Encircled by a rich history of magic, myth and mystery, St Michael’s Mount’s modern identity is a living, breathing community, castle and garden.
Image courtesy of Mike Newman
An important landmark for those spiritual seekers, who say its unique energy is thanks to age-old ley lines which course under the sea and cross at its heart, St Michael’s Mount has featured in seafaring tales from as far back as 495AD. From mermaids and apparitions of St Michael to tales of giants and Bronze Age settlers, the Mount has inspired storytellers through the ages. By the time of the Norman conquest in 1066, St Michael’s Mount had come into the possession of the monks of its sister isle, Mont St Michel in Normandy, and in the 12th century it was their hands that built the church and priory that lie at the heart of the castle today.
Image courtesy of Claire Braithwaite
Fast forward through the annals of time to the English Civil War and we meet the St Aubyn family for the first time, who are now in the fourth-generation custodianship of the Mount. Colonel John St Aubyn was a Parliamentarian who, in 1647, was appointed Captain of St Michael’s Mount with a remit to secure the peace in the neighbouring area. Twelve years later he bought the Mount from the Bassett family, who had been temporarily impoverished by erecting extensive defences on the island for the Royalist cause. His son – also John - was made a baronet, and was the first of five successive Sir John St Aubyns.
It wasn’t until Victorian times that the 5th Sir John sufficiently revived family fortunes to build a wing onto the castle, and on his retirement in 1887 he was made Lord St Levan. It was his grandson, the third Lord St Levan, who gave St Michael’s Mount to the National Trust, under a unique arrangement whereby the family have a 999 year lease to live in the castle and a licence to operate the visitor business.
Images courtesy of Claire Braithwaite | Bottom right image courtesy of Mike Newman
St Michael’s Mount is unique in that the castle itself is not only the family home of the St Levan’s, but that the island is also a thriving community. Long before the visitors make their way across the cobbled causeway or journey by boat at high tide, the island’s families are beginning daily life. Children ready themselves to make their journey across to the mainland to school, while their parents help to unload goods onto the quayside, preparing for the day ahead. The 30 islanders that live and work together on the Mount are a close-knit community who embrace its remote beauty while tackling the challenges that island life can throw at them. The islanders very much see themselves as stewards of the Mount’s traditions, preserving its past, present and future.
The Western Terrace - Claire Braithwaite
The north side of the Mount, with its snaking causeway and picture-perfect harbour is familiar to most but it’s the southern side, away from public gaze, that is perhaps most fascinating. Beyond the castle walls exists a stunning terraced garden, tumbling down towards the sea. You would be forgiven for thinking that this would be too harsh and hostile an environment for plants to survive. In fact, the granite rock on which the castle stands sentinel acts a giant radiator, absorbing heat by day and releasing it by night. The micro climate it creates nurtures Puya, Agave and Aloe’s that grow out of the very bedrock itself. The blue flower heads of the Agapanthus nod in the breeze, flourishing amongst a carpet of rosemary, lavender and Coronilla that tumble down the terraces filling the air with their glorious scent.
A series of walled gardens protect the more vulnerable plants, including the yellow blooms of the Medicago arborea that can be found in the Middle Walled Garden that were plucked and placed into the wedding bouquet of the first Lady St Levan – its cuttings have been used in family bouquets ever since. The West Terrace is one of the hottest places in the garden, with temperatures reaching up to 35 degrees centigrade.
Originally designed for domestic enjoyment, the garden attracts nearly 80,000 visitors from April to September. To safeguard the delicate tapestry of paths, terraces and steps from too much erosion, open days are restricted, but worthy of noting in order to experience this bold combination of colour and form with many of the Mount’s collection originating from far-flung climes such as Mexico and South Africa.
Earlier this year, the vacancy for the role of St Michael’s Mount’s Head Gardener went viral. Hopeful candidates applied from across the world, all yearning for a life on the Mount. It went, appropriately, to Darren Little, whose formative years were spent on the island. Darren spent his childhood roaming the Mount and making most of the available space around him, from water activities to climbing trees. On leaving school, he moved away to further his career in horticulture, working at local gardens and nurseries to gain further experience and qualifications in horticulture. In 2000, he was approached by St Michael’s Mount to return as a gardener and to live on the island; the rest, as they say, is history.
Head Gardener, Darren Little - image courtesy of Mike Newman
Now responsible for managing both the gardens and grounds, Darren and his team carry out a range of skilled horticulture work: “Being Head Gardener on the Mount has always been my ultimate goal and to have the honour of looking after such an amazing and original garden is incredible. I enjoy every aspect of the tasks that are required to maintain the gardens but my most favourite has to be the amazing views,” says Darren. His favourite being “from the eastern pillbox looking up to the castle with the gardens in the foreground. Every time I walk around the island, I always stop and look up through the gardens to the castle. Every day is different, whether it be the weather, flowering plants or the cloud formation above the castle.”
Images courtesy of Claire Braithwaite
Darren explains that St Michael’s Mount’s unique climate comes in part from the mild Gulf Stream that brings warmth to the gardens, making frosts a rarity. They also face the sun throughout the day with the addition of reflected light from the sea: “That’s how we as gardeners can push our boundaries and grow some incredible plants. It’s amazing that these lush gardens prosper, given the sea conditions in the winter pounding the shores and the salty winds which blow in across the gardens.”
For Darren, life on the island couldn’t be bettered, but he admits: “It does take a little bit of time to get used to. You have to take into account the tides and weather conditions, especially if you are heading out for the day. During the day it can get very busy, but you know that later at the end of the day you will get the island back to yourself. This is when you can enjoy and make most of it.”
Image courtesy of Claire Braithwaite
Darren and his team work in all weathers to care for the garden and surrounding landscape. With skills ranging from propagation to pruning, to abseiling down the rockface, the team enhance the garden’s unique atmosphere and beauty. This May will see a unique opportunity for visitors to discover the Mount’s sub-tropical garden for themselves. Darren and his team will be conducting tours around the garden, imparting their unique knowledge and sharing this very special place.