Walking the Way

Guidebooks usually say St. Michael’s Way is 12.5 miles long. Some admit that you have to make some of it up as you go along, though, so the dimensions might better be considered variable. There isn’t absolute agreement about where it should begin, either, but St Uny Church, Lelant, seems the most appropriate. Even the end is open to interpretation. The British Pilgrimage Trust suggests a small chapel on the island of St Michael’s Mount as a conclusion, tide and time permitting (it is only possible to walk from the beach to the island at low tide); it also confirms the potential satisfactions of alternative endings.

Pilgrimage is archaic business under any circumstances, but St Michael’s Way is really stubborn about it. Ostensibly a medieval pilgrimage route running across Cornwall from north to south, it is intractably at odds with contemporary travel patterns. The travellers who first established the route were trying to get from Ireland or Wales to pilgrimage sites in France or Spain—specifically Santiago de Compostela—where the bones of St. James are said to rest. Walking straight across Cornwall north to south made sense. It made their overall journey both shorter and safer. Now, most traffic in the county flows east and west – life itself seems to flow east and west. St. Michael’s Way does not, and so people who walk it tend to wind up doing peculiar things, such as ignoring perfectly serviceable lanes and walking over unmarked fields at skew angles, or searching for pilgrimage route signs in a bit of ostensibly godless suburban development, or checking the horizon for steeples and spires in the age of GPS. You begin to feel as though insisting on this route is a bit perverse.

I walked the Way one bright, clear, cool day in May. What I had thought would take about three hours turned out to need more than five. From the Lelant Village station — a request stop in contrast to the bigger, more functional station at Lelant Saltings — it is just a few minutes’ walk to St Uny. From this medieval stone survivor, settled in an open landscape on cliffs above the sea, the Way follows the coastal path along the Hayle estuary, occasionally dipping down to the beach from the cliffs, to Carbis Bay. Then it turns rather abruptly inland, almost due south, rising steeply at first, crossing one busy road, doubling up with village footpaths, running through unmarked woodland and newly-built housing. After hours of walking, it was almost a surprise to reach the top of Trencrom Hill. Here you catch your first glimpse of the destination, the point called, in the traditional language of pilgrimage, “Mt Joy”.

From here, in fact, the whole Way is roughly visible, the north coast at your back, and the south coast – Merazion with the iconic profile of St Michael’s Mount—ahead. Exhilaration notwithstanding, however, a hungry pilgrim who has not brought lunch must soon start down the hill in a focussed quest for food, the only commercial possibility being the White Hart pub in Ludgevan. The last part of the Way threads among private properties and through photogenic woodland toward the A39, the main road into Penzance. It crosses that, as well as the Marazion Marshes, famously attractive to birds and to scores of their lens-laden admirers. It crosses the main railway line from Penzance to London, too. In principle, the Way then proceeds to the chapel on St Michael’s Mount. Alternative endings feature beach and sky, the cry of gulls and the English Channel.

Clearly the Way has a distinct physical shape: it begins with a walk on the sea cliffs, climbs to one of the highest vantage points in the county, descends more or less symmetrically, to sea level, and concludes—in some ways returns—to another beach, another church, and another perspective. It has the shape of a story. Guidebooks, maps and descriptions tend to reinforce this sense of coherence by listing and discussing the buildings, wells, crosses, monuments — even the pub — in the order they are found en route. The effect is to quietly homogenize the diverse references. And they are spectacularly diverse, exceeding the bounds of both “pilgrimage” and even “route”. There are oral tales of giants and gods, legends of lands long submerged in the sea, smooth ties of language and migration linking Wales to Cornwall and in turn to Brittany, the slow, eventful conversion to Christianity, the advent of literacy, an absolutely astonishing roster of saints, the area’s very early sense of identity, and its persistent, angry resistance to efforts to compromise its identity in dozens of ways. Walking along, reading a guide, moving at a steady pace and not dwelling on any one point, you tend to look past the contradictions, the impossibilities. You let the solemnity and remote quality of the term “pilgrimage route” bridge over things that don’t make a great deal of sense.

Who actually walked the Way? Were they pilgrims or missionaries? Could some of them have been traders? Migrants? Was this really the way they walked? The fort on Trencrom Hill was in use before Christ was born – well before there could have been any pilgrims going to Santiago. Long before there was any writing — anywhere — people told each other stories of giants playing games with huge boulders, tossing them with sporting precision between the heights of Trencrom and those of St Michael’s Mount, an island that incidentally could not yet have had that name. The oldest part of St Uny church at Lelant apparently dates from around 1100, the same time pilgrimages, with all the trappings of relics and indulgences that have come down to us by way of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, were starting to be fashionable. But there’s no suggestion of the opulence or intricate social stratification of the Tales along this Cornish Way. And St Uny himself lived in the 6th century. That’s a 500-year difference! This monk – often said to be Irish, but more probably Welsh — couldn’t exactly have been a pilgrim anyway: you can’t be rushing off to honour the bones of St James in Spain and Christianising Cornishmen at the same time, particularly while ministering to the three different parishes he is said to have founded in Cornwall. The so-called Age of Pilgrimage – when travel to such luminous destinations as Santiago de Compostela was really was all the rage – is usually dated to 1100-1500. So although there is a satisfying church-to-church symmetry in declaring a chapel on St Michael’s Mount to be the conclusion of St Michael’s Way, there could have been no chapel on the island until well into the 17th century. Pilgrims who travelled much earlier would surely have finished the Cornish leg of their journey at the harbour on the other side of the island in any case, a few steps closer to their respective European destinations.

On St Michael’s Way, notable objects appear in a linear order. They must be visited in that order and, crucially, on foot. Chaucer’s pilgrims apparently rode horses, and today visitors to the Shrine of St James in Spain often ride bicycles. But St Michaels Way – with its mud and rocky hills and stone stiles — must be walked. For the Way comes into its own only by walking, measuring the distances in footfalls, acting on hunches, in not always knowing what comes next. Only in climbing and resting, doubting and testing does the shape of the Way become recognizable as the shape of a story. It is not a story specifically about Cornwall or Christianity, although it touches both. It doesn’t have the fixed features of a romance or a quest, a tragedy or a comedy. It is the thread you yourself pull through a dense texture of stories: some you cross, some you follow, challenge or elaborate. In the end you have lived a story of your own.