Wednesday, September 12, 2007

26 June: Magical, Mystical Tintagel

The first thing I did when I woke up this morning was look out the window. It was raining. Again. What a surprise.

The mention of a “full English breakfast” in every one of our hotel reservations is apparently not a misnomer. Once again we were treated to eggs made to order, sausage, bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes, and toast. Oh, the calories!! The only variables seem to be the cereal selection and the fruit, which in this case was stewed prunes. A woman we hadn’t seen before came in and chatted gaily with all of the other guests before coming to greet us, rather perfunctorily might I add. I got the feeling that the others were repeat customers at the hotel, but it was still a little off-putting.

With just one day to spend in Cornwall, I had a single destination in mind: Tintagel, legendary birthplace of King Arthur, located about eight miles down the rocky, surf-battered coast from Boscastle. I have always pictured Tintagel as Marion Zimmer Bradley described it in The Mists of Avalon: an impenetrable iron-gray fortress rising majestically from its rocky foundations, separated from the mainland by a narrow stone causeway, its lonely battlements ravaged by the wind and waves, its occupants huddled in front of a blazing hearth to ward off the perpetual chill of the sea. I would like to tell you that this grand vision still exists in all of its mystical glory on the northern shore of Cornwall, but alas, the mighty castle has been reduced to a few ruined walls and gates, pockmarked here and there by jagged windows opening their blind eyes to the crashing surf below. And yet, it seems that history is alive and well on this windswept promontory at the end of the world…

If Arthur really existed at all, he most likely lived in a wood-framed, thatch-roofed hall whose 6th-century remains have long since rotted away. The first person to place Arthur in the context of Tintagel was Nennius, a 9th-century cleric, who, struggling to fill a blank spot in the pages of history following the departure of the Romans from England, knitted together the story of a great Christian war leader who successfully warded off the invading pagan Saxons in a series of battles around 500 A.D. This representation of Arthur might have long since faded into the annals of the past were it not for the creative mind of one Geoffrey of Monmouth, who apparently decided that the Kings of England needed an ancestor of whom they could be proud. He made Arthur out to be a powerful king who had defeated a Roman Emperor and conquered most of Western Europe. Arthur was eventually wounded in battle and spirited away to the Isle of Avalon, from which, Geoffery hinted, the great king might one day return to lead the people of England to peace and prosperity.

It was quite easy for medieval French poets and storytellers to pick up the now-popular tale, embellishing it with their own current ideals of noble knights, chivalry, and courtly love. Soon the Knights of the Round Table and the colorful personas of Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin and the Lady of the Lake were added to the cast of characters. With the coming of the Crusades, Arthur and his knights were given a new mission – the quest for the Holy Grail. And so, over the centuries, the legend of King Arthur morphed and evolved to suit the needs and desires of the day. The story might have died out were it not for The Idylls of the King, a narrative poem written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in the 1860s, introducing a whole new audience to the legendary Arthur. In the end, the question of whether Arthur really existed is largely irrelevant in the face of the influence his story has had – and continues to have – on countless generations. The themes of courage and cowardice, love and hate, virtue and sin are timeless, and will live on in our collective consciousness for centuries to come.

Which brings us back to Tintagel, and why this place continues to draw so many visitors year after year. Curiously, one solid piece of evidence has been uncovered to link Arthur to this mysterious spot. In 1998, an archaeological team turned over a slab of stone covering a 6th-century drain, revealing a portion of an inscription containing the name ARTOGNOV. Someone named Artognou built something here and wanted people to know about it. A fire in 1983 burned off the peaty topsoil of Tintagel’s island to reveal the foundations of dozens of small buildings dating to the 5th and 6th centuries – Arthur’s time. And someone wealthy enough to import luxury goods from Spain, North Africa and Greece apparently lived here, because shards of wine jars and other pottery vessels originating from those distant locales have been found in great quantities all over the island. Obviously Tintagel still holds many secrets beneath its slate-covered surface.

What we do know is that a 13th-century Earl of Cornwall by the name of Richard, brother of King Henry III, took it upon himself to rebuild the remote and strategically-unimportant fortress at Tintagel (from Din Tagell, meaning Fortress of the Narrow Entrance). This was either a purely romantic gesture or a savvy political move to strengthen Earl Richard’s self-promotion as a successor to the legendary King Arthur and protector of Cornwall. Whatever his motivations, the fortress never served much purpose and soon fell into ruin, the grassy promontory serving as a sheep pasture until it was rediscovered by 19th-century romanticists and turned into the Arthurian tourist attraction we were heading off to visit today.

We found the small village of Tintagel (which changed its name from Travena to Tintagel in 1900 to profit off the famous castle) to be busy with tourists at 10 a.m. on this breezy Tuesday morning. The streets were lined with shops selling plastic swords and mood crystals, and the huge bulk of the ugly Camelot Hotel (originally built as a railway terminus hotel, except that the railway was never built) marred the otherwise tranquil view out to the sea. We found a gravel lot in the middle of town where we paid £1 to park all day and set off down the steep path to the castle. Our first glimpse of the fortress consisted of a jagged span of wall rising from the grassy promontory, the man-made construction barely distinguishable from the surrounding outcroppings of layered slate. We walked around a bend in the trail and more of the ruins came into view above us. We used our English Heritage pass to get in (saving us £9) and watched the short film about “uncovering Arthur,” which basically said that the whole legend is a “bunch of hooey” (John’s words, not mine).

Below us lay a short stretch of sandy beach, where ships once landed to load and unload goods. A zigzagging set of stairs led us to a wooden footbridge, which crosses the narrow span of rock linking Tintagel to the mainland. The fortress is split into two main sections – two large courtyards on the mainland, set high up on a cliff to our left, and the island courtyard nestled in a sheltered hollow on our right. We decided to head to the island first. We climbed the steep trail along a battlement wall, a 19th-century construction that replaced a medieval section that fell into the sea (probably foretelling the eventual fate of the rest of the island courtyard as the sea pounds inevitably away at its base), and passed through an archway into the remains of the 13th-century courtyard, where Earl Richard’s Great Hall once stood. All that remains is a romantically ruined section of stair-stepped battlement (photo, above) and the rough outline of several rooms. The buildings were all constructed of local slate, set in thin layers much like the geologic formations from which they came, so the walls look like they grew organically, right out of the ground. From here we looked through empty windows at the dramatic Cornish coastline stretching away to the north (photo, above). It looked very much like a stormy day on the Mendocino coast of northern California, complete with low threatening clouds and a chilling wind. My boots were still wet from yesterday so I was stamping my feet and running around trying to warm up.

Despite the crowds in town, we soon left most of the visitors behind as we set out to explore the island. Narrow trails led us from one ruined structure to the next, including the foundations of a tiny chapel and the rectangular outline of what is believed to have been the castle garden (photo, above). The island was carpeted with grasses and wildflowers, including tall spikes of bright pink foxglove, which really should be the national flower of England, it is so common. The island flattens out on top, where a shallow depression in the rock forms a water catchment and you can crawl through a short, triangular tunnel carved out of the rock, which possibly served as a food larder for the castle, cooled by the sea breezes. As we scrambled about on the slate outcroppings, the clouds began to disperse and patches of blue sky appeared to compete with the brilliant aquamarine of the ocean. We circled the entire island, eventually coming back to the landward side, where we had a lovely view across the narrow inlet to the squat stone tower of Tintagel’s parish church of St. Materiana (photo, right).

We crossed the bridge back to the mainland and toured the two ruined courtyards on that side (seen in photo at right, with the town of Tintagel in the background), which offer good views back to the island fortress. From here you can really see why they call it an island, though it is just barely connected to the mainland (photo, below). Then we hiked along the coastal trail to the 11th-century parish church, sitting all alone on the bluff, surrounded by an ancient graveyard (photo, below). The church was likely built on the site of a Celtic oratory and later replaced by a Saxon building. The oldest portion of the church is the wall and porch on the north side, dating to 1080. Inside, there is a lovely timber-framed ceiling, a Norman font, and various medieval and modern additions. The South Transept features a stone bench running around the edge dating to the 15th century, when people used to stand through the services. Only the elderly and infirm were allowed to sit (“the weakest goes to the wall”). The little pamphlet about the church mentions a famous altercation between Thomas Hardy and the Vicar that took place here in 1916, but apparently the visitor is supposed to know the details already, as no further information is provided. The church registers date back to 1546, and many of the lichen-encrusted headstones in the graveyard looked like they could be that old, time and weather having long since worn away the inscriptions. We wandered through the graveyard and then back to town on a narrow country lane. On our way back to the car we passed the 14th-century Old Post Office with its undulating slate tile roof.

It was now early afternoon and we decided to head down the coast a few miles to the fishing village of Port Isaac. Susie kept trying to send us on impossibly narrow roads, so I took over and tried to keep us on roads that pretended to be two lanes wide. It didn’t help that it seems to be perfectly legal in England to park facing the wrong way (so it looks like a car is coming right at you in your lane) and block half the road. We started to feel like we had the largest car in England. It also didn’t help that there are no shoulders to speak of, and most of the roads are fenced in on either side by five-foot hedges, so you can’t see what’s coming around the bend.

Port Isaac is described in my Fodor’s guide as a cluster of cottages that “tumbles precipitously down the cliff” but you wouldn’t know it unless you parked in the lot above the village, as we did, and walked down, because the village is literally invisible from the road above. We didn’t want to risk any more parking tickets so we put a full four hours on the meter, to the tune of £2,70. I returned to the car and put the ticket on the dashboard. To my dismay, as I exited the car, a gust of wind blew the ticket down into the crack between the windshield and the dashboard. We spent several long minutes trying to extract the ticket using John’s mini Swiss Army knife, but to no avail. Finally I went and bought another ticket, this time only for two hours because I was running short on change. I came back and John was still trying to get the other ticket out. I thought it was gone for good but John swore that he could see the “reflection” of the ticket in the windshield, just a few inches out of reach. I told him he was seeing things. Then I took off my (polarized) sunglasses and realized that you could actually see the ticket. I finally used the pamphlet from the Tintagel chapel to carefully ease the ticket out of the crevice. Now we had two parking tickets with six hours of time between them. I walked back to the machine, certain that I could find someone to buy the ticket off of me. A couple of minutes later an English guy walked up and I offered him my ticket, showing him that it was good for another two hours. I said I would take a pound for it but he insisted on giving me the whole £1,50 (don’t laugh – that’s $3!).

After this minor drama, we set off towards the village on the coastal trail. Port Isaac is indeed a lovely little hamlet of whitewashed stone houses perched around a narrow harbor dotted with colorful fishing boats. There are a few touristy shops, art galleries, pubs, and little cafés offering simple meals and afternoon tea. There were lots of little cottages for rent and I imagined that this would be a nice place to spend a few days, either to explore Cornwall or just sit and watch the waves roll in. We wandered the narrow streets for a while admiring the quaint houses and gardens (photo, right), peeked into an art gallery inhabiting an old church, and then hiked up the other side of the valley to get a spectacular view of the village and harbor (photo, below). We continued up the narrow trail, which dumped us into a sheep pasture, and walked out to the next point, where we could see all the way back to Tintagel’s island. We returned to town by the same route and decided to stop at the bar at the Slipway Hotel (a place I had researched staying at before settling on the Bottreaux), where we indulged in Cornish cream tea and scones slathered with strawberry preserves and clotted cream. John said he felt a heart attack coming on. Granted the clotted cream came in store-bought plastic tubs, but it was still delicious! We stopped in at a few galleries on the way back to the car but didn’t see anything that really attracted us.

We drove back to Boscastle, left our car at the hotel, and then took a long walk through the village. A steep road leads straight down the hill from the hotel, lined with charming stone and white-washed houses, each with its own little garden out front (photo. The hydrangeas and roses were in full bloom, splashing the subdued gray and white houses with bright pinks and reds. A plush gray cat sat on a wall and stared at us as we walked past. We hiked up a very steep hill to the Forabury parish church, which we could see from our hotel window. The church was already locked up for the night but we wandered around the graveyard and then out to the coastal trail. (If I haven’t mentioned it before, a public trail runs all along the spectacular Cornwall coastline.) We headed out to a funny little white building on the nearest bluff, which turned out to be the Willapark Lookout – originally built as a summer house in the early 1800s by a local landowner and later used as a Coast Guard lookout station. From this windy vantage point we had a gorgeous sweeping view over the Cornish countryside: emerald-green fields bordered neatly by dark hedgerows, like a rich green plaid blanket spread over the hills (photo, right). Along the rocky cliffs we made out the remants of stone walls and buildings – more mysterious ruins from the distant past.

I recognized the entrance to Boscastle harbor off to our right so we decided to hike down that way and come back up through the town on the inland side. The harbor was amazing – a narrow, sinuous channel cutting deep through layers and layers of slate (photo, below). We found it hard to believe that boats could navigate the channel in the crashing surf. As we walked up to the village we could see remnants of the raging flood that nearly destroyed Boscastle in 2004. They were in the process of tearing down the historic stone bridge over the river to be replaced by a new one for flood control purposes. We passed the Wellington Hotel, which I had also looked into staying at. It seemed a little touristy, but charming. We hiked all the way back up the hill to the hotel, at which point we agreed that we had definitely gotten our share of exercise today.

We had an hour to shower and change before dinner in the Bottreaux’s restaurant. There was just one young woman serving the ten or so tables (we were one of just three or four parties). She was very sweet, although rather inappropriately dressed in a cropped white t-shirt and skin-tight low-riding black pants, baring about three inches of flesh above the lacy trim of her bright green underwear. Wowsers! We both ordered from the 3-course menu for £28 and an Australian Chardonnay called Apple Hill. John had the smoked salmon, blini, and caviar for appetizer (the blini was fluffy and piping hot), followed by a big slab of turbot with what I identified as pickerel weed (“poor man’s asparagus”) and a lemon Hollandaise sauce. John described his meal as “okay.” My appetizer and entrée were excellent: seared sashimi tuna with soy sauce and sesame seeds on a bed of pickled bok choy, followed by fillet of bream with panko-coated fried eggplant and tempura-battered zucchini flower with a bouillabaisse sauce. For dessert we both had the chocolate and orange tart (excellent except for the crust, which was a bit underdone) with delicious homemade lemon and thyme ice cream.

I asked our waitress about getting a picnic lunch to take with us tomorrow, as this was listed as an option in the hotel guide. She came back and said that they needed more advance notice, which was a bit frustrating because it just said in the guide to order lunch the night before. My take on the Bottreaux is that it is is trying really hard to be top-notch, but it’s still a little rough around the edges.

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