there is though, gazing down over the full sweep of the bay... ideal for a gun battery as well as more plaintive admiration.
Here Lord St Levan welcomes you into his home, or at least a National Trust volunteer does, directing you through a series of historic wood-panelled rooms. Portraits of the family are interspersed with keepsakes and vintage objects, it soon becoming clear that the family has a thing for maps of Cornwall, and for weapons of various types. The most impressive room is called Chevy Chase, the refectory when this was a medieval priory, with a splendid plaster frieze depicting hunting scenes. The chapel is even older, matching that at Mont St Michel across the Channel, and is still used for Sunday services during the summer months.
One of the best parts comes when you emerge onto the South Terrace, which is essentially the roof, offering another opportunity to peer excitedly over the edge. Down below are the castle gardens, an intricatesub-tropical delight, but which can only be explored at ground level from April onwards. Don't rush back inside the building too soon. The St Aubyn family live in the East Wing beneath your feet, which helps to explain why through one window I spotted a pair of skateboards hanging up over a banister. It's a privilege to be allowed in, indeed allowed across to this iconic location, tide permitting.