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In the Footsteps of Merlin: Exploring Tintagel

by Christina Hamlett

High on the jagged cliffs of England's southwestern coastline lay not only the remains of a long abandoned castle but the mythical birthplace as well of one of this country's most enduring legends: King Arthur. Though many sites throughout the United Kingdom stake claims of association to the chivalrous knights of Camelot and their ladies fair, Tintagel holds sway as the backdrop of both Alfred Lord Tennyson and Geoffrey of Monmouth's respective tales of star-crossed lovers. Whether your taste in adventure entertains acts of Medieval enchantment or favors the more down to earth pursuits of modern archaeology, this is one stop in Cornwall that you won't want to miss.

Tintagel Castle

Tintagel is located approximately two miles north of Camelford off the A39. Although the day was rainy when we first started out -- and my travel companions' spirits equally damp at the prospect of hiking around in it -- the remote and foreboding setting lends itself to abandoning all sense of time. Sturdy walking shoes or boots are a must, as the uneven surface trek to the ruins themselves are combined with a initial hike from the parking lot in the lower village almost half a mile away.

Gale force winds are also not uncommon here, sometimes prompting early closure of the 10-6 admission hours. How strong are they, you ask? Evidence of the North Atlantic's gusting power has left a lasting impression at the parish church of St. Materiana on the nearby Glebe Cliff where centuries old headstones have had to be fortified with stone blocks just to keep them from toppling down the hill.

To understand the significance of Tintagel's early use as an encampment by Roman and Celtic warriors, one also needs to appreciate the severe impact that Mother Nature and a steady dose of erosion have had on the terrain. Connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land, the original fortress was the closest thing to being its own, impenetrable island. Potential attackers could neither storm the compound en masse nor navigate a ship past the rocky perimeter. Perched several hundred feet above sea level, this locale not only afforded a spectacular view of everything around it but also the entrance to two shoreline caves that run beneath the isle itself. The larger of the two, dubbed "Merlin's Cave," was believed to be the hiding place where the wily wizard sequestered the newborn Arthur from potential harm by enemies of the Pendragon crown.

Merlin's Cave Tintagel

Whether or not this tale was true, the Arthurian legend carried enough weight for Richard, the Earl of Cornwall, to erect his own castle in the early 1200's directly atop the crumbled remains of the 5th century stronghold. Ironically, the nobleman's bravado to be recognized as "king of the hill" and lend credence to Geoffrey of Monmouth's assertions about Arthur's conception was somewhat deflated by the fact that the new castle was a tad too remote for anyone to ever bother with launching an assault.

Whilst waiting for a skirmish that never materialized, however, Richard had plenty of malevolence to contend with in terms of the wind and sea. This combination of elements began to leave their mark in earnest, causing landslides and flooding that reduced the constricted causeway even further and finally compelled the Normans to abandon it altogether by the 14th century. According to our guide, it is only a matter of time before the persistent battering and tumble of falling rock off the headland and into the sea will render this historic site inaccessible.

TintagelFor the present, however, a stroll amongst the roofless stone ruins gives one an estimation of just how big the Earl of Cornwall's castle actually was, coupled with a sense of awe for the engineering and masonry feat of acquiring and assembling all of the materials to begin with. The thick facades and steep stairs that vary between broad and tiny comprise what was believed to be the castle's Great Hall. A network of staircases and wooden bridges resembling catwalks allow visitors to traverse what time has washed away. The photo-ops are spectacular from this height. Site officials recommend that you allow at least 2-3 hours of exploration.

Tourists, of course, aren't the only ones who find the area compelling. Archaeological research has been in the works here since the 1930's, yielding further clues about Tintagel's origins. Among the findings have been Mediterranean crockery, slate inscriptions, chards from glass vessels, and Byzantine artifacts. In addition, an assemblage of several dozen stone buildings unearthed on the eastern side of Tintagel Island have raised speculation that a monastery may have occupied this haunting ground as well.

Books, maps, and regional exhibits in the interpretive display at the Tintagel Visitors Center will round out your knowledge after you get back from your hike. In addition, the area is managed by English Heritage, a respected commission which not only has onsite experts to answer questions but website resources and publications than can address anything you think of after you've returned home. If you are a member of this organization, by the way, your admission fee (£4) will be waived.

If you haven't soaked up enough Arthurian ambiance by now, pop into King Arthur's Hall back at the village and its adjoining exhibit of stained glass panels relating the daring deeds of those fearless lads of the Round Table. This tourist venue was the brainchild of a turn of the century millionaire named Frederick Glassock who wanted others to share his excitement about the days of chivalry. There's even a replica of the table itself and plenty of literature and knick-knacks to fill in any particulars that may be missing from your body of knowledge about Camelot. Local rumor has it, by the way, that the real table fell by the wayside along with the former standing spot of Bossiney Castle a mile to the east.

Camelot Hotel TintagelAs you're scanning the Tintagel landscape, one of the things that certainly won't escape your attention is what looks to be an imposing manor house sitting by itself on one of the nearby hills. One of my companions, in fact, initially gasped in the mistaken delight that that was the castle we had come to see and remarked on how well kept-up it looked from a distance. This Victorian structure is actually the former King Arthur's Castle Hotel and the site of Alfred Lord Tennyson's inspiration behind Idylls of the King. If you've had the foresight to plan your England trip far in advance, you might be lucky enough to be bedding down there for a stay. You're even luckier if your avocation is that of an artist, as the owners of this establishment -- aptly renamed The Camelot Castle Hotel -- invite writers, painters, musicians and their respective muses to submit a residency program application and, if accepted, enjoy their hospitality for free. This myth-inspired haven is also a popular draw for film crews and wedding parties. Additional information can be found at their website.

In the mood for more hiking? Depending on your stamina level and the cooperation of the season, there are two convergent trails which will more than appease your quest for rugged scenery and seascapes. The Cornwall Coast trek offers an alternative view of the Tintagel ruins from Glebe Cliff. It's here that you'll find the previously mentioned St. Materiana, poised on the point like a small, celestial lighthouse. Whereas most places of worship traditionally emerge as the hub of a burgeoning village, the parish chapel predates the town of Tintagel itself and, like the castle, was erected on the ruins of a prior structure.

Tintagel Cliffs Cornwall

Proceeding southward on the trail, you'll come upon Trebarwith Strand. This coastal path will take you past what used to be the region's slate quarries. Since the 15th century, the removal of slate from the cliffs not only constituted a thriving trade industry but helped define territorial boundaries by stacking the flat slabs similar to the more modern construction of making a sturdy fence out of bricks. Slate, of course, was also a popular material for roofing. Although the quarries were finally phased out in the 1930's, the splitting sheds and the ruts made by horse and donkey-powered anchoring blocks still remain. Long Grass Quarry, the last of these mining operations to close, was subsequently converted to a youth hostel to accommodate those who wanted to spend more than just an afternoon hiking the landscape. Since the coastline trails extend for several miles and can cause you to forget the clock, you may want to keep an eye on the skiesΙand on the ground. Many sections of it are steep and slippery, not to mention that an umbrella will do you absolutely no good when the wind decides to kick up.

Last stop on your day-trip to Tintagel is a pilgrimage to Saint Nectan's Glen, a trek through Rocky Valley which is only accessible by foot but well worth the reward of plenty of picture taking opportunities. This pastoral setting with its breathtaking waterfall was the location of a 6th century chapel occupied by a man whom contemporary definitions would have labeled a recluse. Whether through divine prayer or dark incantation, the two women who saw to his burial arrangements also diverted the course of the adjacent river to flow over the top of his resting place. Such association with a "miracle" soon transformed the glen into a destination of serenity and contemplation. After a moment of providing sustenance for your soul, this venue's tea garden offers sustenance for your tummy in the form of beverages and modest snacks. With the exception of winter months when the facility is only open on weekends, Saint Nectan's Glen welcomes visitors on a daily basis.

Tintagel Cats

More Information:

Tintagel - King Arthur Country

Tintagel Castle

Overview of some of the archaeology of the area.

Visit Boscastle and Tintagel

Camelot Castle Hotel

Links to King Arthur information sites

Former actress and director Christina Hamlett is an award-winning author, instructor and script coverage consultant for the independent film industry. Her credits to date include 21 books, 115 plays and musicals, 4 optioned feature films, and columns that appear throughout the world. She and her husband reside in Pasadena, California. For further background, her website is located at http://www.absolutewrite.com/site/christina.htm.
Article © 2006 Christina Hamlett
Tintagel Stair, Merlin's Cave and Camelot Hotel photos © 2006 Christina Hamlett. Tintagel Ruins photo courtesy of Britainonview.com. Cornwall Coast and Tintagel Cats photos © 2006 Moira Allen.


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