Friday, September 2, 2011
The Lizard, Mount St. Michaels, and Land's End
Sunday, May 22
It rained during the night, but by breakfast time the clouds were clearing, and by 9:30 we looked out on a bright, windy, chilly, but sunshiny day. We drove along the A-30 highway, hunting The Lizard. The southernmost cape of land in England is called, for some mysterious reason, "The Lizard". It is most probably a corruption of the Cornish name "Lys Ardh", meaning "high court".
A short walk to the point meanders along high, jagged, almost vertical cliffs that drop about 200 feet to jagged rocks awash in the rolling breakers. Fat, succulent three-cornered leaves of iceplant cradle scattered large pale yellow flowers, and ragged carpets of brilliant magenta flowers cascade down the steep slopes as if a mad artist had flung buckets of day-glo paint over the edges of the cliffs.
A wide cobblestone path too steep to be called a road curves down sharply to a rocky spot at sea level where brave souls can launch small boats across surging mats of slippery seaweed to make their way through breaking surf between jagged rocks to open water.
Heading almost due north, we backtracked 10 miles to the town of Helston. Ten miles west brought us to Marazion and a long line of vehicles creeping through the narrow streets of town competing for parking places. After our own unsuccessful reconnaissance we paid the five-pound fee to squeeze into an already jammed parking lot next to the sea wall. A very broad, flat beach sloped gently to the white-capped waters of Mount's Bay where wind surfers and kite boarders swooped across the surface at unbelievable speeds. We joined the general drift of hundreds of other people along the hard sands in the opposite direction, toward the lumpy cobblestone causeway that curved out, barely a foot above water to Saint Michael's Mount a quarter of a mile from the shore.
Saint Michael's Mount, like its larger Normandy namesake Mont Saint Michele, is a triangular mini-mountain that juts up several hundred feet not far from the shore of a very shallow bay where low tides retreat far from the shore, but come rushing in as high tide approaches, turning them into islands.
Saint Michael's Mount was the site of an abbey as early as the eighth century, and was given to the Benedictines of the Norman abbey of Mont Saint Michel in the 1200's which seems to be how it got its name. The old Cornish name for the place was Karrek Loos y'n Koos meaning "grey rock in the woods". It may have been exactly that, for in November of 1099 it is recorded that a huge storm swept the ocean far inland. The backwash may have carried away the woods and the land, leaving only the solid grey rock outcropping remaining close to the new shoreline.
The small walled harbor of Saint Michael's Mount faces away from the sea. As we reached the island end of the causeway and entered the gate to the town we could see a number of boats tilted to the right or tilted to the left, their hulls resting on the sandy bottom of the drained harbor. If we stayed too long the boats, re-floated, would be our only way back to the mainland, since at high tide the causeway is completely submerged.
There was a music festival going on, and we stopped several times on the steep climb up the rough cobblestone path to the castle to listen to different groups. A group of Morris dancers was performing on the roof of the castle itself.
Although part of the castle is under the administration of the National Trust and is open to the public, the island and the castle have been owned by the same family since 1659 when it was sold to Colonel John St. Aubyn. His descendants are still resident on five private floors of the castle.
We found our way back across the causeway long before the incoming tide, navigated our way out of the crowded car park, and turning left, headed toward the town of Penzance.
The harbor there, like the beach at Marazion slopes very gently toward the sea. All of the water drains out of the basin at low tide, leaving all the moored boats sitting on the mud. Consequently many of the boats have two keels, one on each side instead of a single keel, providing a solid two-legged base when the tide is out. Other boats are simply propped up each side of the boat with sticks. Those that have neither simply tip over as the tide goes out.
Navigating toward Lands End without consulting a map, by keeping the ocean on my left and selecting roads that ran close to the shore, I next found my way to the delightful village of Mousehole.
It was aptly named, for the twisting, steep streets between the crowding houses were so narrow that at times there were only inches to spare on both sides of the car, making me feel as if I were climbing through a mouse's burrow. When I mentioned to the barman at the inn where we stayed on Sunday night that we'd driven through Mousehole he looked puzzled for a few seconds and then said, "Oh! You mean MOE-zul!". That made me think of the tale our friends have enjoyed telling about their travels in England many years ago. They were looking for a town with the very French spelling of Beaulieu, and asked for directions, using the French pronunciation bo-leeYUH. After some confusion on the part of the listeners, the reply was, "Oh! You must mean BYOO-lee!"
Leaving Mousehole behind did not mean that the roads suddenly got wider. As I hugged the right side of the road close enough that leaves and stems and the blossoms of small wildflowers tickled that side of the car I could also hear the other side of the car being caressed gently from that side as well. Not as romantic an image as one might think, for directly behind the encroaching greenery was the solid Cornish stone of five foot high walls.
A lucky missed turn brought us along a similar road etched into the side of a steep wooded hill to Lamorna Cove where the few stone houses seemed to blend into the stoney background of rocks surrounding the tiny harbor.
I backtracked, took another turn, and found that the pavement had disappeared, to be replaced with gravel tracks separated with a green high crown down the middle. It seemed to be going in the right direction, so I followed it between the clutching green walls that were beginning to crowd even closer until the point where even the gravel faded away beneath the green overgrowth. Although I could see that the now almost invisible track pointed toward the tops of chimneys only a few hundred yards away, I was concerned that I would actually scratch the sides of the brand-new rental car or get stuck. I backed to the last place wide enough and turned around.
Now on a paved road that was at least wide enough for one and a half cars, it seemed like a proper highway, although it was still narrow enough that meeting a car traveling the opposite direction would be occasion for one or the other backing up until a wider passing spot was found.
I had seen on the map a very tiny, barely noticeable symbol that designated a prehistoric site. Several cars by the side of the road indicated to me that there was something of interest, and on investigation I found a small stone marker labeled "The Merry Maidens". That sounded promising! I inserted, rather than parked the car in the tiny bit of space remaining, and climbing over a stone stile, we walked up a path across a meadow where long grass rippled in the strong wind like waves on a stormy sea.
Less than three hundred yards from the road we found a circle of ancient standing stones. Each of the nineteen stones had rough edges, hewn in prehistoric times into blocks perhaps two and a half feet wide and about a foot thick. I couldn't tell the length, since the blocks that must have weighed a couple of tons each had been transported to this site and then tipped up into holes that were filled in to hold them upright. Each was about twelve feet from its neighboring stones on either side, all of them arranged into a perfect circle. Nobody knows who erected this arrangement of stones nor when, though it had to have been several thousand years ago.
The headland at Land's End has all the dubious charm of Myrtle Beach, North Carolina or Gatlinburg, Tennessee with arcades, 3D movie screens, trinket-filled shops, and a slightly seedy-looking hotel. Land's End for those interested in geology and geography is more interesting.
The westernmost point of land in Great Britain, its dark rocky cliffs and jagged dark outcroppings farther out plunge down into white waves crashing in from the Atlantic Ocean. A quarter mile offshore the Land's End Lighthouse clutches the outermost black rocky reef and flashes a warning to heavy laden ships plowing west and east though big seas that once in awhile send tons of water splashing over their bows.
It was quite late in the afternoon by the time we left Land's End and headed back up the peninsula. We stopped to inquire at several bed and breakfast guest houses before we were successful at finding a place to stay for the night in the village of Lelant near St. Ives.
We settled in to the Badger Inn and pub for dinner just after sunset a little before 9:00 pm, and then made our way upstairs for a good last night's sleep in Cornwall before starting the long drive back across southern England to Gatwick and the flight home.