By happy chance, this summer I visited both Saint Michael’s Mount off the south coast of Cornwall and Mont Saint-Michel off the north coast of Brittany – two vowels and one-hundred-and-seventy-seven miles of sea apart.
These islands are both connected by causeways to their mainlands, and both topped by monasteries; the English one was modelled after the French one following William the Conqueror’s invasion. They continued to be connected until the Cornish abbey was seized by the English crown in the thirteenth century. Since then, they have gone quite separate ways.
Since the tide was in and covering the causeway, we crossed to St. Michael’s Mount on the little ferry from Marazion. It was on this very boat that I missed my once-in-lifetime chance to marry my way to a castle – the Mount is still partly owned by the St Aubyn family and we’re pretty sure we were sat next to the heirs. I’ve read enough romantic novels to know what I should have done, but failed to lose my hat or faint attractively – which is a shame, as the island is completely charming.
A few old buildings are clustered round the little port – one of them has a mural of the island painted on a side wall (it was only painted in 1995 for the filming of Twelfth Night, but it is based on a sixteenth century map so it is in some small way authentic). The rest of the island is wood and rock. A short puff up an ancient stone path brings you to the medieval church and castle.
Unlike its French cousin, St. Michael’s Mount now feels like a fortified home rather than a monastery. The fourteenth-century priory church remains, but it was the Tudor great hall which impressed me, peppered with coats of arms and stained glass and ringed by a plaster frieze based on a hunting ballad (you can even spot an ostrich being speared).
Outside, cannons stare out to land and sea – the island was a Cavalier stronghold during the Civil War; the first beacon warning of the approaching Spanish Armada was lit here; and earlier still it was besieged during the Wars of the Roses. Below the walls, elegant private gardens cling to the rock. It is a neat and beautiful little haven.
Mont Saint-Michel does everything on a far grander scale. Even its mythos is grander: it is said that the Archangel Michael appeared to a bishop in the eighth century and told him to found a church there (in England the Archangel just showed himself to some fishermen). It is a spectacular sight, a spiky hummock in a vast empty bay.
The main street of Mont Saint Michel curves around the island, tumbling you up through a press of uninspiring shops and restaurants. Best to keep looking skywards at the overhanging half-timbered houses and ancient monastery walls. I accidentally double-exposed my shot of the street, but perhaps it gives a good impression of its bustling narrowness.
The medieval abbey crowns the island, itself topped by a statue of St. Michael. From the ground, he is nothing more than a point of bright gold, but there is a copy inside so that you can admire his elegant wings and pointed toes.
Inside the monastery it is cool and green, the high main vault of the abbey followed by columned halls and cloisters. It is vast and almost forest-like. Little of the peace and quiet of the monastery remains except in the solemnity of these stones.
The name, shape and situation of these two islands invite comparison, but the places themselves somewhat resist it. Despite their historical association, they are so different in scale, and each is steeped in their own particular history. Now that I have put them side by side, it seems a bit silly to have done so, but it is also quite pleasing to reforge a broken link that is many hundreds of years old.
p.s. in case you were wondering, the pictures in this post were taken with two different cameras: St. Michael’s Mount all digital, Mont Saint-Michel a mixture of digital and film.