Wanderer at Large: Devon & Cornwall – Tintagel Castle

A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.

Sponsored by Your London Tours.

This September, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.

Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.

In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.

This week, the area of England that includes the counties of Devon & Cornwall.

Tintagel ruins

Tintagel Castle

As romantic ruins go, Tintagel Castle takes some beating. Perched high on a cliff face above the raging Atlantic Ocean, its dramatic placement offers mythical mystery with a ‘wow’ factor.

Meaning ‘fort of the constriction’, its history is as intriguing as its structure. We know that the present castle dates back to the 13th century, when it was built by Prince Richard, brother of King Henry III. As the Earl of Cornwall, Richard needed to be accepted by the Cornish people to give him the authority to raise taxes. So he bribed German barons to elect him King of the Romans. Richard became, in effect, the richest man in England, collecting revenue from Cornish tin.

Richard also built the Cornish castles of Launceston and Restmorel. In 1264, he was captured at the Battle of Lewes by Simon de Montfort and imprisoned at Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire. He was later freed after the Battle of Evesham. He died in 1272 and was buried at Gloucestershire’s Hailes Abbey, which he also had constructed. Nevertheless, Tintagel remained in the hands of the Earls of Cornwall.

The slate buttress walls, built to stop the castle falling over the cliff, show that it had no strategic value. It was just an evocative folly, as it had been competed in celebration of the Legend of King Arthur. There are many who insist that Tintagel is Camelot, the spiritual home of the Knights of the Round Table, and that the legendary King Arthur himself was born here sometime in the 6th century, perhaps using the palace to as a base to launch his quest to find the Holy Grail.

The first ‘Legend of King Arthur’ was written in 1138 by Geoffrey of Monmouth who included it in his History of the Kings. He wrote it in the middle of the civil war known as the Anarchy. Celebrating good kingship, the story goes that King Uthur Pendragon desired Ygerna (or Igraine), wife of the Duke of Cornwall, who had her imprisoned at Tintagel. The Wizard Merlin offered Uthur help to meet the princess in return for allowing Merlin to foster any forthcoming child. Uthur drank one of Merlin’s potions, and disguised as the Duke tricked his way into Ygerna’s room. Uthur’s son Arthur was born here, and fostered by Merlin, he was brought up without knowledge of his heritage. Arthur later pulled the sword Excalibur from the stone to become king.

There is an element of truth with the Arthurian-period connections at Tintagel. As recently as 2016, archaeologists discovered rich remains of Mediterranean pottery at the site, in fact more than anywhere else in the UK, suggesting the residence of a powerful 6th century overlord perhaps linked to Cornwall’s ancient tin trade.  And in 1998, a slate with the inscription ‘Artognou’ was discovered at Tintagel. Another legend, that of the 5th century Celtic King Mark and Isolde, was also set at Tintagel.

Above ‘Merlin’s Cave’ – Tintagel

Tintagel sits on a unique landscape. 200 million years ago, massive geological forces brought volcanic rock, slate and sandstone at least 30 miles from the moors. After being uplifted and folded along the journey, they slid downhill and were concertinaed into a chaotic formation. It’s like a chunk of the earth has been churned up in a giant mixer lorry and just dumped. Then the sea eroded the caves below. All very strange-looking. A compass will not work properly here because of the deposits of Magnetite, the most magnetic mineral on Earth.

A new walking bridge connects the headlands which rewards with spectacular views over the north Cornish coastline. Alternatively, visitors should be prepared for a steep-ish descent down the hill to a visitor centre, a small beach and ‘Merlin’s Cave’. For a small fee a Land Rover shuttle service also operates up and down the hill.

For a spectacular photographic view of Tintagel Castle, head over to the Camelot Castle Hotel, or you can record your visit by sending a postcard at the nearby Tintagel Post Office, a 14th century granite and slate building that is an attraction in itself.

Nearby, St Nectan’s Glen waterfall is a sacred place of pilgrimage, and Port Isaac (B6327, off B3314) is now famous worldwide as the setting for TV’s Doc Martin.

Tintagel: search for your own Holy Grail

Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. Another recommendation will appear tomorrow.

For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com

*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:

  1. London
  2. Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
  3. Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
  4. Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
  5. Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
  6. South coast (Hants/Dorset)
  7. Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
  8. South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
  9. Wales (north & south)
  10. Welsh Borders (Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
  11. Western Midlands (Brum/Worcs/Warks/Staffs)
  12. Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland/Hunts)
  13. Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
  14. East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
  15. Yorks (all ridings)
  16. North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
  17. North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
  18. Southern Scotland (Borders/Lowlands)
  19. Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
  20. Ireland (Northern/Southern)

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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