Minack Theatre and St Michael’s Mount

Minack theatre, Cornwall, England. Cliff side stone seats looking over the stage towards the sea.

Madam was sitting on Thracian Horses 1969 and I was on King Richard III 1969.  I moved to Twelfth Night 1970 for a better view of the practicing orchestra and she came to sit beside me on South Pacific 1970.

We had stopped at the Minack Theatre on the way back from Land’s End.

In 1929, a local drama group put on an outdoor performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a nearby meadow.  It was a great success, and they decided to perform The Tempest a couple of years later. 

Rowena Cade decided that the cliffs below her garden would be a perfect setting and over the winter of 1931 she and her gardener moved granite boulders and created a little theatre on the side of the cliff.

There were performances at the Minack every summer pre and post-war, and during the winters Rowena and her gardener and builder continued to extend and improve the theatre.

Fast forward to the present time and the Minack Theatre holds multiple performances every summer, the spectators perched on steep stone and concrete seats overlooking the stage with the crashing seas behind.  It is invariably sold out weeks in advance.

You have to be some kind of crazy to even consider building a theatre on the side of a windy cliff on the Cornish coast, but what an achievement.  What an amazing legacy to leave.  The world truly owes a debt of gratitude to Rowena Cade. 

We sat for a long time on the theatre seats watching the rehearsal and gazing out to sea.  We moved seats several times for different views of the cliffs, the sea and the theatre.  Each seat had the name of a production and year inscribed on the back.

“I could just sit here all day,” said Madam.

I thought so too.  Actually, I struggled to think much at all.  Such was the marvel of it, I mostly just sat there in open-jawed wonder and admiration. 

But we couldn’t dally.  Time and tide, especially tide, waits for no man and it was time to head along the coast to St Michael’s Mount.

Causeway leading to St Michael's Mount, Cornwall

St Michael’s Mount is a small rocky island a few hundred yards from the mainland.  It is crowned by a medieval church and castle with the oldest buildings dating from the 12th century.  The island is only accessible by boat or, by an hour or so either side of low tide, by a stone causeway.   

It’s an odd mix of National Trust and private enterprise.  In 1954, the third Baron gave the mount to the Trust with the family retaining a 999-year lease to inhabit the castle and a licence to manage the public viewing of the historic rooms.  As a result the staff are employed by the family and not the Trust.  Due to the association with the Trust, entry was free with our membership which always pleases me out of all proportion to the small amount of money saved. 

The tide was too high to walk across the causeway, so we took the short boat ride to the island.  There was a long steep and winding path up to the castle, much of it over rocky and uneven ground.  

“I need some sticks,” said Madam.

My knees were creaking and my legs felt like a badly set jelly by the time we reached the summit.

There was a guide at the entrance and she gave us a brief overview of the building and told us that Lord St Levan was away for the weekend. She gave his name in a hushed respectful voice and, I’m sure, gave a small involuntary curtsy.  I’ve always astonished that simply being lucky enough to pop out of the right womb at the right time gets that sort of response.  

There were a few rooms, a library, a refractory, a smoking room and study.  I can’t pretend it was particularly interesting compared to some other National Trust properties.

An exit from the rooms led out to a terrace with lovely views of the terraced gardens and out to sea.  I was staring out to sea lost in my own thoughts when I became vaguely aware of a bell ringing somewhere in the building.

“Quick!  Hide!” said Madam, “they might not see us.”

I wasn’t quick enough, and the guide ran out and waved us towards a door and said “Fire Alarm!  We need to leave immediately!”

The approved fire exit was through the private family residence, down several flights of stairs.

As we walked down the stairs there were bookcases just out of reach along the painting lined corridors.  I yearned to stop and see if they were reading the latest torrid potboilers and maybe tilt a few paintings to a slight, but annoying, angle but the guide shooed us on whenever we slowed.

Somebody, somewhere, decided that the fire assembly point was at the bottom of the hill.  Down we went, crocodile fashion like a school party of six-year-olds, shepherded by guides at the back and front.

After a few minutes and no sign of smoke it was declared a false alarm, and they told us we could go back.  I looked up at the steep rugged path and down the gentle slope to the cafe and harbour.  The tide was heading out and the causeway nearly open.  The cafe was serving coffee and tantalisingly close.  Several paid ticket holders were grumbling and demanding refunds.

“Are we done?”  I asked Madam.

“We haven’t seen all the rooms yet!” she snapped, “I want to get my money’s worth!”

I told her we didn’t have to buy a ticket as it was free, apart from a £2 boat ride but she had already set off up the hill and my words were lost in the wind.  I dutifully followed her up the steep path on weary legs.

There were a few more rooms and a small medieval church, vaguely interesting but barely worth the climb.

After our final descent the causeway was open.  It was oddly satisfying to walk along a rough stone road which, only a couple of hours before, was under water.  I lingered looking at the rock pools on either side, turning over the odd stone and watching startled baby crabs scuttle away.

When we reached the mainland, I looked back at the path, stretching all the way to the island.  “I enjoyed that more than the castle,” I thought.

I was tempted to wander back towards the island to poke around in some more rock pools but Madam was already halfway to the car.  She was excited about our next destination…

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