Going by the Dogs

You can get to the periodic island of St. Michael’s Mount in several ways. 

You can go by bus to the town of Marazion and walk across the causeway at low tide when the island is not really an island - or you can go by boat across the water when the sea level rises.  I suppose you could also go over by helicopter or on the back of one of those giant seagulls that haunt the Cornish coast. 

But I recommend going by dog – or, more precisely, by the dogs.

I think the best way to reach the island is by walking along the coastal path from Penzance.  You feel a greater sense of anticipation as the pointed mount and the turreted castle rise up and grow in size every step of the way; you look out at the majesty of the sea; and you go by the dogs.  Lots of happy, excited dogs.

At low tide every day, the locals head out onto the uncovered sand and stones to walk their pets.  The dog owners immediately unleash their animal friends to let them sniff the sea floor and run in what may be the longest dog-friendly park in England.

The combination of the sea air, the sight of the approaching island castle, and the unleashed jubilation on the beach amplify the experience of a visit to the Mount, and the five-mile walk stretches it out allowing you time to appreciate the interactions between humans and nature that have made this place special. Though we enjoyed other parts of the South West Coastal Path when in Mousehole and St. Ives, I think of St. Michael's Mount first when recalling the seaside trail.

The Mount is the best known of a few dozen English islands that one can reach on foot at low tide.  It has a unique history, topography, appearance, and an ambiance that was boosted in the 11th century after Norman invaders noted its physical similarity to Mont St. Michel, a tidal island and religious complex off the north coast of France. This prompted the Normans to invite Benedictine monks to the far tip of Cornwall, and here they established a twin, albeit smaller, abbey across the channel from the French original.

Fortifications and other structures were added over the centuries as the island and its stone buildings passed through many hands.  Today, it is shared between the National Trust and the descendants of the St. Aubyn family who acquired it in 1640.

St. Michael’s Mount has lots to entertain visitors.  It shows the marks of many important points in England’s past from the 17th century Civil War to World War II; it rates designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest because of its geology; and it even holds a privileged place in folklore as the legendary home of Cormoran, the ogre whose demise came at the hands of “Jack the Giant Killer.”

All of this history, recorded and imagined, flows from the site’s unusual physical shape, its natural surroundings, and the human response to them.  Dog owners and dogs who take advantage of the changing tides to make their daily lives more enjoyable and interesting build on this tradition.

You are reminded of this and, again, have a richer experience visiting St. Michael’s Mount if you walk to it along the coast, smell the sea air, and go by the dogs.

October 2018