St Michael's Way is a 12.5 mile walking route between Lelant, near St Ives, and St Michael's Mount, near Penzance. Due to its historical significance St Michael's Way is the only footpath in Britain that is part of a designated European Cultural Route.
The historical significance of St Michael's Way lies in the fact that it is part of a network of pilgrim routes that lead to St James' Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, one of the three most important sites of Christian pilgrimage in the world.
The route, which dates back to pre-historic times (10000 BC to 410 AD), is thought to have been used by pilgrims and missionaries who arrived from Ireland or Wales and chose to abandon their ships and walk across the peninsula from Lelant to Marazion, rather than navigating the treacherous waters around Land's End. These early missionaries, who are now commemorated as saints in place names throughout the county, are thought to have been instrumental in Cornwall's rapid conversion to the Christian faith.
Their trail was largely forgotten until, in 1987, the Council of Europe decided to promote the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela as a European cultural symbol. The English section of the route was developed by Cornwall County Council with the assistance of a local group, Bredereth Sen Jago (Cornish Pilgrims of St James) and the Cornish Bureau for European Relations. St Michael's Way officially opened in 2004.
St Michael himself, after whom the route was named, was the patron saint of high places. In folklore he is portrayed as a dragon slayer, like his god-brother, St George, and it is suggested that this symbolism grew out of the fact that many pre-Christian sacred sites were on high ground; the ‘dragons' that St Michael slayed were, perhaps, the last vestiges of the old religion.
The route begins in Lelant at the delightful church of St Uny. The church sits on a sandy headland that overlooks the medieval Lelant harbour and offers great views of the Hayle estuary mudflats. The present church, which is thought to have been buried in sands and salvaged twice (in the 13th and 17th centuries), is the product of a restoration project that took place in 1879. However, the existence of a church on this site could well date back to the legendary arrival of St Uny in Lelant in the 6th century. History tells us that upon his arrival St Uny found that a small chapel had already been established on the beach of the estuary by St Ia. The surviving church retains a Norman arch, although the present material, a red granite, dates back only to the 15th century.
From Lelant the route winds inland and up to a striking granite structure known as Knill's Steeple. John Knill, who died in 1782, was the collector of Customs in St Ives. His monument, which consists of a central obelisk 50 feet high above a base that contains a burial chamber, was intended as a mausoleum. In the end, however, the burial chamber was never used because it was not built on consecrated ground. Nevertheless, his monument presides over excellent views of St Ives bay and Godrevy lighthouse, immortalised in the experimental novella by Virginia Woolf.
After Knill's Steeple comes Bowl Rock, a lump of granite said to have been put in place by a giant.
The route continues around Trencrom Hill, which is owned by the National Trust and stands, alone, 550 feet above the Hayle Estuary. Thought to have been a Neolithic hill fort, Trencrom, which is still unexcavated, is believed to contain at least 16 hut circles. A single rampart is visible, which incorporates the existing rock outcrops and circles the flat summit of the hill. Neolithic axe heads found on the lower slopes of the hill date back to 3500 BC, and legend has it that the stones which litter the surface of the hill are the work of the giant of Trencrom and his massive cousin on St Michael's Mount, who threw massive boulders at each other, either in fun or fury. It is well worth hiking to the top of the hill from where you will be rewarded with one of the finest views in Cornwall.
The route continues to Ninnes Bridge, where the trail leads through the front garden of a former Wesleyan Chapel, now a private house. The chapel dates from 1873 and is significant for its association with John Wesley's landmark visit to Cornwall. However, an early cross along the pathway and a line of standing stones on nearby Ninne's bridge seem to mark the site as a religious centre from a much earlier time.
The final section of the route takes you to Ludgvan, from where there is a choice of routes. You can either cross flat, swampy timber plantations before making your way through the marshes of Marazion, an important habitat for birds, and managed by the RSPB, or continue along country lanes to Gulval. Both are thought to be an authentic medieval routes, with the Gulval way being used as an alternative to the path through the marshes when wet ground and tides made this land inaccessible.
Both Ludgvan and Gulval churches are worth a look. The church at Ludgvan was used as a landmark and meeting point for pilgrims making the final leg of the journey to St Michael's Mount through what would have been heavily forested, marshy lands that could be tricky to navigate. Most of the present fabric of the church dates back to the 15th century, although a granite grave marker shows the site to have had Christian significance since at least the 7th century. Three more crosses in the graveyard, a strange religious figure that is possibly a pilgrim above the south entry porch and a Norman baptismal font all combine to prove that the church was used by Christians throughout the early Middle Ages.
St Gulval was thought to have come to Cornwall from Brittany or Wales, and his name was given to a 6th century chapel of which nothing survives. A 10th century preaching cross that once stood in an adjacent hamlet together with parts of a Norman tomb point to a continuous usage of the site since at least Norman times. The church possesses a list of vicars that dates back to 1527 and the present granite dates back to 1440.
St Michael's Way is covered by OS Explorer sheet 102 and Landranger sheet 203. It is considered to be of moderate to strenuous difficulty. Mainline trains run direct to Penzance, with the option to change at St Erth for stations to St Ives, including Lelant. Local bus services are few and far between so it is probably safer to arrange transport from your destination in advance. A booklet produced by Cornwall County Council in conjunction with Bredereth Sen Jago entitled 'St Michael's Way, Forth Sen Myghal' describes the route in detail but is currently out of print, although the entire path is waymarked in both directions with a stylized scallop shell in keeping with the Council of Europe's traditional sign for pilgrim routes.