The name of Tintagel immediately conjures images of King Arthur and the legends associated with him. The ruins of Tintagel Castle brood over the coast, but no-one can say for sure whether this was really the place where Uther Pendragon seduced the Queen of Cornwall. The remains of the 13th-century castle are much more recent than the times of the legend, although there are signs of much earlier settlements.
Tintagel Village was originally called Trevena ("village on a mountain"), with the (probably) French name Tintagel reserved for the castle. However, with the rise in popularity of the old Arthurian legends in the 19th century, the once-sleepy village became a Victorian tourism hotspot. It was renamed after its famous castle, and began its new life as a visitor destination.
Probably the best reason to visit Tintagel today is for the glorious coastal scenery. However, there are one or two potteries and galleries in the village in addition to the many gift new-age shops, cafés and restaurants.
The higgedly piggedly Old Post Office in the village is well worth a visit: it's definitely one of the National Trust's most attractive small buildings. Tintagel is also within easy reach of many other beauty spots of this part of North Cornwall. For Arthurian enthusiasts it is unmissable.
King Arthur and Tintagel
What's the connection between King Arthur and Tintagel? In the early 12th century, Welsh cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his History of the Kings of Britain. Not one to let the facts get in the way of a good story, Geoffrey writes that the legendary king was conceived at Tintagel.
To our modern eyes, it's a problematic tale. The magician Merlin disguises King Uther Pendragon as Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, who “visits” his wife Igraine at their Tintagel stronghold. Gorlois had hidden Igraine in the clifftop castle to protect her from Uther and his army, but sadly for the Ducal couple, Merlin's magic was too strong for mortals to overcome.
Geoffrey makes the most of the castle's dramatic setting. "It is right by the sea, and surrounded by the sea on all sides; and there is no other way into it, except that provided by a narrow rocky passage - and there, three armed warriors could forbid all entry".
In later versions of the legend, the future king is also born in the Cornish fortress. Tintagel was now firmly part of the Arthurian canon.
Tintagel's Arthurian Connection - Historical Evidence
Geoffrey was not a reliable chronicler; however, there is archaeological evidence of Romano-British finds in Tintagel, which was the period when the "real" Arthur is supposed to have lived. It also looks like the area was on a thriving trade route. So, Tintagel was inhabited at the right time, and the headland certainly would have made an imposing and impregnable fort.
It's also likely that Geoffrey and future writers drew on local folk memory. Stories would have been handed down about the mystical-looking headland and rumours of ancient magic…
Other Arthurian Sites in Cornwall
Other legends have it that Camelford has a connection with Camelot and that King Arthur died at Slaughterbridge with his spirit returning to haunt Tintagel. 15 miles away is Dozmary Pool on Bodmin Moor. Legend says this was the last resting place of Excalibur, King Arthur's magical sword. Whatever the truth of the old stories, the coastal scenery is certainly the stuff of legends.
Tintagel Castle is managed by English Heritage, and it's open to visitors. You'll need a head for heights and a sturdy pair of shoes, but the dramatic views and sense of history make every step worth the effort.
A Brief History of Tintagel Castle
In 1225, Richard Earl of Cornwall, perhaps inspired by the headland's legendary past, began work on a new castle on the headland. It's unlikely he spent much time there, as he was later elected King of the Romans (confusingly, this was the name given to German rulers) and spend very little time in Britain.
By the time the Duchy of Cornwall was created in 1337, the castle was in disrepair and renovations took place. Its inhospitable location naturally made it an excellent prison; however, by the early 17th century, there's not even a mention of Tintagel as a prison or fort, and it slips out of Royal records.
Centuries later, the Victorians discovered the romance of the Arthurian legend…
Visiting Tintagel Castle
If you want to visit the ruins of the 13th century castle, park in Tintagel village, and then walk half a mile along an uneven track to Tintagel Head. The castle sits on the other side of a deep chasm, and until recently visitors had to make their way downwards before making the steep climb up to the castle. However, as from 2019, a stunning new cantilever footbridge connects the headland to the castle.
Once on the island, you can explore the ruins of Earl Richard's castle. Step back even further in time, and discover the remains of the 5th to 7th century settlement on the headland. There's been recent archaeological work carried out on this site, increasing our understanding of Romano British and Saxon-era Tintagel. Finds include a rare 7th-century inscription carved into a stone: it seems they were unusually literate in early Tintagel.
Don't confuse the real castle with the crenellated, castle-like building on another headland. This huge Victorian hotel was designed by local architect Silvanus Trevail, and was intended to be the railway hotel for a branchline that was never completed.
The new Tintagel Bridge is an impressive feat of engineering; but the 70-metre bridge actually reinstates the medieval crossing that connected clifftop to castle from the 14th to the 17th century. It's far less scary to cross than its predecessor would have been, and there can be few more dramatic ways to enter an English Heritage site than this.
There have been other recent additions to Tintagel Castle. You can't miss the eight-foot-tall sculpture of King Arthur that guards the clifftops. It's named Gallos, from the Cornish word for power. The carved face of Merlin is another recent addition to the site. The magician's face is hewn from the rock outside Merlin's Cave, and is shown sleeping (in some versions of the legend, Merlin is placed under enchantment to sleep forever).
Naturally, opinions vary about the new additions: do they enhance or detract from the medieval site?
Other Connections with King Arthur in Tintagel
As well as the promontory, there are other Arthurian sites in Tintagel. Two tunnels run beneath Tintagel Island. The shorter tunnel, made with metal tools, opens out in the meadow above the cliffs. The larger one is known as Merlin's Cave.
Legend tells that Merlin still walks there and that his voice can sometimes be heard… In The Idylls of the King, by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Merlin is described standing on the beach beside the entrance to the cave, with the infant Arthur raised high in his arms.
Condolden Barrow dominates the hill above Tintagel Island. The massive proportions and situation of the barrow suggest that a figure of considerable importance was buried here. Local legend claims it to be the grave of Queen Isolde. Thomas Hardy used this belief in The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall.
It is more likely that it is the burial place of Cador, the 6th century king of Cornwall. In the 12th-century poem The Dream of Rhonabwy, Cador is described as one of Arthur's knights. He is said to have led the British warriors in their rout of the West Saxon army at the Siege of Mount Badon. In his History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth described Cador as the sword-bearer at Arthur's coronation and the man who brought up Guinevere when she was a child.
Check the tide times, and if it's low water, head down the steps to the small cove beneath the castle. As well as the cave itself, there are rock pools to explore, and it's the perfect place for a paddle on a warm day.
The exhibitions and shows inside this impressive building tell the story of King Arthur. Despite its Gothic good looks, King Arthur's Great Hall was actually built in 1933, designed by one of William Morris' students. If you're exploring the village as well as the castle, this is definitely a place to visit.
Now we're reaching a really esoteric part of the Cornish Arthurian legend… Bossiney is less than a mile from Tintagel, and its Mound is said to be the burial place of the Round Table. This is possibly stretching a point even for Camelot's biggest fans, but it's still a pleasant place for a stroll.
Mystical, Mythical and Magical Sites Around Tintagel
Because of the mystery surrounding the castle, and more than a whisper of magic in its stories, a New Age scene has grown up in the village. Tintagel is like a smaller, Cornish version of Glastonbury, with similar shops specialising in spiritual products such as New Age books and crystals.
Tintagel isn't the only place in the area with mystical connections. Here are some other popular places close to Tintagel.
Follow the Trevillet river as it meanders through the wooded valley, until you come to St Nectan's Glen. This much-loved place, with its waterfall and gnarled old trees, combines ancient myths with the chance to spot shy woodland creatures. After the walk, relax in the Tree of Life cafe.
Walk the South West Coast Path from Tintagel to the Rocky Valley, and look out for its famous labyrinths. The two designs are carved into the rock behind a romantically derelict old mill. Are the Bronze Age, Celtic, or 18th-century like the mill?
Most of the incredible collection belonging to the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic survived the devastating Boscastle floods as if by, well… Head along the coast from Tintagel to explore this fascinating place, which explores the history of witchcraft and the occult as well as celebrating today's Wiccan religion.
The Old Post Office has to be one of the National Trust's most quirky houses. The 14th-century farmhouse is actually one of the National Trust's first properties (they bought it in 1903). The old longhouse has a wonderfully wavy roofline that shows the building's age, and it's still home to some astonishingly well-preserved 15th-century furniture.
Its role as the local post office dates back to the 19th-century. However, by the end of the century, the building was falling into disrepair, and was rescued and restored by a local community group. The Trust acquired it a few years later, and it's become one of the village's main attractions. Maintenance, as they say, is ongoing…
Tintagel Parish Church
Before leaving Tintagel, take a few moments to visit St Materiana's Church. Parts of this appealing clifftop church date back to early Norman times, although there's believed to have been a place of worship on this site for 500 years before the Normans came. The church was restored in the 19th century by James Piers St Aubyn, and take a look at the beautiful modern stained glass windows.
There are only three churches dedicated to St Materiana. She is most likely to have been the Welsh princess Madryn, one of Wales and Cornwall's many obscure saints.
Are There Beaches in Tintagel?
Tintagel isn't the obvious place to come if you fancy a day at the beach. However, if you don't mind a bit of a slog, there's the small cove at Merlin's Cave (low tide only).
If you want a proper beach near Tintagel, Trebarwith Strand is beautiful, and even has a cafe. Other local beaches include Tregardock and Bossiney Haven. Neither are easy to get to, and the best beach option is probably to drive the six miles to Port Isaac.
Places Close to Tintagel
There are lots of places to visit on the North Coast near Tintagel. We've mentioned Boscastle, which has a generous amount of pubs and cafes per capita as well as the museum. Bustling Port Isaac and its neighbouring coves are close at hand, and you're a reasonably short drive from both Bude and Bodmin Moor.
Tintagel: Good to Know
Before heading out on your Arthurian quest (or day trip), here are a few practical pieces of information for you.
Getting to Tintagel
Tintagel by road
It's about half an hour to Tintagel from either Bude or Port Isaac. For your satnav, the postcode is PL34 0HE. Warning: winding and narrow lanes!
Tintagel by Rail
As we mentioned, the branchline tp Tintagel was never completed! The closest mainline station is Bodmin Parkway, which is about 16 miles away. You'd need to catch the bus from here to Wadebridge, then change buses to catch the 95 to Tintagel.
Tintagel by Bus
You can catch a bus to Tintagel from Wadebridge or Bude. It's a slow but scenic route! Find out more about the 95 to Tintagel here.
Parking in Tintagel
There's a large pay and display car park in Tintagel, about 600m from the castle entrance.
Where to Eat in Tintagel
There are a few places to grab a snack or have a meal in Tintagel. The Olde Malthouse Inn is a good bet for traditional food made from local produce, while the Cornishman Inn has a great beer garden. King Arthur's Arms in the centre of the village also serves classic pub food.
There are several cafes around the village if you fancy a snack or a cream tea. The Beach Cafe at the castle is a real favourite, and has recently been refurbished.
Where to stay in Tintagel
The pubs we've mentioned above all have rooms; however on the whole, there's not that much accommodation in Tintagel itself. If you're on a budget, there's Tintagel Youth Hostel, which has the most amazing sea views. Take a look at our Cornwall accommodation listings to find out more about accommodation in and around Tintagel.