Why crossing Cornwall's controversial new bridge is a spiritual experience

Gavanndra Hodge
Gavanndra Hodge on the bridge at Tintagel Castle - Harry Lawlor

In the land where wizards and magic swords meet 21st-century ringing tills and Cornish freedom fighters, a new bridge has furiously divided opinion. But for Excalibur aficionado Gavanndra Hodge, crossing it to Tintagel Castle is a (semi) spiritual experience

I am about to make the jump from reality to fantasy, although it is more of a gentle step, because the space between these two states is only one and a half inches wide. I am standing in the middle of the new bridge that connects mainland Cornwall to Tintagel Castle. It is two bridges really; there is a narrow space between them, not only to allow for expansion and contraction, but also to let visitors cross a sort of magic threshold. ‘The gap represents the leap of imagination that visitors to the site must make,’ explains William Matthews, the architect of the bridge.

Tintagel is a place where wild imagination is made concrete, where – according to the tales – King Arthur was conceived when his father, Uther Pendragon, was disguised as the Duke of Cornwall, so he could have sex with the Duchess, in front of a massive fire, on a pile of shaggy animal skins, wearing a full suit of shiny armour (at least that was how John Boorman imagined it in his 1981 cinematic masterpiece Excalibur).

There is very little real evidence to suggest this ever happened.

What we do know is that in the 13th century, Richard, Earl of Cornwall, one of the richest men in Europe, built a showy feasting hall on a cliff in Tintagel. It was (and remains) a sea-buffeted spot with nothing much to recommend it other than an epic view and a fanciful connection with King Arthur. Eight centuries later, Arthur holds a no less powerful grip on the imagination of his subjects.

In 2019, teenagers write thousands of words of fan fiction depicting the homosexual relationship between the magician Merlin and the young king, inspired by the handsome actors who play the characters in the TV series Merlin (recently added to Netflix).

In 2006, I got married in a woodland glade in Devon wearing a dress that paid tribute to Guinevere’s wedding gown, as depicted in Excalibur. My husband did not wear armour.

Who was Arthur, this hero on to whom we project so much? The current wisdom is that he was a warlord who – following the departure of the Romans in 410 – helped repel Saxon invaders from Cornwall and Wales. His first mention was as a Christian leader in the Historia Brittonum (830), a collection of folky tales and history gobbets gathered by the Welsh monk Nennius. By this time Arthur was already a mythic figure, a totem of power and nationhood loosely associated with Cornwall.

His status was secured around 1136 by Geoffrey of Monmouth, the first person to link Arthur with Tintagel, who wrote about a time when dragons roamed the land and warring factions were brought together by a powerful king – a story that appealed to the new Norman rulers.

The £4 million bridge at Tintagel, which opened earlier this month Credit: Photographs by Harry Lawlor

After this, Arthur was reinvented again and again, in history, literature, art, film and memes to suit ever-evolving political and social aims – a Celtic hero, a chivalrous knight, a diplomatic monarch, a betrayed lover, a Christian martyr, a bearer of magical talismans, a leader who will reawaken from a centuries-long slumber when his country needs him most (now, perhaps?).

King Arthur is whoever we want him to be, which is what makes him so powerful. It is also what makes people care so much about Tintagel – and its new bridge.

Every year, almost 250,000 people pay £9.50 to visit Tintagel Castle, which has no castle to speak of (Richard’s hall crumbled into the sea centuries ago), only a few bits of rubble and broken pots, none of which have anything to do with a Celtic warlord, let alone sexy knights.

The narrow causeway that once connected the land mass, on which the hall was built, to Cornwall eroded long ago, so for years, access has been via a terrifying and physically demanding steep metal staircase. English Heritage, the charity that runs the site, commissioned the new bridge to echo the lost pathway and improve access. The project cost about £4 million, £2.5 million of which was donated by the Tetrapak heir Hans Rausing.

‘I have visited Cornwall several times and have always been struck by the county’s stunning coast- line and rich history,’ Rausing explains over email. ‘The new footbridge at Tintagel Castle in some ways restores the landscape and sense of place at one of Britain’s most important medieval sites.’

The cantilevered bridge is 180ft above sea level, 230ft long and 8ft wide. It is made from 50 tons of stainless and painted steel and has a walk-way consisting of 40,000 pieces of hand-cut slate from nearby Delabole, interspersed with quartz blocks. The supports for the bridge had to be drilled into the granite cliff face, while the bridge itself was built in Plymouth in 14 parts, which were then driven to the site down narrow Cornish roads and lifted into place. It looks like a simple and elegant structure, although installing it was difficult, fraught with delay and opposition.

I first visited Tintagel to see the new bridge in April. There had initially been hopes that it would open in May, but the project was already behind schedule. Normally Tintagel Castle would have been open for the Easter break, but the ‘island’ and its adjacent beach, a natural harbour where visitors can enter Merlin’s Cave, as identified by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his series of poems Idylls of the King, were shut.

Many people only seemed to realise this once they had walked down to the ticket office/shop/visitor centre, consoling themselves with a purchase of a magic wand, a bunch of artificially aged keys (made in China), or a replica Excalibur costing £170.

The carving at the opening of Merlin’s Cave; Credit: Getty Images

On a chilly Friday afternoon, Tintagel village thronged with wind swept pilgrims and bemused Italian teenagers who had come to pay homage to a mythical king, but instead had to content themselves with the pleasures of the high street, where multiple gaudy emporia peddle crystals, unicorns, sword- in-the-stone letter openers, statues of baby dragons bursting from eggs, pasties and fudge in ‘Welcome to Cornwall!’ gift boxes that have become faded with age.

I popped into Another Green World, a shop and art gallery, where a full suit of armour twined with ivy stood guard in the entrance and Motörhead’s Under Cöver album was playing on a turntable.

As you may have already gathered, I am quite into this stuff. An early obsession with The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons segued into a classics degree, a mystical tattoo, and many a themed party. My youngest daughter’s middle name is Morgana.

In Another Green World, I mistakenly handed over my National Trust card to pay for a dragon calendar. ‘As long as it’s not English Heritage,’ said the girl behind the till.

My family and I were staying at the King Arthur’s Arms pub. It was here, in the Guinevere Lounge, that I met Elizabeth Carne and Merv Davey, the grand bard and former grand bard of the Cornish language and culture society Gorsedh Kernow.

We eschewed King Arthur’s Mighty Burger (three patties, bacon, cheese and onion rings, £13.50) for a pot of tea. Carne and Davey weren’t happy about the bridge, mostly because they believe the site should be run by a devolved ‘Cornish Heritage’ rather than English Heritage.

‘In Wales and Cornwall, the legend is that King Arthur is going to return and rescue us from English oppression. For us Celts, he is a personification of our fight for independence,’ explained Davey, who has a PhD in Cornish folk traditions. ‘And we come to Tintagel and see that King Arthur is part of England’s story? On the website it even says, “Step into England’s story”!’

Davey and Carne’s other issue is the Disneyfication of the site, with its new Gallos statue, an 8ft bronze sculpture with flowing cloak, brooding brow and massive sword, named for the Cornish word for power, but assumed by most visitors to be King Arthur; and the carving of a wizardly face in the rock next to the opening of Merlin’s Cave.

There is, Davey complained, a lack of emphasis on the more complex archaeological elements of the site. Excavations have unearthed thousands of shards of 5th-7th century AD amphora, which would have been used to transport wine and olive oil, as well as evidence of over 100 structures, making this the largest ‘town’ in the post-Roman period to be discovered in Britain. Tintagel was an important centre while much of the rest of England was languishing in the Dark Ages.

However, Merv did concede that the bridge might be helpful for those who struggle with all the steps. Apparently 14 per cent of people who bought tickets asked for a refund when they saw them.

The carving at the opening of Merlin’s Cave, an 8ft bronze sculpture named after the Cornish word for power Credit: Getty Images

Tintagel high street is rather mournful once the tourists have gone. We looked for a place to eat something, other than King Arthur’s Mighty Burger (not that I am averse to Arthurian food – at my Excalibur-themed 40th birthday party I served a pork pie the size of a round table). We decided on Vega, a restaurant that serves delicious vegan food accompanied by leaflets showing the horrors of industrial farming.

St Nectan’s Glen, a wonderfully atmospheric series of waterfalls nearby is accessed along a bosky, riverside path, once home to the 6th-century hermit St Nectan, and apparently the place where Arthur and his knights came to cleanse themselves/have a wash before heading off to seek the Holy Grail. It was busy on Saturday morning with tourists who had nothing else to do.

I was met by Sarah Harper, who wore a hooded patchwork coat, and is employed to ‘look after’ the waterfall in the spiritual rather than the mundane sense. She explained that the glen is imbued with a powerful female energy and that pagan rituals are often performed here, ‘but we are a closed coven, so these are not open to the public’. She gets a little frustrated with the restless teenagers who do not respect the verdant magic of the place, shouting and chucking things about. The glen gets its own back though: visitors have apparently seen visions of knights, heard the clanking of ghostly armour and the thud of spectral hooves.

We did not see anything so extraordinary, but my daughter was very pleased with the Celtic mood ring she bought in the shop. The assistant manager, Matt, worked at Tintagel Castle for 10 years before he moved to St Nectan’s Glen to build bug hotels, oversee the construction of a wedding pavilion and manage the new accommodation building, which hosts everything from yoga retreats to ‘deep magic’ conferences. ‘The bridge at Tintagel was actually my idea,’ he said. ‘I remember standing on the edge thinking, “You could build a bridge here.”’

I am somewhere on the spectrum between rationalist and fantasist, depending on the phase of the moon and how much wine I have drunk, but still I was very excited to be climbing the steps to the entrance of Tintagel Castle for a private tour with the bridge project manager, Reuben Briggs, and site curator Win Scutt.

It is an incredible spot of great natural beauty. The view across the headland is marred only slightly by the behemoth that is the Camelot Castle Hotel, built as a railway terminus hotel by the Victorians (the railway never made it), now owned and run by the high-street jewellery millionaire and pro-Trump Scientologist John Mappin, who has apparently offered to bring a clutch of his celebrity Scientology pals (Cruise, Cage) to see the new bridge.

Scutt, an archaeologist, led the most recent excavations on Tintagel, during which over 3,000 amphora and pot shards produced in Greece and Asia Minor were discovered, as well as fancy glassware and middens. He explained that English Heritage used to be wary of including too much ‘mythology’ in its interpretation of sites. ‘But we wanted to be a bit more emotionally intelligent about interpretation rather than just giving people facts. Here you have to embrace it [the mythology] because legend shaped the castle.’

It is a difficulty that English Heritage has with many of its attractions – it manages over 400 sites, with Tintagel (along with ‘the henge’) among the five most popular. Lots of these places are just piles of old stones, so the storytelling has to work hard to engage visitors. At Tintagel Castle, updated information boards explain the connection with the Earl of Cornwall, as well as the importance of the site in the post-Roman period – there are also models of the sort of amphora that were common here.

New pathways lead visitors via a walled precinct, which is described as the ‘Tristan and Isolde garden’. There is no evidence that the Earl of Cornwall ever commissioned a Tristan and Isolde garden. ‘But as long as we put in the “mays” and “coulds” it is fine,’ said Scutt. Finally the path leads to the Gallos statue at the far tip of the site. Some visitors don’t bother stopping at any of the other points, so keen are they to get a selfie with ‘King Arthur’.

The statue was made by a Welsh artist called Rubin Eynon, who, according to Scutt, did it from a 3D scan of the tallest person working in Tintagel’s English Heritage shop – ‘We call him “top-shelf Dave”, because he is the only person who can reach the top shelf.’ Myths can have prosaic beginnings.

A brisk 15-minute walk from the castle towards the end of the high street is King Arthur’s Great Halls. This was the home of Frederick Glasscock, a mason and King Arthur enthusiast who made a fortune in the early 20th century from custard powder and, apparently, the invention of ‘hundreds and thousands’.

Glasscock spent his sprinkles millions building Europe’s largest granite and marble hall behind the façade of his Victorian home. He also founded The Fellowship of the Knights of the Round Table of King Arthur (which is still active, with members all over the world) to promote chivalric values and try to prevent another world war. ‘This place works very well with the ruins because you get the story here,’ explained caretaker John Moore. ‘This gets their imagination going to march them down to the castle. We are linked big time with Glastonbury. You’ll get people walking here from Glastonbury, on pilgrimage. They also come for the ley lines – three run through here – to recharge their crystals.’

Moore said he gets visitors from all over the world, but with the closure of Tintagel Castle he’d already had nine coachloads cancelled. ‘I’m Cornish so I don’t like the bridge,’ he explained. ‘It’s about change.’

‘Whenever someone tries to do something new and a little bit daring, some people will worry about it and will express their concerns,’ said Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence, the chairman of English Heritage, and also husband of Anne, the Princess Royal. ‘What I hope is that when the bridge is completed their concerns will disappear.’

Tintagel Castle is part of the Duchy of Cornwall, which is under the governance of Sir Tim’s brother-in-law, the Duke of Cornwall (not to be confused with the Duke of Cornwall whose wife was violated by Uther Pendragon in disguise), also known as the Prince of Wales. Sir Tim would not be drawn on whether our future king is a fan of the once and future king, although English monarchs have used the legend of King Arthur to validate their rule time and time again. Perhaps Prince Charles is considering a trip to Tintagel, to get a picture with the Gallos statue, when the time comes and he needs to tap into the power of his famous ‘ancestor’.

‘I haven’t personally spoken to the Prince of Wales about the bridge, but I know his staff in the Duchy took a very close look at the design and were happy with it,’ said Sir Tim, a very sensible man.

It might not be sensible to get excited about King Arthur, but it does make economic sense – he is worth about £20 million a year to the Cornish economy, according to Malcolm Bell, the chief executive and marketing director of Visit Cornwall. And although we baulk at the notion of commercialising the spiritual, without investment, the magic places that make up the mythic landscape of England will be lost to the future.

It is the day before the new bridge at Tintagel is due to open (although a forecasted force eight gale might cause yet another delay). As I walk down the pathway from the bridge to the English Heritage visitor centre, I spot a circle of druids seated on a nearby cliff, performing some sort of ritual. I’m sure they spot me too, for I am dressed as an Arthurian maiden, wielding Excalibur (a mighty piece of steel, borrowed from the visitor centre’s shop).

The sun is shining and the place is busy, money will be ringing in the coffers of the crystal shops and pasty sellers on the high street. A Spanish tourist stops me and says, ‘Photo?’ He drapes an arm around my shoulder and does a thumbs up, while I hold my sword aloft.