Reaching its long fingers out into the North Atlantic, Cornwall is the most southwesterly county in England. Nestled in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the north coast, between the towns of Padstow and Bude, sits Tintagel. Tintagel Castle is a ruined medieval castle sprawling from the mainland to a small rocky island.
With a history spanning centuries, Tintagel Castle is famous for its links to Arthurian legend. From the location of King Arthur’s conception to the site of Merlin’s cave, this small pocket of Cornwall is alive with folklore. Yet there is much more to this castle than famous fiction. Read on to separate fact from fiction and discover the real magic of this ancient site.
Tintagel Castle is best known for its connection with the legendary King Arthur. Archaeological evidence reveals much older inhabitation on the site. Dating to 200 – 300AD, a smattering of finds suggests Roman use of the land. However, there needs to be more to suggest inhabitation.
From the mid-5th century, Tintagel was a prosperous trade centre with merchants as far away as the Mediterranean. Archaeological evidence shows that there were at least 100 buildings across the site. The quality of goods found here suggests it also served as a residence for the area’s rulers. Tintagel was a hugely influential site; it was one of Britain’s most economically important sites between 450 and 650AD and one of the largest known settlements.
By 700AD, the site at Tintagel was abandoned and remained this way for 500 years.
In the early 1200s, Tintagel gained new life thanks to Richard, Earl of Cornwall and brother of King Henry III. To understand why Richard chose this area for his castle, we must look back to the 1130s. Historia regum Britanniae is the first written record of Tintagel. Written by a cleric, Geoffrey of Monmouth, the title translates to ‘History of the Kings of Britain’.
In his pseudo-historical account, Geoffrey credits Tintagel as the home of Gorlois, a Cornish duke, and his wife, Igerna. He also claims the settlement is the site of Arthur’s conception, between Igerna and Uther, brother of the king, Aurelius Ambrosius. The Historia was a popular text, transcending into popular culture and taken as fact rather than fiction. Later sources built on the Historia, crediting Tintagel as the birthplace of Arthur, the home of the Pendragons, and even the site of Camelot. The popularity of Arthurian legend likely inspired Richard’s use of the site for his new castle a century later.
It may not have been Arthur but instead another Cornish legend that inspired Richard’s choice of the site at Tintagel; Tristan and Iseult. Dating from at least the 12th century, the story of Tristan and Iseult is a tragedy and chivalric romance. It tells of a forbidden love between Tristan, a Cornish knight, and Iseult, an Irish princess. Although the 13th century version of this tale only survives in fragments, features correlate to the site at Tintagel today. An example is the placement of the chapel on a cliff, a parallel of the chapel from which Tristan escapes.
By the early 1300s, Tintagel Castle had fallen into decay. Edward of Woodstock, the eldest son of King Edward III, first Duke of Cornwall, and better known to history as The Black Prince, resurrected the site. Edward built a series of smaller buildings where Richard’s earlier Great Hall had been.
Due to its coastal location, almost entirely surrounded by water, buildings at Tintagel required regular rebuilding as erosion ate away at the available land. In the 1400s, the narrow strip of land connecting the two halves of Tintagel Castle collapsed.
One hundred years ago, the Office of Works (a predecessor of English Heritage) maintained the castle ruins. In 2019, English Heritage began work on a bridge, linking the two halves of Tintagel for the first time in 500 years. This new bridge is the work of Ney & Partners Civil Engineers and William Matthews Associates. The partnership won a 2015 competition to find the perfect bridge. Paved with Cornish slate and steel cast by a local fabrication company, the bridge comprises two cantilevers. These two halves do not touch – a 40mm gap symbolises the site’s history.
Old steps still wind their way down the cliff towards the sea and back up the face of the island. The new bridge allowed greater accessibility to the site and simulates the former land crossing.
Cornwall is a diverse landscape, rich in various plants and wildlife. Perched on the eastern edge of the Gulf Stream, Cornwall is one of the warmest counties in the UK, also enjoying some of the highest annual sunshine. This area is home to rare plants that thrive in this unique coastal climate.
The Tintagel cliffs are no exception; they are a Site of Scientific Interest due to the rich flora and significant geology. Look out for the local rock, Trevlillet (Tintagel) slate, visible across the landscape.
Don’t miss a kaleidoscope of butterflies on your walk around Tintagel, including Grayling, Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Small Heath, Dark Green Fritillary and Painted Lady.
Coastal Tintagel Castle offers sightings of an array of birds, including peregrine, razorbill, shag, kittiwake, great black-billed gull, less black-billed gull, herring gull, fulmar, puffins, raven, jackdaw, rock pipit, stonechat, common whitethroat, dunnock, cormorant, kestrel and wheatear.
The paths around Tintagel are frequently surrounded by bright blankets of colour, including autumn squill, chives, golden-samphire, dyer’s greenweed, common bird’s foot trefoil, betony, common knapweed, bell heather and wild thyme.
Peek out to sea for sightings of dolphins, grey seals, basking sharks and harbour porpoises, amongst other sea creatures.
The first must-see at Tintagel Castle is the castle itself. Although the buildings are now ruins, walking amongst the footprints of the 13th-century gatehouse, former Great Hall and ruined chapel are a literal step back in time.
Once you have explored the ruins and braved the cantilever bridge to the island, look out for Gallos. With a name from the Cornish word for power, Gallos is an 8ft bronze statue standing proud on the Tintagel headland. Welsh public artist Rubin Eynon installed the figure in 2016.
Don’t be fooled by the crown atop this hooded spectre at a site with such strong ties to Arthurian legend. This man is not King Arthur but an embodiment of the myths and leaders who have shaped Tintagel over the centuries.
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If you are heading back to the mainland at low tide, take the old cliff steps down to the beach below.
Tintagel Haven is a hidden gem along the Cornish coastline, a sheltered pocket of soft sand and clear azure water. Tintagel Haven is also the way to access Merlin’s Cave. The cave passes right through the Tintagel peninsula for approximately 109 yds/100 m. It gained its connection to the famous wizard from Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in 1859 in Idylls of the King.
Look out for Sleeping Merlin, a controversial, life-size face in the rock. Local artist Peter Graham designed this carving of a man’s face.
There are also still signs of the silver and lead mine, King Arthur Mine, which was active in the Haven during the mid-1800s. Watch out: the sea quickly covers the beach and cave at high tide, so always take care when visiting.
However you explore Tintagel, take a moment to enjoy the spectacular views. Whether you enjoy bright blue skies or steer through the fog above churning seas, the history of this site offers a powerful location. The bridge, in particular, offers panoramic views of the area. Still, there is scarcely a spot at Tintagel Castle that does not provide spectacular sights. Look out for a sighting of the sea creatures and birds who make their homes, at least for part of the year, around Tintagel.
Look to the east of the castle to catch a glimpse of Camelot. Built in the late 1800s, Camelot Castle Hotel is a large manor house hotel sitting atop the cliff, overlooking the castle. The hotel was bought by the Mappin family and artist Ted Stourton at the end of the last century.
Don’t forget to stop in the village of Tintagel as you pass through. Previously known as Trevena, Arthurian legend’s rise in popularity in the Victorian period saw the village change its name to Tintagel to embrace the castle’s tourist appeal. Today, the village makes a pleasant stop for lunch. Enjoy 1930s wedding venue King Arthur’s Great Halls, the Old Post Office with its crooked roof, and the medieval St Materiana’s Church.
St Materiana’s Church was first built as a church in the 6th century. The existing building is a later 11th or 12th century church. St Materiana’s is unusual as it is one of only a few churches dedicated to the saint.
In the heart of Tintagel, the Old Post Office is a medieval farmhouse that served as a Victorian letter-receiving office. The building has a charming wonky roof. Originally straight, the roof warped under the weight of its slate, held up on trusses built to support a lighter thatched roof.
There is a 5 km/3 mile circular walk at Tintagel Castle. The route takes in many of our must-see locations, including the village and Tintagel Haven. As with much of the terrain in the area, expect uneven paths in places and plenty of stairs.
For a longer walk that enjoys sweeping views of the castle, hop onto the South West Coast Path. England’s longest national trail, this coastal route stretches 1,014 km/630 miles from Somerset to Dorset. The walk takes over 50 days but is easily broken down into small sections, such as the stretch past Tintagel. For a full day of walking, we recommend starting at Port Isaac and heading up the coast to the charming village of Boscastle. This 21 km/13 miles route passes Tintagel in time to enjoy a late lunch or tasty cream tea at the castle cafe.
There is little historical evidence supporting the existence of King Arthur. However, Tintagel was inhabited in the correct period, the early 6th century. Additionally, any myths, like that of Arthur Pendragon, originate in true stories.
The first mention of Arthur dates to the 800s, in Nennius’ Historia Britonum. His connection to Tintagel is first recorded in the 12th century in Historia regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth.
Tintagel Castle is a beautiful, magical site that is definitely worth visiting, especially if you have a few hours to spare. If you are short on time or following the South West Coast Path, don’t miss the opportunity to admire the views of the castle from the trail. Head down the steps to Tintagel Haven during low tide to also enjoy Merlin’s Cave.
Cornwall is a beautiful county, and the miles of coastline bordering a shimmering sea are no exception. Don’t be fooled, though. Much of this coastline presents a relatively challenging walk along uneven steps. Make the most of your adventures by taking a moment to prepare before you head out. Bring comfortable and supportive footwear, a waterproof jacket, and a water bottle.
English Heritage manages Tintagel Castle. They charge a fee for entry to the castle, so remember your membership cards to get into Tintagel Castle for free.
The bridge at Tintagel was installed in 2019 to reinstate the crossing between the two halves of the castle. It also provides great accessibility to the site.
To avoid crossing this bridge, follow the steps down from the castle to use the older crossing. This is still a bridge, essential to travel from the mainland, but it is much shorter and not nearly as high. If you follow this route, be prepared for lots of stairs!