Tintagel Castle is a place of legend. Its legacy has long been intertwined with that of King Arthur; in the 1100s, the chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth (who has a reputation these days of taking a sometimes-creative approach to history) claimed Arthur was conceived at Tintagel, and the association has stuck ever since in various capacities.
Tintagel’s place in history, rather than myth, is considerably more substantiated. Artefacts from the castle and surrounding area point toward its connection with the early-medieval tribe of native Britons called the Dumnonii. Today, the ruins of the castle and its grounds are accessible by a steep climb across a brand new footbridge and well-maintained staircases; these take the place of a natural land bridge which has long since worn away. (When we went, in May 2018, this structure had not yet opened.) Be sure to prebook your ticket, as entrances are timed and walk-up tickets may not be available the day you go.
Tintagel spans centuries of history. The area has been occupied for hundreds of years, possibly as early as the Iron Age; certainly, archeological evidence suggests Roman contact. Items from a later period, between the 5th and 7th centuries, indicate extensive trade with the Mediterranean region. Tin would have been a major export from the area, perhaps in exchange for the glass and pottery whose fragments have been found at Tintagel.
Setting foot in the ruins of Tintagel Castle itself is a haunting, spine-tingling experience. The remains of stone that hint at rooms and structures date from the 13th century, when Richard, Earl of Cornwall (who was also King Henry III’s brother), built the castle. Some structures are still recognisable today: a doorway, the battlemented curtain wall, the great hall. Informative displays offer helpful information and illustrations that help you place the ruins you are looking at as they might have been in their heyday.
The climb is intense, but the scenery is second to none. You are afforded spectacular views of the north Cornwall coast, with rolling cliffsides dotted in long green grass and wildflowers. You can also see down to the beach beneath the footbridge; look for the entrance to Merlin’s Cave concealed in the rock. Just don’t stray too close to the edge of the cliffs; it’s a long way down to the sea below.
Tintagel is full of oft-photographed sights, including Rubin Eynon‘s bronze statue of King Arthur known as Gallos. The eight-foot-tall figure evokes a sense of brooding mystery, his gaze seemingly cast toward his kingdom. Not everyone loves it, but the sculpture hearkens back to both Tintagel’s mythical past as well as its historical one, being a gathering place of kings.
And if you have it in you after all the walking and climbing whilst exploring the ruins of the castle, the town of Tintagel also boasts the charming Tintagel Old Post Office. Managed by the National Trust, this structure began its life as a medieval farmhouse, being modified over the years until it eventually became repurposed as a post office. You can tour the house and its garden; its also a lovely spot to picnic after a morning at Tintagel Castle.
Tintagel is a dramatic setting for a castle, and whether the legend bears any truth or not, it is easy to see how such a place could inspire such a larger-than-life myth. The windswept cliffs of the Cornish coast evoke a romantic mysticism you can feel every time a gust of wind stirs the grass.