How to travel from 2015 to 1230 and beyond? How might we bridge time and walk through a medievalist past? How might we negotiate real-time history and legend and what are the steps between them? Here at Tintagel Castle, Cornwall they will soon have just the paths we need.
English Heritage has just shortlisted six fabulous designs for a new bridge linking a rugged Cornish coast to a medieval rock and the legend of king Arthur.
Coming in at around 4 million pounds the bridge will span some 72 metres and sit high above the waves, 28 metres higher than the current structure in fact. Hundreds of years ago the old medieval bridge was savaged and ruined by the fierce North Atlantic weather. The new design has to face down the elements and stand the test of a time that slips way back from 2015 and down into 1138. That’s when Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his History of the Kings of Britain and sparked a legend that has refused to go away ever since.
Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed that Arthur was conceived at Tintagel. Why did he invent this? Tintagel had long folkloric associations with Arthurian legend. Stories such as Tristan drew on Cornish tales, not least perhaps because the site was a defensive stronghold of rulers in the Dark Ages and a crucial trading point between ‘England’ and the Mediterranean even further back. In tales about Tristan Tintagel was also said to be the court of Tristan’s uncle, king Mark of Cornwall.
Whatever the reason or the truth of Monmouth’s claim, from that moment on Tintagel became inextricably woven into Arthurian legend. In the 1230s, and no doubt inspired by all these stories, Richard Earl of Cornwall built a castle on the site. Much later Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote his Idylls of the King and made Tintagel’s beach famous. Today we walk around the castle ruins, potter on the beach, scramble across the rickety bridge, and wait for the tide to go out so we can peer into Merlin’s Cave before we head back up for an old-fashioned, thoroughly British cream tea.
Things are changing. Soon judging begins and a new bridge design will rope Arthur back into the mainland. Which will it be? The Bronze Blade, conceived by Marks Barfield with Flint & Neill, a slim evocation of Arthur’s sword Excalibur? The bridge with the tiny gap in the midst of its two sections, a space to represent the transition from past to present, real-time history and legend, the mainland and Tintagel island (Ney & Partners with William Matthews Associates)? If you hurry you can take a look at the six designs in the Tourist Information Centre in Tintagel town 4-11 December.
Don’t worry if you miss it. Work on the bridge starts soon while in 2016 a new outdoor interpretation – complete with interactive exhibits and bronze and stone artworks – will bring further life some of the stories about Tintagel and Arthur. And whilke you’re waiting come and take a look at the current ‘storybook’ exhibition of the same.
To find out more look up Tintagel Castle on http://www.englishheritage.co.uk
Read ‘Conjuring the Ghosts of Camelot’, Laurie Finke and Susan Aronstein, p. 200 in my Medieval Afterlives in Contemporary Culture and/or go to the companion websiteat http://www.bloomsbury.com/medieval-afterlives