A Look at Cornwall (4): The Magic of Tintagel


On the second full day of our week in Cornwall last year – a Monday – we set off from Newlyn in the south-west of the county where we were staying, and headed north-east for 63 miles to the site of the village of Tintagel and its famous castle.

Tintagel Castle is one of the most famous historic sites in Britain and long associated with King Arthur, though its history reaches back centuries before the tales of the legendary king. The actual name, ‘Tintagel’, probably comes from the Cornish word ‘Dindagell’ or ‘Dintagel’, meaning ‘fort on the constriction’, or ‘fort on the headland’.

Tintagel sits on one of the finest sections of the Cornish Coastal Path and is built half on the mainland and half on a jagged headland or ‘island’ that projects out into the Cornish Sea. These photos, as the one directly above from an information board at the site, show the connecting bridge between the mainland and island.

We started our visit in the village of Tintagel – where most tourists park – before heading up the track for the half-mile walk towards Tintagel Head and the castle. The car park we chose was opposite a very aptly named pub, where we stopped off for coffee before setting off:

And this is the track…

This is the signpost at the bottom of the first part of the climb up to the castle. If we carry on walking past here, we come to the Beach Cafe and visitor facilities – and the sea.

Before I show a few photos of the parts of the castle we explored, here’s a little about the history of the Tintagel area.

The site of the castle has been inhabited since the Roman period and probably even earlier. There is no real evidence of an Iron Age fort, although it is believed that the site would have been similar to promontory forts on other S.W. headlands – such as at the Willapark headland a mile to the east. Nor is it known how much activity there was at the site in the Roman period. There is no evidence of Roman structures, but a few artefacts dating from the late 3rd to the early 4th century have been found, including an inscribed pillar. This was originally in the cemetery of St Materiana’s, the 11th century church in Tintagel village, but has since been taken inside the church itself. Other small finds, such as Roman coins and pottery have also been discovered in the area.

During the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ – roughly the 5th-7th centuries – Tintagel was an important and prosperous stronghold. Right across the island are the remains of rectangular houses. Fragments of glassware, wine-jars and other decorated pottery vessels have also been found, all evidence of a thriving trade with Mediterranean regions at this time. Some of these Dark Age houses can be seen in the next few photos:

There is little evidence of activity over the following 500 years. Then, in 1138, Geoffrey of Monmouth in his work, History of the Kings of Britain, linked Tintagel to King Arthur. Since the site had no military value, it seems it was this legend that inspired Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the younger brother of King Henry 111, to build Tintagel Castle here in 1230.

In the early centuries an isthmus (narrow neck of land) would have linked the mainland to the island. We know that the isthmus survived until the 12th century, as it was recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the above-named book. But by the time Earl Richard was building his castle the isthmus had already partly eroded away and by 1540, the antiquary John Leland reported that the only way onto the island was by longe elme trees layde for a bryge. Today, passage between mainland and island is via the man-made, wooden bridge shown above.

And so our journey upward began…

Once we got to the top of the incline leading from the signpost on the lane, we arrived at the first part of the castle, which is on the mainland. The ticket kiosk is here and as we’re members of English Heritage we didn’t have to pay – other than the cost of the requisite Guide Book (requisite for me, that is). We didn’t stop to explore the mainland section of the castle as we were keen to get over to the island. So on we pushed towards the island, across the bridge and up dozens of steps, with my rickety knees complaining all the way.  

But the views of the sea, the beach and cliffs – not to mention, Merlin’s Cave – were worth it:

The parts of Earl Richard’s castle on the mainland include the lower and upper courtyards, or outer bailey, which has suffered greatly from erosion of the cliffs. When the castle was built in 1230, the mainland and island parts of the castle were connected by what was left of the isthmus, which had already partly eroded. Richard probably fortified this neck of land with a gatehouse and possibly some kind of drawbridge, which has now been lost as a result of landslips.

Our first stop on the island was the inner ward, or courtyard, with a great hall and chambers. Between 1240 and 1260, a curtain wall was built, forming a high, battlemented enclosure around the courtyard:

We pushed on through the gate in the curtain wall…

…and headed on up toward the top of the island:

The ruins at the top of the island date mostly from the Middle Ages. There is a well…

…and a small walled garden. The garden was first recorded in the 1540s  and excavations  in the 1930s show it was used for flower beds and herbs, although its position on the top of the island seems strange.  The garden has since become linked with the story of Tristan and Yreult/Isolde. In some versions of the myth, the lovers meet in the garden. A number of slates inside the wall, tell part of the story. Unfortunately, the light on some of them make them difficult to read:

Further on, close to the edge of the cliffs, we came to the statue of the warrior (King Arthur?):

And to finish off, here are a few photos of the views from up there:



Guide Book and leaflets from Tintagel Castle


English Heritage: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/tintagel-castle/

52 thoughts on “A Look at Cornwall (4): The Magic of Tintagel

  1. Gorgeous views, but oh my goodness, what an awful lot of steps! My knees are protesting just looking at the photos. But you could not have stopped me from making that walk — how exciting! Thanks for showing so many photos. The setting is so dramatic, with the cliffs and beaches and caves. I love the feeling of walking around what would have been the inside of the castle. Even if you don’t believe it’s King Arthur of the legends, it’s still a wonderful old ruins — and who knows what exciting things happened there?

    1. These old sites certainly feed the imagination, Joy, and I’m sure you’d get plenty of ideas for your book or flash fics there. It’s also a lovely place, with great views of incredible cliffs and caves, and an actually blue sea on a sunny day! The steps aren’t for anyone with bad knees and mine are so ruined after years of jogging and gym work, they were screaming at me on the way up. Fortunately, there are plenty of places to stop and rest.

      1. My doctor says the best way to keep my knees healthy is to keep using them in healthy ways — walking is good, walking up stairs is good, and walking up inclines is good. Unfortunately, walking down stairs and especially down inclines is bad. So apparently I can get to the top but someone has to hover-lift me back down — or catch me when I jump. 🙂

      2. Yes, I’ve been told that walking is good for knees and I can walk for miles ‘on the flat’, so that’s OK. It seems we have opposite knee afflictions, Joy. Mine hurt a lot going up steps, but not coming down. I’ve had x-rays and I haven’t got arthritis, so I imagine it’s the ligaments that cause the pain. Fortunately, the pain stops when I stop climbing up. Steps are much worse than a gradual incline. I can only guess that your problem is something to do with the ligaments, too.
        It’s a long jump from the top of the cliffs at Tintagel to the beach below, so perhaps we ought to request they install a lift/elevator for you, should you decide to visit. 🙂

      3. I’ve had weak knees my whole life, and I’ve never jogged much less run on them. My first “bad knee” incident was when I was only 17. I turned while standing, my knee popped out and I fell on it. Ended up on crutches for four weeks. What a boring story, right? Ha ha! This most recent broken arm was my knee popping out when I tried to run across the street and only got three steps. Obviously both running and standing are too much for me. 🙂

        They diagnosed me with patellofemoral pain syndrome when I lived in Ithaca and my knee pain got so bad I couldn’t do the stairs at home at all. I had to scoot up and down on my butt, and I was only in my late 20s! Usually only serious athletes get that, but my knees are apparently so poorly designed that it didn’t take much exercise to get there. Turns out walking down the steep hill from school was the culprit. You put much more of your weight on your kneecap walking down than walking up (3.5x versus 2.5x, I’ve read, compared to only 0.5x while walking on flat ground). So here I was thinking I was getting more exercise walking down the hill, and I was actually hurting my knees even more!

        I wish I could remember this quote exactly, but someone in her 60s or so was asked what she would tell her younger self, and she said something like, “Appreciate your knees while you still can.” It’s good advice!

      4. Oh, Joy, I do sympathise with you. Knee pain is hard to live with and mine has just got worse as I’ve got older. They ache dreadfully when they get cold, so I really ought to emigrate to Italy or somewhere equally warm. 😀 Your problem sounds very painful and I can see why steps and/or any incline could be a no-no. I’ll look your problem up to see how it compares to mine. I never pursued mine with the medics once I found I hadn’t got the dreaded arthritis. I was just relieved to know that.
        We visited another site in Cornwall with lots of steps the day after Tintagel, so I suppose I’m just a glutton for punishment.

      5. It’s not so bad; as long as I don’t strain them too much they don’t hurt. I try to avoid walking downhill whenever I can, but I still walk down the stairs coming home from work.

        But when I’m on vacation? Yeah, I just walk and walk and walk, uphill, downhill, wherever, and figure I’ll rest up when I get home. 😉

    1. Yes, the word haunting describes this site well, Timi. The ruins do have a sense of desolation about them and I can see why they remind you of man’s impermanence. At the same time, the views are just beautiful and the salty sea air smells soooo good!
      Hope you are keeping well. I haven’t been on my blog for a while, but will try to visit people over the next few days.

    1. Thank you for reading it, Shivangi. Tintagel is somewhere we’ve wanted to visit for years. We got as far as the signpost at the bottom some years ago, but we had an eighteen-month-old grandchild and a pushchair with us and the thought of getting them all those steps wasn’t appealing!

    1. Thanks. Peggy. I’m sure you’d find a lot to suit you in Cornwall. Nowhere in the county is far away from the sea, and it really is a magnificent coastline. The geology is complex and fascinating, and has led to industries such as tin mining and china clay/kaolin extraction. We almost moved there twenty years ago but decided to go ‘back north’ instead. Every time we’ve visited Cornwall since, I’ve regretted not buying a house there. As an English county, It really is unique.

  2. Cornwall never fails to amaze. I have fallen in love with the landscape. The house in town looks great too. The stairs to the cliff seems like a walk to the stunning visual treat. Lovely post.

    1. Thanks, Arv. Cornwall is one of those places that people return to many times. It’s impossible to see everything of interest in a single week. Even people who live there write posts about the different sites and the many, amazing beaches and craggy cliffs.
      While you want to see Cornwall, I want to see your wonderful Jaipur!

    1. So many families pick Cornwall for their holidays, Martin, so I’m not surprised you went there when you were seven. I didn’t go until I was much older, but I was smitten then – as I was again last year. I’m glad my post brought back a few memories for you.

    1. Thanks, Ali. I imagine many people remember the steps. My knees certainly recall the experience. Tintagel’s a wonderful place and I’m so glad we went there – and my knees have long since forgiven me.

    1. Thank you! You’re right – the site at Tintagel is a great mixture of man-made and natural. The coastline is gorgeous and pitted with caves – the haunt of smugglers in days gone by. There’s plenty to interest most people, including geologists, environmentalists and historians, as well as tourists just wanting to visit quaint seaside towns and laze on the many beaches.

      1. I think that’s what I enjoyed so much about Cornwall. My interests are very wide-ranging. Although I’m a geologist and geographer, I love the environment/natural world and am fascinated by history of all kinds.
        (This is the first time I’ve posted for a while, so I hope to be visiting blogs over the next few days. Life has been difficult here for a while, and we’re not over the hill yet. Our elder daughter has breast cancer and has just had surgery to remove the lump and lymph glands. Chemo starts in a few weeks. It is so hard for her, but she’s being very positive about it, and all her family and friends are here for her.

      2. Wow!
        I can only imagine how heavy your heart must feel.
        You can email in case you need to get things off your chest.

        I had no idea you were a geologist/geographer🌿

        With you in my thoughts.

      3. I didn’t intend to burden you with my problems, it just came out. I suppose it’s because my head is in a sad place right now. But your kind words are much appreciated.
        As for geology and geography, my degree is in geology and I specialised in geography for my teaching certificate, with environmental science as subsidiary. Most schools here do some geology as part of geography and science subjects, but I also taught geology to my my sixth formers (16-18-year-olds/pre uni students). As a member of the Humanities team, I also taught history for many years. Now I really can’t say which subject I prefer because I’m very interested in them all.

      4. Yes, you’re right. We’ll be with her all the way. Fortunately, she isn’t one to give in to this and is determined to win the fight.

    1. Thanks, Ann. For anyone who loves the sea and coastal scenery, there are wonderful views all the way up to the top of the cliffs. I imagine it wouldn’t be too wonderful up there in strong wind, but the day we went was lovely and warm.

  3. You live in a lovely place yourself, Martin!. I’ve only been to South Wales once and that was to Saundersfoot some years ago. We went to many great sites in the area, especially castles, and the coastline was beautiful. Cornwall wouldn’t be too far for you to travel, if you decided to go. We’re near Lincoln, which is a bit further, but still doable.

  4. Oh Millie, this is such a beautiful post and your pics are stunning. I may have mentioned in previous posts how I am drawn to Cornwall and I must say your posts make it so real for me. Thank you for sharing and take care. x

  5. Wonderful post, Millie! Great to walk with you through England’s history. Thanks for sharing.
    Do you think Tristan and Iseult continued their love affair after successfully fooling King Mark? 😉

    1. Thank you, Irina. The story of Tristan and Isolde/ Iseult/Yseult has been associated with the Arthurian legend for many years. The love affair was doomed from the start and the two lovers knew they could never be together because of Isolde’s marriage to King Mark. I believe Tristan fled in despair in the end. So it seems they didn’t manage to keep their affair going indefinitely. A sad story, all in all. 🙂

  6. Absolutely beautiful (photographs and account!) How wonderful to see the names Trsitan and Iseul engraved on the rocks too: a good surprise indeed ❤ have a great weekend ahead, dear Millie… best wishes. ⭐

  7. Millie, I enjoyed every step of this walk, surrounded with history and beautiful seascapes. Love the Tristan and Iseul story, and the Merlin’s cave 🙂 Thank you for always sharing something amazing!

  8. I’ve done a lot of traveling in my day, but never to the UK, and now that my traveling days are about over (old age eventually catches up with us all — if we live that long!), I thank you for this “armchair adventure” to a place I wish I had gotten to. 🙂

    1. Thank you, Mr M! I know exactly what you’re saying, on both counts. Old age definitely catches us all up (I’ve just ‘celebrated’ my 70th birthday) – and life just isn’t long enough to see all the places we want to see. I’d love to see many sites in the US, notably the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone (I’m a geologist, so bear with me!) I also have cousins in Maryland and definitely owe them a visit. As for the UK, we have lots of lovely sites, and I hope to post about many more in the future. Right now, I’m ‘absent’ from my blog, due to family circumstances. I hope to be back soon.

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