"From the height of the land where I stood one could guess at the great cliffs which fell away to the shore, and away beyond the land's farthest edge, small in the distance, I could see the jut of towers. The castle of Tintagel, stronghold of the Dukes of Cornwall… from this remote and sealocked fortress would come the King who alone could clear Britain of her enemies, and give her time to find herself; who alone, in the wake of Ambrosius and the last of the Romans, would hold back the fresh tides of the Saxon Terror, and, for a breathing space at least, keep Britain whole."
This is an excerpt from Mary Stewart's The Hollow Hills, the second in a four-novel epic about King Arthur as narrated by Merlin, whose pages I eagerly devoured as a young teenager. I read this quadrilogy again and again – until an English teacher stung me into more ambitious texts. But their brooding romance made an indelible mark on my imagination.
In Arthurian legend, Cornwall is the beginning and the end. Tintagel is where Arthur was conceived: his father King Uther Pendragon gained treacherous entry there one stormy night, disguised as its master Duke Gorlois and hot with desire for the fair Duchess Ygraine. And at nearby Slaughterbridge near Camelford lies a stone said to mark the spot where King Arthur met his rival Mordred, and his death, at the battle of Camlann.
Joe Parsons grew up farming the very fields where the legendary Last Battle (incidentally, also the title of the fourth Mary Stewart book) was said to have taken place.
"As a boy I heard all the legends of King Arthur, and I knew where to scramble down into the creek bed to find the stone," he said. (The nine-foot monument, now lying flat, is inscribed both in Latin and Ogam, an ancient Celtic script.)
This has attracted visitors through the centuries. Richard Carew, in his 1602 Survey of Cornwall, observed that "the olde folke thereabouts will shew you a stone, bearing Arthur's name". In 1848, Alfred Lord Tennyson came to see the ancient marker and cited it as his inspiration for his epic poem The Idylls of the King.
Joe felt the weight of such an important legacy. In 1997, he put in the footpath to make access to the mystic stone easier; in 2001 he founded The Arthurian Centre, an exhibition space which was recently renovated and updated. In 2007 he made the Arthurian Discovery Trail, helping people to connect the dots of important Arthurian sites in the Westcountry.
"Over the years I've tried to learn as much as I can about the legends, and particularly about how they relate to Cornwall," he said. "Many Arthurian scholars come here thinking they know it all, but they always leave having learned something new."
There is also plenty of evidence for sceptics, even if it doesn't always exactly match the legends: for instance, a 1538 excavation of Slaughterbridge revealed "various antiquities, such as rings, fragments of armour, ornaments of bridles and other trappings". Military historians will wax lyrical about Celtic predilections for battling in fords, where a small cavalry could overwhelm a much larger force on foot – such as Slaughterbridge. The remains of Tintagel castle are medieval, but beneath them have been found footprints of a much older building – and evidence of luxurious goods, from imported wine to fine crockery and trappings, that points to North Cornwall being an international player in the Dark Ages, and home to someone very rich or very powerful.
Arthurian legends are woven into the fabric of the Cornish landscape – from King Arthur's quoit on Bodmin Moor to Dozmary Pool, whose still waters could have hosted the Lady of the Lake.
Is there truth to the legends? Maybe. Is it important? Maybe not. Leave dry argument to the scholars – I want to swoon over King Arthur's stone, kneel at St Nectan's Glen, and perch on the rocks of King Arthur's Hall reading Tennyson, preferably with my hair flowing over my shoulders, and maybe, if it's not too cold, wearing a diaphonous white dress.
Once again I'm answering Mary Stewart's siren call: "He checked his horse on the shore, bringing it up rearing, fetlock deep. He had his bow strung ready in his hand. He pulled the stallion sideways and raised the bow, sighting from the back of the plunging horse. But only the stag's head showed above water, a wedge searing away fast, its antlers flat behind it on the surface like boughs trailing…"
Plan a pilgrimage to the places of Arthurian legend
TintagelThe site of King Arthur’s conception and birth, Tintagel could also have been the site of King Arthur’s Camelot. It hosted a thriving monastery from 470-500. In Arthurian legend, this was the house of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall. In this seacliff stronghold he tried to hide his fair wife Ygraine (or Igerna) from the passions of King Uther, but Merlin helped disguise him as Gorlois to gain entry to the castle – and Ygraine’s bed.Bossiney MoundLegend has it that the Round Table of King Arthur and his knights is buried under this mound, found near the Chapel at Jill pool on the side road out of Bossiney (signposted Launceston). The myth is that the round table will rise up from the mound on a midsummer’s night when King Arthur and his knights are due to return. St Nectan’s GlenRevered as one of the most sacred sites in Cornwall, this waterfall has been listed among the 10 most spiritual sites in Britain. Approached by several footpaths, the main access is behind the Rocky Valley Centre at Trevethy on the Boscastle to Tintagel road King Arthur’s knights were blessed here before the quest for the Holy Grail.SlaughterbridgeA 6th-century inscribed stone is said to mark King Arthur’s last battle, which turned its small river red with blood. Find the Arthurian Centre off the B3314 between Camelford and Tintagel – it is open seven days a week until November 4.King Arthur’s QuoitThis burial chamber on Bodmin Moor, also known as Trevethy Quoit, is a 4.6 metre tall burial chamber dating from the Bronze Age. The capstone is pierced by a hole, the purpose of which is unknown. Also on Bodmin Moor stand a King Arthur’s Hall and an Arthur’s Bed, where Charlotte Dymond was murdered in 1844. Dozmary Pool A quiet, brooding lake on Bodmin Moor with no visible source of supply, Dozmary Pool could be the residence of the Lady of the Lake. Was it this magical spot where Arthur rowed to claim his mighty sword, Excalibur? And was it here that Sir Bedivere returned it after Arthur’s death, to fling the sword back to its maker? Whatever the answer, there is archaeological evidence of very early occupation around it, with shaped stone tools dated around 2000 BC.
An excerpt from The Idylls of the King by Alfred Lord Tennyson
Then quickly rose Sir Bedivere, and ran,And, leaping down the ridges lightly, plungedAmong the bulrush beds, and clutched the sword,And strongly wheeled and threw it. The great brandMade lightenings in the splendour of the moon,And flashing round and round, and whirled in an arch,Shot like a streamer of the northern morn,Seen where the moving isles of winter shockBy night, with noises of the Northern Sea.So flashed and fell the brand Excalibur:But ere he dipt the surface, rose an armClothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,And caught him by the hilt, and brandished himThree times, and drew him under in the mere.