Nostalgia unveils paintings by Sidmouth antiquarian

Recollection of French St Michael’s Mount visit by Sidmouth’s Victorian historian

IN 1852, Sidmouth antiquarian Peter Orlando Hutchinson, travelled to Normandy, visiting Avranches, St Michael’s Mount and Paris.

His intricate paintings and drawings record his trip, as does his diary.

On Wednesday, June 9, he writes in it: “…left Avranches for St Michael’s Mount. Went to Pontorson in a cabriolet. Then started off to walk two leagues or more to the Mount.

“As it happened to be neap tides, I could approach over the sands without danger. There are many fearful stories going of persons getting engulfed in the quicksands and lost.

“For a whole week, however, during the neap tides, the sea never covers the sand, nor surrounds the Mount at high water; spring tides, it covers it to the depth of two or three yards, as I understood; and strangers ought to have guides when they cross it.

“I did not arrive until it was getting dark. I proceeded as directed, to the hotel of Madam Poirier, where I slept comfortably.

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THURSDAY, June 10, 1852: “This morning a woman of upwards of sixty acted as my guide. She first took me all round the Mount on the sands – showed me the footprint on the rock, which was full of sand, washed into it by the tide, and made me put my own foot into it, in by the shape.”

*The footprint is supposed to be that of St Michael, who is supposed to have competed for ownership of the Mount with the Devil.

Both agreed that whoever could jump the furthest would win. While the Devil fell into the River Cou�non, St Michael’s wings were lifted by the wind and he was swept on to Mont Dol, where the footprint – and the claw mark of the Devil – were left.

Hutchinson continues: “She then pointed out Montgomerie’s door (Roger de Montgomery who completed the building of the Mount) and flight of steps, and further on, towards the east side, the projecting tower of the surrounding fortifications, which is built upon piles.

“Having made the circuit, we entered the gate again. I took a sketch of the two great wrought iron guns near the inner gate, which, as the histories mention, were captured from the English, who besieged the Mount in 1424.

“We ascended the street, entered the church, went over the ramparts; and at eleven o’clock, I was allowed to enter the upper buildings of the old abbey (after my passport had been examined) which are now used as a prison for offenders against the state.

“I examined the whole of it up to the very top, accompanied by a soldier of the garrison. They are not allowed to take any gratuity. After this my guide again joined me. I gave her two francs, which, I believe was liberal pay.

“St Michael’s Mount is a little parish in itself. The inhabitants are very poor. The men live by fishing, and the women scrape the sand for cockles at low water. It is a charity to spend a little money on the Mount.

“Left it and walked to Pontorson. Took the diligence [carriage] and went twelve leagues to St Malo, where I did not arrive until nine at night.”

*Thanks to Philippe Planel for the information from POH’s diaries and Devon Record Office for the previously unpublished paintings by POH.