Fishing harbours at the foot of King Arthur’s Tintagel
Legends of King Arthur enrich the natural magic of a spectacularly wild, wave-lashed coast. Among its most dramatic spectacles is Cornwall’s highest cliff, aptly called High Cliff. There are many sandy beaches, but most involve walks over fields or through deep, wooded valleys carved by streams. The little harbour at Boscastle and the old fishing village of Port Isaac are two of the few places where buildings run right down to the sea.
The little harbour with its boats, nets and lobster-pots nestles at the foot of steep slopes lined with whitewashed cottages. The streets are so narrow in some places that there is only just enough room for a car to thread between the buildings. One passage, Squeezibelly Alley, even poses problems for stout pedestrians.
At low tide, cars park on a stretch of fine shingle at the head of the harbour, and areas of sand are uncovered. The harbour is sheltered from the west by Lobber Point, where a clifftop path leads to Pine Haven, a secluded rock-and-shingle cove.
Boats may be launched at Port Isaac, but permission must be obtained from the harbourmaster in advance, and a fee is charged. There are riding stables and fishing trips for mackerel.
In the 19th century, a period notable for huge shoals of pilchards, Portgaverne was a natural haven for fishermen. The stone-built ‘cellars’ where they stored their nets and processed the catch still stand behind the pebbled beach at the head of a narrow, cliff-framed inlet from which slate was also shipped in Victorian times. The road over the headland to Port Isaac passes a car park with superb views north-eastwards to Tintagel. There is a very small parking area in Portgaverne.
Paths cross the fields from Tregardock and the tiny village of Treligga to a secluded beach reached by zigzagging steps. The ebbing tide reveals an expanse of sand with scattered rocks, but currents, undertows and other hazards make conditions unsafe for all but the strongest and most cautious of swimmers.
The clifftop path towards Portgaverne passes Barrett’s Zawn, a collapsed tunnel through which slate was hauled.
The cliff-backed beach which runs northwards towards Penhallic Point makes Tre-barwith a popular place for surfers, but the sands are submerged at high water. The crumbling cliffs were once quarried for slate that was lowered down by windlasses to sailing ships which crept inshore on the rising tide. Coal brought by boat from South Wales was dumped into the sea, then loaded into carts when the waves retreated. The road down to the beach was made in the early 19th century to enable carts to carry shell-sand to farms inland for use as a fertiliser.
Seaward views are dominated by Gull Rock, which looks like a smaller version of Ailsa Craig in the Firth of Clyde. Surfboards may be hired.
Spread out along a clifftop, set back from the sea and more than 300 ft above it, Tintagel has been one of Cornwall’s most powerful magnets since the 19th century, when Tennyson’s The Idylls of the King publicised the village’s legendary links with King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. His poems were inspired by other works, the earliest of which was written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century. There are no facts to support the romantic stories about Tintagel being the Celtic hero’s birthplace and seat of power, but dramatic coastal scenery and the ruins on Tintagcl Head combine to create an atmosphere which accords well with the Arthurian myths.
A broad footpath runs from the village to what remains of Tintagel Castle, the earliest parts of which were built in about 1145 by Henry Ill’s brother Reginald, Earl of Cornwall. In the 14th century the stronghold was given to Edward the Black Prince, the first Duke of Cornwall. The mainland part of the castle was then joined to The Island by a natural bridge which the relentless waves eventually destroyed.
Nearly 300 steps, some of which are treacherous when wet, take walkers to the top of The Island, where the remains of a Celtic monastery have survived since the Dark Ages. There are breathtaking views of a coast against whose wild beauty stands, incongruously, a huge Victorian hotel between Tintagel and the sea. This has been described as ‘an elephantine monument to the directors of the London and South Western Railway’, who were among the first to exploit the Arthurian legends. There is a beach of sand and pebbles below Tintagel Head, and another small beach south of The Island. This is reached through Merlin’s Cave – the spot where Arthur is said to have met Merlin, the wizard who promised to make the boy a wise and gallant ruler.
Tintagel’s main street is made memorable by the Old Post Office, an enchanting manor-in-miniature dating from the 14th century. It was first used as a post office during Queen Victoria’s reign, and is now owned by the National Trust. King Arthur’s Hall, on the opposite side of the street, illustrates the legends that have made Tintagel famous. A feature of the building is the 73 stained-glass windows portraying the story of Arthur and his knights.
The path over Glebe Cliff passes Dun-derhole Point, where slate was lowered into the holds of sailing ships during the 19th century.
A 10 minute walk from Bossiney across fields and down steps cut into the cliff leads to a popular surfing beach whose sands are covered at high tide.
The beach, known locally as Bossiney Cove, is crossed by a small stream which runs down a high wall of vertical rock clad with glistening, dark green moss. Lye Rock, on the bay’s western headland, is a breeding ground for puffins, fulmars, cormorants, razorbills and other cliff-nesting sea-birds.
Bossiney Castle, a grassy mound northeast of the village, is said to be the burial place of King Arthur’s Round Table. According to legend, the Round Table rises from the ground on Midsummer’s Eve.
Starting near a small car park on the B3263, a footpath runs towards the sea down a deep, wooded valley sunk between crags entwined with ivy. The path passes a rock, sheltered by a ruined mill, bearing intricate carvings believed to date from the Bronze Age. The 10 minute walk ends where the valley’s stream foams seawards through a miniature gorge cut deep into smooth rocks.
A KING AND HIS CASTLE The legend of King Arthur is a fascinating blend of fact and fiction. According to the 12th-century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth, Arthur was crowned King of the Britons at the age of 15 and won many battles against the invading Anglo-Saxons. Many historians believe that the real King Arthur was a 6th-century British chieftain and was probably born in the West Country. The deeds of chivalry and heroism associated with the king and his Knights of the Round Table stem from the works of later writers, notably Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur and Tennyson’s The Idylls of the King.
Tinlagel Castle was, according to legend, the seat of King Arthur and his Knights.
Boscastle’s deep, narrow, fiord-like harbour wriggles inland to a picturesque cluster of buildings restored and preserved by the National Trust. Although difficult to enter unless the sea is millpond-calm, the harbour provides one of the very few havens on a long stretch of coast that can be formidably hostile in bad weather. Its reputation in the days of sail is recalled by a local saying: ‘From Padstow Bar to Lundy Light Is a sailor’s grave by day or night.’ The inner jetty embraces a small area of low-tide sand and was rebuilt in 1584 by Sir Richard Grenville, the Elizabethan hero and captain of the Revenge, who died fighting the Spanish. The outer breakwater dates from early in the 19th century, when slate was shipped from Boscastle, but it was shattered by a drifting sea-mine in 1941. National Trust masons restored it 21 years later.
One of the old harbour buildings houses the Museum of Witchcraft. Exhibits include what are said to be the remains of Ursula Hemp, a ‘witch’ executed in 1589.
The road to Boscastle village, set on a hill above the harbour, skirts Forrabury Common, where a Celtic system of land tenure known as ‘stitchmeal’ has survived for more than 1,000 years. Individuals raise crops on their ‘stitches’ – long, rectangular plots -during the summer months, but the land becomes common grazing in the winter.
This small, rocky cove, hemmed in by dark cliffs, is notable for a stream which cascades down a 120 ft precipice to meet the sea. The
The cliffs inspired a scene in Thomas Hardy’s novel A Pair of Blue Eyes. Hardy, then a young architect, visited Cornwall in 1870 to work on the restoration of St Juliot’s Church near Boscastle. It was there that he met his future wife, Emma Gifford. cove can be reached by following a footpath from the B3263, but there is no car park on the road.
Just south of Trevigue, an isolated farmhouse high above the sea, a footpath crosses the gorse-gold clifftop before descending steeply to The Strangles. As its sinister name implies, the beach claimed many storm-tossed victims in the age of sail. More than 20 vessels were wrecked during a single year in the 1820s. The ebbing tide reveals broad expanses of sand between the rocks, but swift currents and strong undertows make the beach unsafe for swimmers.
The clifftop path runs southwards to climb High Cliff, a superb viewpoint owned by the National Trust from which Lundy island, more than 30 miles away, can be seen on a clear day. Towering 731 ft above the sea, it is the highest cliff in Cornwall and one of the highest anywhere on England’s coastline.