Before I get into how much I loved Cornwall and all there is to see there, let me first explain why I was absolutely driven to go: Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, which begins with The Crystal Cave. I re-read this every couple of years –just because it’s a damn good piece of fiction.
For those of you not familiar with this series, it’s the story of Myrrdn Emrys (Merlin) growing from socially awkward boy to powerful man-magician. And a key part of the saga occurs when Merlin orchestrates the conception of King Arthur, at Tintagel Castle.
I should probably note, this series is actually a quintet, but the magic of the story dwindles and ends in the third book…many people refer to the series as a trilogy.
But back to Cornwall, as it exists today…
Magic Rediscovered in Modern Cornwall
Driving southwest from Somerset and Devon, you’ll feel like you’re entering a different world. The Cornish roads are so narrow there’s only room for one vehicle at a time. If you encounter any oncoming traffic, one of the drivers will have to back up until s/he reaches a turn out to let the other car pass. (Usually, it’s the smaller vehicle that does this…)
Not only are the roads narrow though, they’re also lined with very high hedges. You’ll feel like you’re traveling through a maze sometimes.
But once you get into the more settled areas along the coast, the hedgerows disappear and the terrain becomes a lot more open. You’ll see old tin mines dotting the landscaping, and run across a henge or two.
The coastline itself is dramatic (thus the poetic “Land’s End”), with it’s bluer than blue water. Apparently there’s a high copper content in the sediment, which gives the coastal waters the blue-green hue.
And finally, there’s Tintagel Castle, where Merlin supposedly orchestrated the conception of King Arthur.
Now according to legend, Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall, hid his wife Ygraine in Tintagel castle, to keep her safe from King Uther. Tintagel Castle is right on the coast, by the way. Merlin disguised Uther and led him up a narrow, treacherous path along the cliff face to gain entrance to the fortress. According to Mary Stewart, it was a dark and stormy night. Of course.
In real life, Tintagel Castle ruins lie on a small island-like land mass jutting out from the mainland and you’ll have to walk a narrow path and cross a bridge of stairs to get to them. Thankfully, the bridge is in good order and it’s a much safer trek than the one Uther supposedly made in the fifth or sixth century.
Still, this is not a hike for the faint of heart. It’s a long walk, and the stairs from the bridge up to the top of the peninsular mountain where the ruins lie, are fairly steep.
Of course, the stairs aren’t comfortable to climb either, because the originals weren’t cut in ergonomic times. The newer ones are fine, but some of the older ones really challenge your sense of balance. They’re roughly hewn and dangerous.
Most people in average condition won’t have a problem, but if long walks and steep stairs really aren’t your thing, you might want to wait in the car. Go explore Tintagel Parish instead – it’s very picturesque.
Once you arrive though, the views of the Cornish coastline are well worth it. And what’s left of the castle is worth the walk too, with interesting stone structures and a few walls still standing.
The castle courtyard is probably the most interesting with its arched entryways and tiny peephole windows. You’ll also get to see a tunnel leading to a food storage area, a well, medieval graffiti, and gun fort for the latter days, among other things.
Archaeologists date the site to 3rd or 4th century AD, and they believe the land belonged to a Celtic monastery or prince of the region. However, they’re still digging up buildings, and learning that the site was used as an ancient Mediterranean trading post as well.
TIP #1: Restrooms and snacks are available on the mainland. Be sure to take care of your bodily needs before you cross the bridge to the ruins.
TIP #2: Please DO be careful on those treacherous stairs!