With my poo-hoo nose firmly in the air, I’m on my way to Tintagel on Cornwall’s northwesterly edge. Tintagel is widely known, and wildly visited, for the ruins of its castle – King Arthur’s castle.
King Arthur’s castle? Had no one noticed that this “King Arthur’s castle” was built five centuries too late to be that of the legendary King Arthur?
In Your Bucket Because …
- Archaeological finds capture your imagination.
- You enjoy having your suppositions destroyed.
- You adore unending, untouched, wild and wonderful views.
At the castle’s visitors center, Lynda Aldridge, the longest standing member of staff at Tintagel, with 15 years of King Arthur history (myths, my poo-hoo says) under her belt is about to head out the door to make her daily tour of the site. Might I like to tag along?
“The beauty of the location captured me, not the stories,” she says as we ascend and descend a series of wooden steps that make it possible to reach the castle ruins on an island some 300 feet above the sea – an island due to a huge mass of headland that fell away in 1820 followed by a repeat in 1846 that completed the job.
Views are stunning. Waterfalls pour in torrents into a sea the color of peacock feathers. Headlands stretch north and south in endless wild grandeur –nature’s own work of fortification, a perfect spot for a castle.
Myth Meets History
We reach the ruins, where I learn that the castle was constructed in 1236 by super-wealthy Richard, Earl of Cornwall, a King Arthur believer, who ordered it built in the manner of King Arthur’s day on the site of his supposed birthplace. As an example of the authenticity with which he approached the project, he ordered the castle to have square turrets, such as those that topped Dark Age castles. Thirteenth century turrets were round, the better to deflect arrows.
Excavations confirm that Tintagel was an important Dark Age trading settlement. The importance of the castle — visited only sporadically by the Earl as one of his many scattered around the country — fades as Lynda leads me about the headlands to point out excavations confirming that during the Dark Ages, the site itself was a major economic and political center, an important part of an international trade network controlled by the Dummonian kings.
“Thanks to archaeology, the Dark Ages at Tintagel are getting less dark all the time,” Lynda comments. A telling find came in August 1998 when a piece of Cornish slate was unearthed bearing inscriptions that included the name “Artognov,” pronounced “Arthnou.” Written by a Gaullist hand in the style of 6th century writing, the stone was surrounded by fragments of 6th century Mediterranean pottery already known from the Tintagel site.
Archaeologists proclaimed the discovery a find of a lifetime, evidence that a Prince of Cornwall, in the Dark Ages, named Arthur, was present at the time as the legendary Arthur. “Myth met history,” Lynda says.
On the island’s highest point, a site that has revealed intense Dark Age activity, Lynda shows me a hollow in a rock, shaped at some stage by human hands, boot sized, thought to be a place of inauguration where head clansmen took charge of all they surveyed. Princes? Kings?
I put my right boot in the hollow and spread my arms wide, putting myself in the footstep of an Arthur, a series of Arthurs, perhaps the legendary King Arthur, as each proclaimed, “I am the king of Cornwall.”
For just a moment, as I looked out over the headlands, a view little changed over the centuries, given a landslide or two, I was queen of the headlands and all I surveyed beyond.
A queen with her poo-hoo nose no longer in the air.
Tintagel is located on a northwest knob of Cornwall’s Atlantic side. Cornwall is the most south and west of England’s counties. Visitors should be prepared to walk, wearing sturdy shoes, and be able to climb a series of several hundred stairs.