St. Michael’s Mount

It could have been a dragon’s lair. At the very least, it should have been the headquarters of a company owned by an evil gazillionaire genius who tries to avoid dealing with his daddy issues by screwing with the world.

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St. Michael’s Mount, Low Tide.

St. Michael's Mount, High Tide

St. Michael’s Mount, High Tide

But this was Cornwall, so the legend surrounding this castle/priory/country home situated on a tidal island off the town of Marazion, needed to threaten elements close to the Cornish heart, if the story were to have any impact on the population.

When I found out that the resident mythical being preying on the village’s sheep was a giant, I admit to being a little disappointed. Dragons and evil geniuses meant dramatic fight scenes and maybe a heart-wrenching back story, but a mutton-loving giant called Cormaron? It couldn’t have been more trite if the hero was called David. Unless he was called Jack. And he was. Considering the pattern of stories involving giants and boys named Jack, Cormaron didn’t stand a chance.

Sure enough, the poor sod was dead two paragraphs into the story, when he fell into a pit that Jack was able to dig without waking him up. Perhaps Jack had a magic shovel instead of beans, but we just don’t know and there’s no explanation why no one thought of digging up a pit before, and it’s even more impossible to find someone who cares to find out. Considering that the brilliant writer/journalist Edward St. Aubyn is part of the family that still lives in this National Trust-managed property, I somehow expected a more captivating tale than the half-baked one about Jack the Giant Killer.

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The buildings date back to the 12th Century, making me wish for a conical head dress.

St. Michael’s Mount was occupied by Perkin Warbeck  in 1497, and owned by Sir Robert Cecil during Elizabeth I’s reign. It was where the first beacon to warn of the Spanish Armada’s approach in 1588 was lit, but since all that achieved was give Sir Francis Drake enough time to finish his game of bowls, it’s not really enough of a history highlight to take the focus away from the screwed up St. Aubyn family, who have owned and occupied it since 1659.

Edward St. Aubyn

Edward St. Aubyn
(Has Daddy Issues)

Another Edward St. Aubyn (1799-1872) was a “Sir” in the nineteenth century, and is the ancestor of the Barons St. Levan of St. Michael’s Mount.  Although Sir Edward wasn’t repeatedly raped by his father or became a heroin addict like his journalist/writer descendant,  he did become a baronet in his own right because he was illegitimate and couldn’t inherit his father’s title.

Sir Edward’s father, Sir John (5th and last Baronet St. Aubyn of the first creation), is one of the most distinguished members of the St. Aubyn family. He had a keen interest in science and the arts. Having ascended to the title by the age of 14, he served as High Sheriff of Cornwall at age 23. He was a well-known fossil collector and constant patron of the painter John Opie. Sir John was a fellow of the Royal Society, the Linnean Society, Society of Antiquarians, the Geological Society of London, the Society of Arts, was a Member of Parliament and a Grandmaster of the Freemasons.

He was smart, rich and cloaked with a sensitive aura evidenced by his appreciation of the arts and his eclectic taste in women. He had 13 (acknowledged) illegitimate children from the two women he lived with (5 children born to a woman from an old, respected Cornish family named Martha and the others–including Sir Edward–were from the woman Sir John eventually married in 1822, who was a blacksmith’s daughter named Juliana). He died without a legitimate heir, since the only child (his 14th kid) who was born after his marriage in 1822 was a girl. Considering that this was only 6 years before Sir Edward’s own marriage and Sir John was 63 and his wife 53 at the time, this was no mean feat.

It’s quite impressive, actually, but also confusing. What would have been the point of marriage at that late date?  If he intended to marry her all along, why didn’t he do it sooner so that his children could inherit without problems? Was he just unconventional or was he a brilliant but self-indulgent arse? Strangely enough, it’s the same questions people ask about the journalist/writer Edward St. Aubyn.

Sir John St. Aubyn, 5th Baronet 1758-1839

Sir John St. Aubyn, 5th Baronet
1758-1839

Maybe the giant Cormaron had it easy, after all, with his simple pleasure of feeding on sheep. Freed from the worries of poverty and survival, the St. Aubyns seemed to start worrying about everything else, heaping problems upon problems on each others’ lives. Having too many options can be just as daunting as having none at all. St. Michael’s Mount is a beautiful property, but I guess growing up in a place like that, with the remains of ancestors’ lives and expectations in every corner, makes it difficult for a person to appreciate the magnificent coastal view that it offers. Instead of waking up everyday grateful for the inspiring sight of the ocean, you see nothing but the glare from the crashing waves that surround you.

Still, you’d be able to have anything you want for breakfast. Anything at all–it’s your stomach, just be brave enough to make a decision and stand by it.

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References:

http://www.stmichaelsmount.co.uk/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Michael’s_Mount

http://thepeerage.com/p17059.htm#i170583

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sir_John_St_Aubyn,_5th_Baronet

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/jan/13/fiction.edwardstaubyn

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/opinion/obituaries/article3753844.ece

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Penzance, Cornwall

After an evening spent on the rails, our train finally sputters to a halt. There was nowhere else to go from here. We’ve journeyed as far away from home as we possibly could without leaving England.

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This far.

Penzance is quite literally the end, the side where things are supposed to look a bit different. Perhaps news of Royal babies won’t reach the place for weeks. Being a “Northerner,” I didn’t know what to expect from this coastal town other than there should be pirates. To this end, I was definitely not disappointed.

Aaar!

Aaar!

The town is teeming with pirate memorabilia. You name it, they have it: eye patches, wooden legs, fish and chip shops called “Pirates’ Rest,” boat trips on a ship sporting the Jolly Roger…the only thing missing were the actual pirates. As far as I could tell, the only pirate to have ever called this sleepy coastal town their home, is the character of Frederic  in the comic opera The Pirates of Penzance (c 1880). That is, if you don’t count the pirates who are like those living everywhere else–illegally downloading music and films. And I doubt any of them ever demanded a grog, as they would be a mite under age.

Penzance Pirates poster

Of course, like most coastal towns in the UK, there were the ever-present smugglers who performed their duty with such aplomb that almost none of them ever escaped their veil of anonymity. Either that or the smuggling involved everyone in town (quite a possibility) and no one likes a show off, so they get second billing to the imaginary pirates of old. It’s almost as if Penzance wants you to forget its most accomplished son is an ambitious chemist who proved that diamond is made of carbon while managing to inhale nitrous oxide (laughing gas) with famous junkies like Coleridge and Southey  for “research” purposes.

Duuuude...

Duuuude, carbon? That’s far out!

Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) is one of the most famous chemists in the world. Not only is he the owner of a name worthy of any hip hop artist, he is also purported to be the first inventor of the electric lamp, discovered chlorine, and found a distinction between sodium and potassium that I dare you to remember. Mostly, he was famous coz he knew the right people, the ladies thought him handsome and charming, and he hosted awesome parties. I would hazard a guess that it was during one of these parties that he discovered nitrous oxide’s anaesthetic qualities.

See?

Hee hee hee… man, I can’t feel a thing! Pinch me again.

But if you didn’t already know Davy was born and schooled in Penzance, you probably wouldn’t know it even if you visited the place. Considering how famous this guy was in the 1800s, it’s a little weird that he only has an unassuming monument in front of a Lloyd’s that’s visited mostly by seagulls.

It doesn't even have his first name.

It doesn’t even have his first name.

In fact, I wouldn’t have been able to locate his place of birth if I wasn’t specifically looking for it.

Found it!

Found it!

It took me almost a week to find this spot, mostly because it’s now an oxygen health club.

I’m sure Sir Humphry would be able to explain what an oxygen health club is. He’d probably be a frequent customer (for research purposes).

I guess chemistry isn’t as popular as it was during the Enlightenment, so I can’t blame the town for its lack of a Sir Humphry museum and choosing to bombard us with imaginary pirates instead. Then again, his homies were never in awe of this man who was born into an ancient but impoverished family and spent his life pursuing fame. His former schoolmaster is quoted to state in a letter that he “could not discern the faculties by which he (Davy) was afterwards so much distinguished.”

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that even with assistants like Michael Faraday, Sir Humphry’s most known invention, the Davy Lamp, has also been proven to be no superior at saving lives of countless miners and canaries to the Geordie Lamp, invented almost at the same time by someone who could neither read nor write.

George Stephenson Northern Inventor.

George Stephenson (1741-1848)
Northern, illiterate. Invented the Geordie Lamp and  The Rocket aka the world’s first passenger train.

Ouch. Needless to say, Sir Humphry didn’t like this Geordie one bit. He sued Stephenson more than once, but lost the case in the end. For those counting, the score is Street Smarts 1, Academic Druggies 0.

Ah, well, if it’s any consolation, Penzance has nothing dedicated to its other famous child, Thandie Newton, either. And people today have actually heard of her, lol. Sir Humphrey isn’t totally abandoned by his home town, the townsfolk just prefer to remember him in the time-honored British way:

Ball’s in your court, Stephenson.

References:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/davy_humphrey.shtml

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humphry_Davy

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Faraday

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Stephenson

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thandie_Newton

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geordie_lamp

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Davy_lamp