The history behind Tintagel, and why its new bridge is centuries overdue

From today, you will be able to do something in Cornwall that no one has been able to do for centuries – walk between the two sides of historic Tintagel Castle.

The problem of Tintagel is perhaps best epitomised by the root of its old Cornish name Trevena, which means village on a mountain. If, like me, you’ve visited Tintagel often, you’ll know only too well how painful the trek up the 148 steps to the castle used to be. Steep, winding and barely wide enough for two people to pass in some places, access is far from easy.  

Just getting to the entrance of the involves a steep hill and the walk back up to the town (where all of the car parks are) is equally strenuous – so much so that a Land Rover service now runs visitors back up to the top for a fee (£2 for adults, £1 for children). 

Mention of Tintagel was first made in written records in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) who named it as the home of his fictional Gorlois Duke of Cornwall and the place where King Arthur was magically conceived. 

But evidence suggests that the rugged windswept headland was home to a settlement long before this with fragments of Mediterranean pottery left behind by those who lived here from as far back as the 5th to the 7th century AD. The land here has long been an important stronghold, and likely the residence of many significant Cornish lords and rulers. 

You can now walk between the two sides of historic Tintagel Castle Credit: JIM HOLDEN

The defensibility of the site and accessibility by sea were likely the most compelling factors as to why a settlement initially grew here. In his chronicles, Geoffrey of Monmouth reported that the now almost-island half of the castle was accessible by a thin strip of land that could be defended by just three armed men. 

The remains of the castle as we know it were built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, in the early 13th century. But it fell into disrepair and by 1337, the castle was decaying. By 1600, it was all but deserted and coastal erosion slowly wreaked havoc on the setting. 

In the 19th century, Tintagel returned to prominence after a renewed interest in medieval history and Alfred Lord Tennyson penned his Idylls of the King. Visitors began to flock to this northern corner of Cornwall and Tintagel expanded to cater for them.

In the 21st century, Tintagel is important not only for its role in the stories of Arthur, but in Cornish history. Just last year, an archaeological dig revealed that the site was once at the centre of a huge trading network and arguably helped shaped Britain as we know it. 

Today marks the opening of a major project – a bridge which spans the 190-foot gorge that separates the two halves of the castle to replicate the path that ancient Britons would have taken. 

The crossing that vanished in the 15th or 16th century has been replaced with a cantilevered footbridge made of steel, local Cornish slate and oak. But the new installment – part of a wider £5 million project around Tintagel – is controversial. 

English Heritage have come under fire in the past for the ‘Disneyfication’ of the site after a carving of Merlin was etched into a cave wall and a statue by Peter Graham, inspired by the stories of King Arthur and named Gallos, was erected. 

The carving of Merlin, etched into a cave wall Credit: APEX NEWS AND PICTURES

But the controversy seems a tad inane. Controversy for the sake of controversy – an excuse for historians to conjecture over the existence of King Arthur. But the legends of King Arthur are exactly that – legends. No one has claimed that King Arthur was irrefutably real. They’ve used a famous British legend to promote a historic site of learning. 

Up and down the country, Britain’s other historic sites play on their association with one character from history or another – even if their existence is somewhat dubious – and the reaction has been markedly lower. Take Robin Hood and Sherwood forest, or Warwick Castle who laud ‘Guy of Warwick’ as their hero. Here, there’s jousting, bird of prey displays and even a Horrible History maze. It’s even owned by Merlin Entertainments, yet no one seems to bat an eyelid. 

Tintagel, I would argue, has been given an unfair amount of criticism for its use of one of Britain’s most famous figures to attract visitors. Are we really saying that a small rock carving, a statue in a fairly remote section of the castle and a walkway that makes exploring the site easier is the same as a theme park? I think not and it almost feels mildly insulting. If the public cannot be trusted to learn the distinction between proven fact and possible fiction, we should be careful of using Harry Potter to promote Alnwick Castle. Otherwise, in a few century’s time, they might think that the stories of Hogwarts were real. 

The bridge saves you scaling the 148 steps from the bottom Credit: JIM HOLDEN

Perpetuating the myth of Arthur, after all, is a part of our history in itself – even Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his chronicles centuries after Arthur would have lived. And there do not seem to be any sinister motives behind the use of these associations. The point is instead to get the public and kids interested in our history – and if it takes a bit of coaxing to get them there, is that really a problem? I myself, as an eager eight year old, was first intrigued by Tintagel because of the link with King Arthur. I accidentally learned plenty about the site as well as wider aspects of British history such as smuggling in the 18th century as a result. 

Georgia Butters, head of historic properties in Cornwall agrees. “Why it grates for me is because Disney is essentially about making money,” she says. “What we are trying to do is get people to care about our heritage. We want people to really engage with their heritage, because if you don’t care and you don’t engage, who is going to look after this in another 100 years’ time? That’s why it irritates me.”

The only irritating factor I can see is the Instagram effect – people queuing up to take pictures of themselves with either the carving or beside the statue. But if it means there’s a less concentrated number of people around the rest of the castle as a result, all the better. The Instagrammers can have the new additions, the rest can have the history and English Heritage can reap the rewards and invest the profits in maintaining England’s special and unique sites.

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