The myths and legends surrounding Arthur, Excalibar, Merlin and the other assorted hangers-on have been told, re-told, and re-imagined many times throughout history. It’s a tale of chivalry, forbidden love, magic, tragedy, pretty much everything you need for a timeless story – no wonder it’s still so popular. Cornwall, an area of the UK steeped in folklore, plays an important part in the myth of King Arthur. And nowhere embodies that more than Tintagel Castle.
The original settlement stretched from the mainland across to the now separate headland and was linked via a thin neck of rock. This made it easier to defend and, along with access to the sea and a source of fresh water, it’s no wonder people started living here as far back as around AD450. Tide and time have eroded this physical link and when I visited around fifteen years ago the only way across was down a long set bunch of stairs, across a small walkway, and up another long set of stairs – not exactly what you’d call accessible. Now, there’s a rather lovely cantilevered bridge, paved with Cornish Delabole slate tiles to make the journey much simpler.
So where does King Arthur come in? After the mid-7th century it seems no-one bothered to do much on the island for over 500 years. The around 1138 Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote “History of the Kings of Britain” which included King Arthur and mentions Tintagel as the place where Arthur was conceived. It’s certainly got a dramatic aspect that would make it an attractive setting for a writer.
The site is also linked to the legend of Tristan and Iseult, where Tintagel appears in poems as the court of Tristan’s uncle, King Mark of Cornwall.
And interestingly it was actually after the connection to Arthur was created that drew the Earl of Cornwall, Richard, brother of Henry III, to buy the island and castle that was presumably built by and for the earl himself. However it doesn’t seem he used the castle much, using it as more of a literary status symbol.
On a beautiful blue-sky day, the site is glorious and inspiring. But I’d imagine it would be so in any weather, brooding under a dark sky, thrilling in a storm, and peaceful under a blanket of snow.
You’ll find all sorts to spark your interest as you make your way around the island. The grass covered foundations of dozens of buildings are laid around the site.
The story of Tristan and Iseult can be found in stone around the former walled garden (although how anything grew on this open bit of land is anyone’s guess).
There’s also this impressive bronze statue named “Gallos” (meaning power in Cornish) inspired by the legend of King Arthur.
And lastly down underneath the castle lies what’s been called “Merlin’s cave”, a 330 foot long cave said to be where the titular wizard lived, that goes all the way under the island so you can walk right through (when the tide is out of course).
It’s definitely worth a visit, and its free if you’re with English Heritage, albeit a mite pricey if your not. What do you think? Please share in the comments.