08 Jul St. Michael’s Way: Following the Footsteps of Pilgrims in Cornwall
My first welcome came from the front of a small black and white pamphlet set near the entrance of a seaside chapel on the northwestern coast of Cornwall. “Welcome to St. Uny Church in the Parish of Lelant,” it read.
The church, dedicated to an Irish saint who came to St. Uny in the 6th century, marks the beginning of an ancient pilgrimage route: St. Michael’s Way, or Forth Sen Myghal in Cornish, a Celtic language. It ends at the south coast at St. Michael’s Mount, honoring the archangel of high places and protection, who appeared to a group of Cornish fisherman there in 495 AD. Between these parentheses of two seas, coasts, and saints, the north-south path weaves through the interior. At just 13 miles, it‘s a short trail compared to other treks, but one dense with folklore, prehistory, the abodes of giants and, as it turns out, a glimpse of eternity.
St. Uny Church had already welcomed me before I saw the pamphlet. Its greeting came the moment I stepped through the cast iron gate to the churchyard and cemetery grounds. A thicket of oak tree branches arched overhead and in them I saw the flashes of blue, yellow and white titmice tumbling in acrobatic formations, hanging upside-down momentarily to grab at insects and then flitting off. A red-breasted European robin flew to a branch at eye level. Her large brown eyes stared at me from behind her narrow needle beak as she puffed out her small, round body. She flew off to my right as I closed the gate and I followed her to where she landed: a tombstone with just one word—sacred—visible from the thick growth of ferns and wild flowers. That word said with precision what this beauty was all about.
The building’s thick, protective walls and elegant, Gothic arches were all built from local gray granite, and set against a stunning backdrop: Tall, wild, pale-green grasses swayed like ocean waves in the wind and dropped down to craggy, slate-toned cliffs, then a sweeping cream-white beach, and out to a cobalt-turquoise sea.
It was a perfect way to start a pilgrimage trek into the wilds of Cornwall. Before our small group of friends set off, my Cornish-American friend Sarah had asked us each to set our intentions.
“To experience the beauty and magic of this path,” I wrote in my journal, excited to walk a route that humans had traversed for millennia.
Since the Neolithic, some 6,000 years ago, journeyers took this path across the Cornish peninsula as the quickest and safest way from one coast to the other: The alternative, to sail around Land’s End further west, was renowned for its treacherous waters. Then, in the Middle Ages, pilgrims and adventurers from Wales and Ireland came to Lelant by ship, walked south to St. Michael’s Mount, and took another ship to the Mount’s twin site in northern France, Mont Saint Michel, where they walked to Saint James’ tomb in Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain.
A WELL AND A SENTINEL
We stepped into these many and ancient footsteps and took the dirt trail from St. Uny down to the cliffs, sand, and sea toward Carbis Bay. There, hidden in the gray-brown cliffs, we encountered another glimpse of magic: an ancient Iron Age wishing well. I climbed up a steep, two-foot wide footpath that had been carved into the side of the vertical stone wall and knew that any person who came with a wish had to have been fiercely dedicated. I uttered a silent prayer for wellness and peace but left no material offering: the British Pilgrimage Trust asks that visitors offer tokens that won’t pollute the water, suggesting high quality silver similar to offerings made by Iron Age Celts, or organic, natural fiber and dye cloth to tie to a nearby branch.
The trail then snaked along the cliff’s rim and turned south into the interior: a landscape of rolling green hills dotted with granite outcroppings, and wild oak forests thick with ferns, early summer flowers, and tangled vines.
We passed through patchwork fields, rising and falling along hills, guided by a distant, lone figure. The standing stone of Beersheba towered at over ten-feet high, set in the landscape between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago. Its purpose lost through time, it seemed a sentinel marking passage to the next place of magic and beauty: a thick stand of oak whose branches interlinked in an enclosed canopy above the path.
As we entered I saw bright pink foxgloves with honey bees working their way along the blooms, their sound magnified in the forest tunnel. Local lore speaks of this spot as a place still inhabited by nature spirits and fairies. We walked in silence, as was our tendency on this trail from the beginning, and nimbly made our way to the other end of the green tunnel. I was sure I detected the faint smell of honeysuckle and the fluttering of oak leaves — even when there was no wind.
LAND OF GIANTS
The granite of St. Michael’s Way is fabled to be the handy work of giants. Two of them, Cormoran, and Cormoran’s wife, Cormelian built and lived in St. Michael’s Mount, carrying granite from the interior and piling it in Mount Bay. A third, Trecobben, lived in the center of our path on Trencrom Hill, from where he could see both shores. We would soon encounter his abode — but not before encountering the remnants of his ancient amusements.
Leaving the magical forest, we came upon Bowl Rock. Legend attributed its placement to Trecobben’s and Cormoran’s love for bowling. I approached where the giant’s ball last lay after a fine game, in the nook of a glen of trees and undergrowth. Like Beersheba, it too was made of gray granite and covered with tree sap, meadow dew, and light green lichen. At twice my height, it towered over me. I pressed my hands against its perfectly round, smooth surface and leaned in. A remarkable scent flooded my nose: first pine, then leather, pepper, lemon, and then leather again, almost as if giant hands had recently handled it for a game after dinner.
Yet another forest glen of sacred oaks led past Bowl Rock to Trencrom Hill, Trecobben’s residence. It was covered in more smooth, gray boulders, green ferns, and pink feathery heathers. The path led around the hill’s base, and the moment we arrived and were deciding what to do — take the path or climb to the summit — a local woman walking her speckled black and white hunting dog appeared.
“You have to climb up to the summit,” she said. “You’ll see why.” She then disappeared into the forest glen down below from which we’d come.
Up we went, weaving between the weathered stones, some with dips and crevasses that looked as if they had been shaped and set there by human — or giant — hands. One large stone facing the sky had three large bowl shapes carved into their surface, the right size for a giant. One outcropping looked like a stack of pancakes ready to eat when Trecobben returned. I scurried past.
Reaching the hill’s summit I understood why the woman urged us to climb. I saw the dark and light green patchwork of fields tumbling to the dark blue sea of the southern coast. At the very bottom was the beacon for sailors and pilgrims alike. Saint Michael’s Mount stood tall, surrounded by water at high tide, the castle and church reflecting golden light from their stained glass windows. I felt a jolt of awe and joy rush through my body and knew why medieval pilgrims called this hill Mount Joy, the high place from which they first glimpsed their goal. And I could see why early farmers from the Neolithic, and later Iron Age Celts, once occupied Trencrom Hill.
As if that weren’t enough, I then turned around toward the north and saw with the same clarity the vision of where we had trekked from: rolling green hills, Beersheba standing as a sentinel midway, and the forest-and-field land rolling down to the turquoise blue sea in the distance, and St. Uny standing at the center.
In Cornwall, we found that a path of just 13 miles was all one needed to experience eternity, but also the present, with a wealth of magic and beauty in every step.
OTHER JOURNEYS OF ENCHANTMENT
To experience the magic of sea, stones, and legends, explore the treks and voyages to the British Isles and northern Europe with Natural Habitat Adventures, Lindblad Expeditions and Backroads. And if the Camino to Santiago de Compostela appeals, step into the path of medieval (and earlier) pilgrims with Backroads’ A Taste of the Camino trip in Portugal and Spain.
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