I'm ashamed to say that in all the time we've lived here we've never managed to visit the gardens of St Michael's Mount. It's not for want of trying; several times we've booked ourselves onto one of the gardener's tours but each time it's been cancelled due to bad weather.
But now, as coronavirus restrictions are slowly lifted, the Mount is welcoming visitors again. The castle itself remains closed for the time being but the spectacular sub-topical gardens, which cling precariously to the granite of the island are now open, and we finally made it last week.
St Aubyn Estates, who run the island in conjunction with the National Trust, are operating a strict social distancing policy. There are no boats so visits must be timed to coincide with the tides, and tickets must be booked in advance. It was disconcerting to see so few people on the causeway in the middle of June when usually streams of visitors would be making their way to the island. For a garden visit, however, the lack of crowds was a definite bonus.
The site is tricky to negotiate and definitely not suitable for wheelchairs or buggies. The gardens are laid out in a series of terraces, accessed by narrow winding paths and steep steps. It gives you an idea of just how steep some areas are that the gardeners have to abseil down rock faces to carry out routine work.
The red brick walled garden, with its beautiful silvery foliage, was created in 1780 by the four St Aubyn sisters, while the East and West Terraces were later, Victorian additions. At every turn there’s something to delight the eye: drifts of red hot pokers, succulents clinging to sheer rock faces. Exotics from across the globe - proteas and leudacdendron, cacti and agaves - blend with more familiar plants such as lavender, salvia and alstroemeria to create a dazzling blend of textures, colours and scents.
Cornwall is known for its mild climate but it’s still remarkable that so much, including so many tender plants, grows in such an exposed, seemingly hostile environment. The gardens are predominantly south facing and, thanks to the mild Gulf Stream, rarely experience frost but it's the island itself that is the key. The granite absorbs heat during the day and releases it at night, creating a unique set of conditions in which the most unlikely plants can grow. The West Terraces are the hottest area in the garden with the temperature sometimes exceeding 35 degrees during the summer.
I'm sure even those who aren't horticulturally minded will be fascinated by these unique gardens. The castle itself may be closed but there's still so much to explore on the island. Even though access to the gardens themselves is strictly controlled via pre-booked time slots, visitors are welcome to linger after their visit. There's a little van selling drinks and snacks which can be enjoyed on the lawn, as well as a plant stall for those who'd like to take home a little piece of St Michael's Mount.
For more information and to book your tickets visit https://www.stmichaelsmount.co.uk