At Mont St Michel, on the southern tip of Normandy, time and tide wait for no motorist. Overstaying my welcome at France’s most popular tourist attraction outside Paris, I discovered that the sea had swept around the island and covered the car parks at the foot of the Mount. It was lapping at the sills of the people carrier as I opened the driver door but – in a testimony to Japanese engineering – my car still started without the hint of a splutter. I drove the vehicle frantically towards the slip road up to the causeway, creating two parallel pumes of sea water that broke dramatically over the bonnet. Ten more minutes, and my visit would have added yet another expensive fiasco to my accident-prone travels.
Mont St Michel has the highest tides in Europe, reaching 12 metres during the so-called spring tides that occur roughly each fortnight. It can be extremely dangerous to venture out on foot on the flats below the rocky islet, as the sea rolls in unchallenged across 15 kilometres of sand and shingle. In 1064 Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, was shipwrecked near what is now Le Touquet and handed over to the future William the Conqueror. Willingly or unwillingly, Harold accompanied Duke William on the pursuit and eventual defeat of his neighbour, the Duke of Brittany. As they passed Mont St Michel, two of William’s knights were sucked under by quicksand, only for Harold, with prodigious strength, to drag them out singlehanded. The story is told on the Bayeux Tapestry but this early example of political propaganda also records that Harold swore an oath to uphold William’s claim to the English throne and paid the price for his perjury at Hastings in 1066.
St Michel contributed soldiers and supplies to William’s invading army and as a reward received land and tithes in England. These included a small island off the southwest coast of Cornwall with the same tidal characteristics and a Benedictine monastery that became known as St Michael’s Mount.
William and his successors financed the lavish Norman architecture of the abbey of Mont St Michel. In the fifteenth century, during The Hundred Years’ War, the English made repeated assaults on the abbey’s fortifications but were unable to secure a foothold.
By the time of the French Revolution, Mont St Michel had lost its place on the pilgrim trail and had scarcely any monks in residence. The abbey was closed and converted into a prison, first for religious dissenters and later for the political opponents of the revolutionaries who escaped the guillotine.
In the nineteenth century a campaign by leading cultural figures, including Victor Hugo, to close the prison and restore the abbey, fizzled out and it was not until 1863 that the last prisoner left. Mont St Michel was declared a historical monument in 1874 and became a World Heritage site in 1979, together with its wind-swept bay.
The car parks so vulnerable to the tide have now been closed and replaced by a new car park and visitor site on the mainland. A shuttle takes visitors across but many prefer to walk or travel by horse and cart. Eventually the causeway, which bars the path of the normal tides and water currents, causing the adjoining land to slit up, will be removed altogether as part of a huge ecological project. An oak bridge set on piers, allowing the sea to pass freely, will link the Mount to the outside world. But during the highest spring tides, even this will be submerged for several hours, returning Mont St Michel to the true island status of its glorious past.