Burgh Island has an air of mystery to it, or so Agatha Christie thought when she set two of her detective stories at the island's Art Deco hotel.
Now one local resident is convinced the tidal island near the mouth of Devon's River Avon holds the answer not just to a murder riddle, but also to the greatest mystery of all time. Ted Harrison reports
There are bodies hidden on Burgh Island, Michael Goldsworthy says, although the exact location he is keeping to himself for now. He has however informed the Torquay coroner of his suspicions as, alongside the human remains, he believes there could also be priceless treasure.
At first sight it is an improbable theory. Mr Goldsworthy maintains that hidden on the island are the remains of Joseph of Arimathea, the legendary uncle of Jesus, plus some of the most famous artefacts of history including, possibly the famed Ark of the Covenant.
And Mr Goldsworthy makes one more even more extraordinary claim that could place Burgh Island at the centre of a controversy that would horrify Christians and rock the core teaching of the church. All he needs, he says, is permission to examine the secret location he has identified and he might also find the body of Jesus himself!
As far-fetched and ludicrous as his claims will sound to most people, they are likely to have a strong appeal to the many thousands of people worldwide who enjoy conspiracy theories and eccentric ideas. A new wave of visitors might be attracted to the island in the same way that thousands flocked to Scotland’s enigmatic Rosslyn Chapel after it featured in Dan Brown’s best-seller The Da Vinci Code.
Mr Goldsworthy’s claims concerning Burgh Island are based on his interpretation of a 1,500-year-old Latin riddle attributed to a monk named Melkin. Melkin claimed that the burial place of Joseph of Arimathea, who in the Bible story owned the tomb where Jesus was buried after the crucifixion, was to be found on Avalon, the island which later became famous through the legends of King Arthur.
Avalon may be an entirely mythical place, although it has frequently been associated with Glastonbury, a connection once strongly supported by the medieval monks of the abbey there. When Melkin wrote that it would be on Avalon that “Joseph of Arimathea has found perpetual sleep in a marble tomb” it was assumed he was referring to somewhere in the vicinity of Glastonbury abbey or tor.
The crux of Mr Goldsworthy’s theory is that Avalon has been misidentified. He says that it is the same place as another island of legend, Ictis, famed for its role in the tin trade. It is only by correctly interpreting Melkin that the true position of the island can be identified. It is, says Mr Goldsworthy, Burgh Island.
Understanding Melkin, Mr Goldsworthy claims, involves an understanding of ley lines. These are, supposedly, invisible lines of energy in the landscape, which had been known to the Neolithic inhabitants of Britain and were rediscovered by amateur archaeologist Alfred Watkins almost 100 years ago.
They can, it is said, be plotted on maps by linking ancient and holy sites or detected on the ground by dowsers. The St Michael line, for instance, runs for 364.5 land miles from near Land’s End to East Anglia.
By drawing ley lines on maps of southern Britain and examining the geometric shapes created, Mr Goldsworthy says that he can make sense of the ancient clues.
Burgh Island today is owned by hoteliers Deborah Clark and Tony Orchard. They say they are aware of Mr Goldsworthy’s theory but are not willing to associate themselves with it.
“Were there any significant remains of any kind, they would have been unearthed or at least vague evidence would have surfaced during our works. There was some excavation in the early part of the last decade but – after getting very excited about King Arthur etc, it transpired that the footprint was that of the 1930s crazy golf course.”
Mr Goldsworthy now believes he has not only identified Avalon, but understands Melkin’s cryptic description of where on Avalon, or Burgh Island, Joseph lies.
“He lies on a forked line next to the southern angle of an oratory, where the wattle is prepared above the mighty maiden and where the aforesaid 13 spheres rest. For Joseph has with him in his sarcophagus two vessels white and silver, filled with the blood and sweat of the prophet Jesus. When his sarcophagus is discovered, it will be seen whole and untouched, and will be opened to the whole world.”
If he gets permission to explore the island, what does he expect to find? Enough amazing evidence, he claims, to solve almost every Christian mystery and put a metaphorical bombshell under the traditional Christian teaching that Jesus died on the cross, was resurrected from the dead and ascended into heaven.
Not only that but the mysteries of the Holy Grail, the Turin Shroud and possibly the Ark of the Covenant will be solved! It is Indiana Jones meets Dan Brown with a vengeance.
Yet why should all this astonishing evidence have found its way to Britain? Mr Goldsworthy makes historic connections between the British Isles and the ancient Hebrews. He believes in a version of a curious, and now unfashionable idea, a kind of British version of Mormonism, that once fascinated Victorian Society, but ultimately failed to take root.
The British Israelites claimed that in Old Testament times lost tribes of Israelites had settled in Britain. They established the trading links between the Westcountry and the Middle East, later recalled in Westcountry folklore concerning Joseph of Arimathea being a tin trader.
Mr Goldsworthy finds the theory convincing. There is certainly one interesting coincidence, he cites. In the Genesis story concerning Judah, the son of Jacob and founder of the most famous of the 12 tribes of Israel, his daughter-in-law is called Tamar – the same name as the river.
So what does Mr Goldsworthy think happened 2000 years ago?
“After the crucifixion, Joseph managed to obtain Jesus’s body and supposedly collected his blood and sweat into one or two receptacles and brought them with him to England and for all the Grail’s multitudinous depictions, it is the connection with Jesus that is the one unchanging theme. The vessel or vessels supposedly now lie with Joseph of Arimathea in an undiscovered sepulchre on mainland Britain.”
Advancing over 1000 years to the time of the famed religious order of warriors, the Knights Templar, Goldsworthy says they must have known about the hiding place on Burgh Island and its contents. In 1307, he maintains, three ships arrived off the island bringing sacred treasures from the Holy Land to secrete in what they would have believed was a special place. They took away with them the shroud as a relic and souvenir. The Christmas carol ‘I saw three ships’ is said to originate from this visit, as the ships sailed in on Christmas day to attract the least attention.
What happened to the Templars and their ships subsequently is unknown. However their secret did not die with them. Mr Goldsworthy maintains that Leonardo da Vinci was in the know and painted images of Burgh Island and the river estuary into his two versions of the painting “Madonna of the Yarnwinder”. The geology, it is also said, of his painting “Virgin and the Rocks” is also identifiable as that of Burgh Island.
Mr Goldsworthy admits he is not an historian nor archaeologist and is aware that the experts will be utterly dismissive of his research. He lives at Aveton Gifford, close by the island, in a house which he believes sits on one of the key ley lines identified by Melkin. He is so convinced that he has unravelled the greatest secret of the last two millennia that he has deposited his findings with the local coroner as a legal safeguard, as both hidden bodies and buried treasure are involved.
All he wants is to have permission to test his theory. He says he is prepared to risk public ridicule if he finds nothing, but is confident he knows exactly where to look. It will not involve digging, he reassures the owners.
What undermines Mr Goldsworthy’s claims, as far as the sceptics and mainstream scholars are concerned, are their all-embracing nature. To suggest Joseph of Arimathea is on the island is one thing, but to say so is Jesus, the Holy Grail, Templar treasure, possibly the Ark of the Covenant, that his discoveries solve the mystery of the Turin Shroud – and Leonardo knew all about it – might stretch the credulity of even the most ardent conspiracy theorist.
And that’s not all. Once the tomb is unveiled and the Ark of the Covenant and the body of Jesus are found together “it may bring peace to the nations”, says Goldsworthy. To solve several of the world’s greatest religious mysteries and resolve the Middle East crisis all in one. Worth a try, surely?