Tintagel – Mythical Cornish Fortress

Introduction

Tintagel Castle was build in medieval times on the peninsula of Tintagel Island off the west coast of Cornwall. The site sits high on the headland and is surrounded by slate cliffs.

The Castle has been ruined for centuries, it became a popular tourist attraction after it was excavated in Victorian times. 

The nearby village fully exploits the link between the myths of King Arthur and Tintagel Castle. Tintagel is full of gift shops and others selling all manner of spiritual and mystical products, as well as plenty of food outlets and restaurants.

The legends surrounding King Arthur were popularised by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his works The Idylls of the King published between 1859 and 1885. The Idylls are a cycle of twelve poems which re-tell the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

However, if you want to stick to the facts and believe that the headland wasn’t the site of Arthur’s Court, it is still an awesome place. The headland is called the Island but it is in fact connected to the mainland by an isthmus, a narrow strip of wave-washed land.

Tintagel means “the fortress with the narrow entrance”. A slender neck of land which according to legend could be defended by just three men

OS Explorer 111 Map. This area of Cornwall is covered by the Explorer 111 Ordnance Survey map. The map displays the area of Bude, Boscastle & Tintagel, and the South West Coast Path. With this map, you also get a code for use on your iOS or Android smartphone or tablet. The Explorer Map is available in both the standard paper version and weatherproof ‘Active’ version.

History of Tintagel Castle

There are some chapters of the Castle’s history that are known for certain though excavations, historical accounts and records. There have been many digs on the site over the years.

In the 1st Century AD, the Romans settled on the site. In the 6th Century AD, it was a stronghold for a Celtic king and his court. 

It was evidently once an important trading centre. Various digs have discovered large quantities of fine 5th Century Mediterranean pottery.

Earl Richard of Cornwall, brother of King Henry III built Tintagel Castle around 1240 AD. The Earl build the castle in this isolated spot, persuaded by the popular belief that this was the birthplace of King Arthur. Very little is known about what the Castle was used for. In Medieval times the Island was connected to the mainland via a bridge.

When the Duchy of Cornwall was created a century later, the castle was still being managed. The Castle subsequently fell into decay, its bridge collapsed and by the 17th Century, it was abandoned.

It was around this time that the name King Arthur’s Castle started being associated with the ruins. The legends continue to this day. 

King Arthur

Like most legends, there is some basis in historical fact. King Arthur was probably some Ramano-British chieftain who led the British resistance against the invasion of the Saxons in the 6th Century.

The first life story of Arthur appears in the popular 12th Century pseudohistorical account of British history, the History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth.

The book describes Arthur’s magic sword Caliburn (later known as Excalibur), Lancelot his trusted knight, Queen Guinevere and the wizard Merlin. A blend of myth and fact, supposedly the book was based on a lost Celtic manuscript. However, only Geoffrey was able to examine the manuscript!

Geoffrey’s account tells how Duke Glorios of Cornwall kept his wife Ygraine here in order to protect her from the attentions of Uther Pendragon, King of Britain. The King asked the wizard Merlin to intervene and he magically transformed Uther into the likeness of Ygaine’s husband. He slept with her here and fathered Arthur.

Although King Arthur may not have been a real person, his mythic power has grown stronger over the centuries. Countless writers, painters and filmmakers have produced their own versions of the story.

Visiting Tintagel Castle

The small coastal village of Tintagel is located in north Cornwall on the west coast. It is three miles from Boscastle and about six miles from Camelford.

English Heritage manages Tintagel and over 200,000 thousand people visit the site every year.

The Castle is open nearly every day from April to September, and it is very busy in July and August (like most of Cornwall!). It is closed most of the winter. Check the English Heritage website for opening times and to book tickets. Tickets must be pre-booked. If you are an English Heritage member your visit will be free. Dogs on a lead are welcome.

If you are visiting in summer, its probably best to book your visit later in the day, that way you’ll avoid the coach parties.

The Castle itself is a short walk from the village. At the lower end of Tintagel, you’ll find a steep track (Castle Road) which runs down to the site entrance. If you cannot manage the track there is a Land Rover taxi service. Some of the ruins are located on the mainland, access to the rest of the Castle and headland is across the recently constructed bridge.

The steel and oak bridge has thousands of slate tiles making up the footway. This is a very dramatic way to reach the Island as the bridge is quite high (180ft above sea level). The cantilever bridge is made of two halves which are bolted together in the middle. The bridge has a 4cm gap in the middle.

Exploring the Island

Once over the bridge, there are clifftop ruins, early medieval remains and an imposing 8ft high bronze statue of the ancient King Gallos to see. Lots of people make a beeline for the statue and there is usually a crowd of people surrounding it.

The cliffs surrounding the island are home to lots of seabirds and you can often see seals in the water below. There are some steep steps down to a small beach where you can explore Merlin’s Cave if the tide is out.

There are a number of walking trails around the headland. These are worth exploring if you want to find a quiet spot. If you are visiting on a fine day the views of the coastline from the peninsular are absolutely stunning.

Once you’ve seen the Castle and if you have time, it’s worth walking over to the cliffs opposite. The headland by the Camelot Castle Hotel boasts stunning views as well. 

Tintagel Village 

In high season Tintagel is very busy. As already mentioned there is any number of gift shops and food establishments. At the top of the village, you will find the visitors centre.

There is ample parking in the middle of the village. The path to the castle is at the lower end of the village.

From the village, it is a short walk to St Materiana’s, the Norman church that stands on the headland overlooking the Castle.

Along the main street of Tintagel, you’ll find the Old Post Office.

The coastline here is designated an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), with both the National Trust and English Heritage looking after various parts of the coast. The South-West Coast Path from here runs five miles north to Boscastle and three miles south to Trebarwith Strand. These are both excellent walks with some stunning coastal scenery.

St. Materiana’s Church

This old church on the cliff-top south of Tintagel has Norman and possibly some Saxon elements. The first church on the site was built around 500 AD. The building that stands there now was built in the 11th and 12th Century with the addition of the tower in the 14th Century.

In 1889 an inscribed milestone referring to Roman Emperor Licinius (263 – 325) was discovered in the churchyard and you can now see this in the south transept.

The Old Post Office

The Old Post Office is a museum inside a quirky slate medieval building. Over 600 years old, it is a rare example of a 14th Century restored and furnished Cornish manor house

In the 19th century, it became the post office for the village.

The museum is owned by the National Trust and has several rooms to explore and also a garden at the back. 

Castle Cove

The shingle beach at the foot of Castle Island is called Castle Cove. It is a very sheltered cove with several caves to explore when the tide is low. The most famous is Merlin’s cave where there is also a smugglers hideaway. Merlin’s cave is over a hundred meters long and a recent addition is a carving of the wizard’s face in the cliff near the entrance.

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