First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
There’s no shortage of plumed helmets, dragon-roaring shields, coats of mail, crossbows and swords – some of these real enough to cleave a foe in twain – in English Heritage’s child-friendly shop at the gates of Tintagel Castle.
I crossed the footbridge slung over the chasm that separates the mainland from the castle on its massive, rock-like promontory, known as The Island. Here, protected by sheer cliffs on all sides, a prosperous community traded tin for Mediterranean pottery and glassware in post-Roman times. And here, if the ancient chroniclers and poets can be believed, Arthur the Once and Future King was conceived of an adulterous union (magically facilitated by the wizard Merlin) between the British King Uther Pendragon and the Duke of Cornwall’s wife, beautiful Igraine.
Was Arthur born at Tintagel? Or was he washed up there on a tempest-driven wave, to be raised by Merlin in the cave that still underpins The Island? And what of the ancient stone inscribed with Arthur’s name, unearthed at Tintagel in 1998? I pondered these signs and wonders as I explored the tiny Dark Ages dwellings and the stark castle ruins on the promontory. Then I set out north along the coast path with the sun on my back and the wind in my face.
It was a springtime day in a thousand, under a sky of unbroken blue. The path wound into and out of hidden valleys, swung up flights of steps and slithered down over slaty rocks. Primroses, white sea campion and pink tuffets of thrift trembled in the strong sea breeze. Herring gulls wheeled and wailed above a sea of milky turquoise two hundred feet below. Ahead, the cliffs crinkled around tiny rock coves, leading the eye forward to a great curve of coast where Cornwall ran north into Devon.
In the gorse banks above Smith’s Cliff, tiny Dartmoor ponies galloped skittishly to and fro. I walked out to the spectacular sheer-sided promontory of Willapark, one among dozens of sections of this precious piece of coastline bought by the National Trust with funds raised through their Neptune Coastline Campaign – 50 years old this very month. Beyond Benoath Cove’s perfect fingernail of dull gold sand lay Rocky Valley, where the Trevillet River jumps down towards the sea over a series of rock steps. I crossed a little grassy saddle near Firebeacon Hill, brilliant with violets and shiny yellow stars of celandine.
Under the white tower of a coastguard lookout, the coal-black cliffs of Western Blackapit stood twisted, contorted and streaked with splashes of quartzite as though a painter had flicked his brush across them. Beyond the promontory, the white houses of Boscastle lay hidden in their deep narrow cleft, appearing in sight only at the last moment as I turned the corner by the harbour wall – a magical revelation of which Merlin himself might have been proud
Start: Tintagel Castle, near Camelford, Cornwall, PL34 0HE (OS ref SX 052889)
Getting there: A30, A395, B3266; or A39, B3263 to Boscastle. Park in village car park (PL35 0HE) – about £5 in coins. Then take bus 595, or taxi (£10, Boscars, tel 07790-983911, boscars.co.uk) to Tintagel. Walk down to castle entrance.
Walk (6 miles, strenuous, OS Explorer 111. NB: online maps, more walks at HYPERLINK “http://www.christophersomerville.co.uk” christophersomerville.co.uk): Follow South West Coast Path to Boscastle.
Conditions: Many steps and short steep sections
Lunch/Tea: Harbour Lights Tea Garden, Boscastle (01840-250953)
Accommodation: Mill House, Trebarwith, near Tintagel, PL34 0HD (01840-770200, themillhouseinn.co.uk)
Tintagel Castle (English Heritage): 01840-770328; english-heritage.org.uk
NT South West Coastal Festival 2015: nationaltrust.org.uk/visit/south-west